Thursday, March 31, 2011

Entry 19 3.24.11

Entry 19, March 24th, 2011, 11:48pm

Today was crew barbeque day, and man, is that a good thing! I was expecting hot dogs on the back deck, but I forget that when the hospitality industry decides they want to take care of their employees they have all the resources of their trade at their disposal. There were, of course, hot dogs and hamburgers, but there was so much more! Entire grilled fish, two types of ribs, Indian flatbread, corn on the cob, brown rice, cajun rice, pineapples, strawberries, blueberries, mangos, melons, greens, green beans cooked with bacon, sandwhiches, pies, cheesecake . . . you get the idea. There was even a friggin' ice sculpture!

So as employees go, I feel pretty appreciated. This was helped by the fact that the orchestra had today off. My favorite parts of the barbeque, though, were the dishes that would not exist anywhere except here, where several very different cultures are all coming together. There were the small rolls, covered with sweetened whipped butter and then sprinkled heavily with sharp cheddar cheese (surprisingly good). My favorite dish was a caribbean jerk chicken curry, eaten with a wheat-based type of naan bread. Mmm. Hooray for cultural exchange!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Entry 18 3.23.11

Entry 18, March 23rd, 2011, 3:06pm (ship time)

I'm sitting on the back deck looking out over Falmouth, Jamaica, about halfway between Montego Bay and Kingstown. Today's port was a last-minute change; we were supposed to be in Montego Bay but apparently there was another ship scheduled for the berth there and we got diverted. As this is the second time that this has happened to the Grandeur in two and half weeks, I am beginning to figure out where we are on the food chain.

Yesterday the Oasis of the Seas, RCCL's flagship, was here, as is made obvious by all the "Welcome to Jamaica, Oasis!" signs and banners everywhere. I still have yet to see the Oasis, but considering that she's over twice the size we are, we must be kind of a letdown for the locals.

The port itself is totally manufactured. The town has been here for hundreds of years, but not as a major port for one very good reason -- there is no good achorage. The brand new concrete pier literally stretches straight out into the ocean, with no protection from the weather. Today calm and clear, and the Grandeur moves at her moorings like we're still at sea. Plumes of spray surge up at unpredictable intervals between the bumpers that keep the ship from riding up onto the pier.

RCCL's reason for building a new port in Jamaica is simple -- they don't have one of their own, and so their ships are subject to schedule disruptions (like we were today). Also, when they own their own port, the passengers will end up walking through RCCL-owned gift shops, restaurants, and the like. I suspect that the more timid among them will not even make it outside the port's gate, and dine and shop exclusively with RCCL. It makes good business sense for the company.

I'm out of money in the "shore expenditures" colum of my budget until pay day, but I went ashore anyway to walk around since I'm not sure if we'll ever be back here (also, I needed some fresh air). Once I got out past all the touristy stuff (and through the masses of vendors calling, "Amigo!" "Sir!" "Young man, take a look over here!" "Something for the lady?" (particularly confusing since I was alone (perhaps she assumed that I am so attractive I must be dating someone?))) I set out for what I thought would be handy landmark I had seen on the map -- the clocktower. It turns out that "clocktower" is rather optimistic . . . "clockbuilding" would have been more accurate, or just "clock." It did lead me to the center square in the town, where there was live music and more vendors.

The whole city is awash in new construction, spreading outwards from the pier, as the local economy adjusts to the influx of tourists and cruise ship money. A curious phenomenon -- all of the buildings have a fresh coat of paint on the side facing the ship, but many have not yet gotten one on the other three sides. They're getting there, but aren't done yet, as the scaffolding everywhere shows.

I kept walking, threading my way through the concrete roadblocks that serve to route the stream of tourists along a sort of commercial circuit through town, and followed the shore road along the coast. I passed a few beautiful old houses once owned by the city's elites, mostly rich plantation owners that were both black and white, male and female. None of the houses are extremely large by any standard, but they are elegant and well-designed, attractive to the eye and must be a joy to live in with the breeze, green vegetation, and the ocean right there across the street. Most of them had a "historic landmark" sign out front telling the story of the building, and there were a couple curious locations that have been marked but not repaired yet. For instance, there was one brand new landmark sign sitting in front of three ruined brick walls buried in weeds, describing a "spacious, airy mansion," -- looks like the construction crews haven't gotten to that particular spot yet.

One of the more interesting signs detailed the story of Henry Morgan, British pirate, privateer, admiral, and eventual governor of Jamaica. It's a fascinating story -- originally Morgan was a pirate, hired by Britain to ruin the Spainiards' day. He was so succesful that he ended up a Rear Admiral in command of over 16 vessels and led his own army across the isthumus of Panama to sack Panama City, hauling away hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of silver. For this action he was made governor of Jamaica (and incredibly wealthy), a post from which he decided to eradicate piracy! Talk about irony.

I'm not saying that I want to live in the 19th century Caribbean, but I do feel like those sorts of opportunities are hard to come by these days. I have a hard time imagining a way in the modern era that I could do anything similarly adventurous, or end up being the king of an entire island just by being brave, smart, and lucky. Not much swashbuckling to be had in the 21st century. Even piracy is lame now (yar! Avast, I steal ye software via the interblag! Suck me gums, ye scurvy sea dogs!).

On the other hand, antibiotics are nice to have, and I would have died in middle school from appendicitis if I'd been born in the early 1800's like Morgan. Tradeoffs.

I kept following the road and soon got out of the touristy bits of Falmouth. I passed the local boys' and girls' school where kids in brown uniforms were playing and loitering around on lunch. The school building is actually the old fort's barracks and uses the stone walls as the schoolyard boundary. The fort was built to protect the town from the Spanish, pirates, and drunkards, or so the sign said, and was actually the second fort built to protect the town. The first one was built in the center of the city, but was moved when citizens complained that the firing of cannons for ceremonies and salutes lit their roofs on fire (heh. Bit of a design flaw there, wouldn't you say?).

I kept walking along the side of the road, passing the Jamaican Constubalary and Trelawny Infirmary (Trelawny is a town that joins with Falmouth, sort of a suburb). I passed the spot where presumably local kids go to get in trouble . . . there was a small path down to the beach, where I found a fire pit and a bunch of empty beer bottles. From there I took a turn inland, following a couple one way streets past the sports field (empty at that point, and slightly abandoned) and through a couple neighborhoods. It was a nice walk, and reminded me a lot of how Michigan feels during a mid-July hot streak (except that the sea breeze keeps the humidity away). I could live here and be pretty happy, although I'd want to visit in summer sometime first.

The houses in Falmouth are mostly in fairly good repair. Most sport tin or tile roofs, with timber walls either painted or plastered. Glass windows don't seem to be a necessity here, although the nicer buildings have them. Some buildings are shabby, of course, but nothing scarier than what you'd find back home. Most of the streets have open gutters, and one's nose is occasionally subjected to quite the collection of smells. I passed a few old, ornate stone churches, most of them dating to the "Awakening of Jamaica" starting in the 1840's, when the Baptist ministry experienced a period of intense growth (the local Baptist church doubled in size during that time period).

Architecture in general is very different in the Caribbean than back home in Michigan (as is to be expected, I suppose). Freed from the constraint of winter and unable to afford air conditioning, many businesses are partially or wholly outdoors. I passed a bar today whose walls existed only for privacy, leaving a foot wide gap at the bottom for the proprietor to hose off the floor into the street.

I stuck out like a sore thumb here. I mean, I stick out everywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, but here especially. You know that feeling you get when everyone is looking at you but trying to be discreet about it? That was me today. They were all very nice about it, of course, a couple people waving and asking if I was lost, but I am definitely an outsider here.

A few of my friends from the cast were shown around town by a local girl, and they tipped her twenty dollars at the end of the afternoon. There's nothing wrong with this, but I am beginning to figure out what is so strange about the tourist/local relationship. Being a local, there are all sorts of things you can give to a tourist. You can feed them, show them around your home city, give them advice, show them local customs, etc. As a tourist, though, you can only respond by giving one thing back -- money, the most impersonal of gifts. The power relationship is too out of balance for there to be any sort of meaningful interaction or learning from one another, because to pay a local for something they love (whether it be food or directions to a beautiful place) is to cheapen it. It says, "You know that beach that you and your brothers grew up playing on? The place you would drink beer stolen from your parents with the other fourteen year olds? The place you took your wife to propose? It's worth about twenty bucks." Like I said, there's nothing wrong with this (people gotta earn a living), but it prevents actually "meeting" anyone in any of these places that I visit. Any experience that could help us learn about each other as human beings becomes a business transaction.

I wish there was a way for me to give something back that was more meaningful than money. Maybe this is me being an idealistic fool (me? an idealistic fool? never!), but it would be nice to actually meet and learn about and become friends with the people from other places, instead of having to grimly force my way through crowds of grinning peddlers and taxi drivers with my teeth clamped together in a blank-faced scowl.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Entry 17 3.22.11

Entry 17, March 22nd, 2011, 11:58pm (ship time)

My Spanish is improving; I know several ways to inform the passengers that I have no idea what they're saying. "No comprendo," (I do not understand) is a good one, or "No tiendo," along with "Lo siento senor/senora/senorita, no hablo espanol," (I'm sorry sir/maam/miss, I don't speak Spanish). The newest addition to my arsenal is "Yo soy un americano," (I am American) which usually works as everyone else naturally assumes that as a citizen of the USA I only speak English (or that I only speak Amurhican, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line I was born on).

Next I plan on adding "Yo solo hablo ingles," except I'm not sure where solo is supposed to go in that sentence yet. For those of you who actually speak Spanish, feel free to point out any of my mistakes. In fact, please point them out, as I would rather know about it sooner instead of later.

I was able to tell a pair of kids on deck 11 whether or not the boat was moving, as well as greet several people without incident (all during my nightly jog around the track) so that's a sign of improvement. While I'm thinking of it, a friend asked me about the fitness facilities on board, so let me give a little explanation. I'll do a more detailed post on this when I start my "Where Does David Live?" series of posts on various areas of the ship (you heard it here first!) but I can fill people in on the basics now.

There are three main ways to stay fit on the ship for cast members and musicians. First of all, there's the crew fitness center. This is a room located on deck 0 (below the waterline) almost all the way forward, squeezed in between the photo laboratory and the bow thruster room. It has a pretty good set of equipment -- lots of free weights, two benches, a few weight machines that I am no expert in, three bikes, two ellipticals (a device I have never gotten the hang of), and a treadmill. The weight bench is one of the more interesting parts, as the bar is actually mounted to a track that is anchored to the floor and ceiling to keep someone from being crushed as the ship hits a large wave. This is where I usually work out, even though there is usually at least one totally ripped Latino guy in there vibing me out most nights.

As musicians, we are allowed to use the passenger gym. This is significantly nicer and is located astern on deck 9 with a view of the ocean. Equipment is about the same, but higher quality and more numerous. I don't usually work out here (as then I would have to deal with passengers) but I may start soon.

The third option is the track on deck 10. Crew and staff can use the track after a certain time, and I usually try to do this when I'm working cardio as it is much better than pumping a bike down in the crew gym. It can get windy though -- a few nights ago I was worried I was going to get blown off the ship! Tonight wasn't nearly as bad -- we're hove-to in the lee of Jamaica, bow into the wind and just enough power on to keep the ship from drifting. With the large wind-shields set up around the deck, it was fairly pleasant.

Entry 16, 3.21.11

Entry 16, March 21st, 2011, 11:23pm (ship time)

Today was my roommate Tyler's birthday, and so we went into Cartagena for a celebratory lunch. We ate at an outdoor café called "Café Columbia," which was nice (I had some delicious Ceviche) but was unfortunately located next to the Cartagena street vendor hub. We got offered watches, braclets, hats, cigarettes, booze, coffee (hot), candy, clothes, emeralds (protip: if a well-dressed guy who speaks excellent English offers you his card in Cartagena's Old city and gives you directions to his emerald shop, he's not trying to sell you emeralds) and other things I can't even remember -- most of them multiple times. The one thing we couldn't find (which our British training director, HR manager, and occasional drinking buddy Nikki was looking for) was shoes, even from the guy who emphatically claimed to have everything ("I even have Yeager!").

Perhaps the most interesting, however, was the crazy toothless old woman who came around and alternated between trying to sell us pieces of raw chicken out of a plastic bag (raw as in still had blood and feathers) and trying to kiss us on the side of the head. I was the first victim, unfortunately, as our first warning of her presence was a pair of greasy old lips on yours truly's cranium. Took a shower when i got home.

Afterwards I went with Lincoln (Grandeur's bass player and resident young precocious Aussie, he's been on the ship for almost ten months) and Nikki (the aforementioned Brit) to walk around the old city and look for shoes (she's going to a friend's wedding in a few weeks). I got some great pictures which I hope to get up on facebook later tonight.

The city reminds me a lot of New Orleans. The architecture is very similar, although without the strong French influence that New Orleans has (the Old City in Cartagena smells about the same as the French Quarter, too). There are narrow streets, lots of buildings with second floor balconies and interior gardens, and open plazas in the center of the city with bronze statues of various 17th century military heroes.

There was one particular hotel that caught our eye. It was just a small building on the street, but once you step inside the archway it opens up into a posh interior garden with trees rising up several stories. It was a fascinating mixture of old and new, with three hundred year old plaster and brick mixed with glass, steel, and art deco furniture. I'll post pictures of that as well.

A friend asked me the other day what I'm doing with my money now that I'm getting paid. The answer is a little complicated. Eventually I'll have a wire transfer set up from the ship, and at cost of 6$ per transfer I'll be able to drop money straight into my checking account. Unfortunately, this takes between four and six weeks to set up once you've dropped off the paperwork at the ship's HR office. Until then you have a couple options. You can either use Western Union to send money home (expensive, I think they take a percentage) or you can hold on to it here. That's what I'm doing now -- the HR office has safety deposit boxes that the crew can use with a small deposit, and so that's where my pay is staying for now. This has the added bonus of keeping me from spending it all on land!

I think that's all for tonight -- we've got a birthday to celebrate and I'm only two beers in. Hasta luego!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Entry 15, 3.20.2011

Entry 15, March 20th, 2011, 4:18 (ship time)

Today is turnaround day in Colón. This week we're docked near the Coral Princess, a ship owned by princess cruise lines. She is a deck larger than us, and her promenade deck is on deck 4 instead of deck 5, so the end result is two extra decks of balcony cabins. It reminds me of the design of the Celebrity ships -- a real emphasis is placed on having as many balcony cabins as possible, while the Royal Caribbean ships seem to regard balcony cabins as an afterthought.

The oddest bit, though, about Princess line ships is the twin jet turbines mounted atop the funnel. I doubt, of course, that they are actually turbines, but that's what they look like. They are painted silver and are perhaps 30 or 40 meters long. I suspect they are purely aesthetic, but I have to wonder if perhaps they serve some sort of purpose.

I'm on shore right now, in an internet café waiting for my download of Musescore to finish. It's a free music notation program, which is something I need now as my copy of Sibelius 5 doesn't run on windows 7. I don't know if it will be any good, but I'll be sure to let everyone know once I've checked it out.

Yesterday I stopped by the Human Resources office on board to set up a wire transfer to get my paychecks back home. Surprisingly, it will take between four and six weeks to get set up . . . looks like I'll be using a safety deposit box until then. A bit of advice for anyone looking to play a ship gig -- bring a check with you. You'll need something with your name, your address, your bank, your bank's address, your account number, and your routing number on it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Entry 14 3.19.2011

Entry 14, March 19, 2011, 8:02pm (ship time)

Today marks the last day of my second cruise, and the end of my first time around the circuit. We run two different cruises here in the Caribbean, and now I've done them both. I can feel the newness of this gig beginning to wear off, which is to be expected. I know how to do most of the important things I need to know how to do, and so now the challenge shifts from figuring out what the heck is going on to establishing a healthy set of daily habits that will keep me developing musically and personally (and keep me sane).

Two things appear to be vital to keeping a positive outlook so far. Firstly, accomplishing something before noon every day. This is a trick that I learned from a Byron Stripling masterclass -- he said make sure to practice at least an hour every day before noon. It's a great trick; by establishing that forward momentum early on, the internal thought process at lunch becomes "alright, what do I do next?" instead of "alright, time to load up that saved game again once I finish this double chocolate brownie." If I can keep learning things, then it will be that much easier to stay upbeat.

Secondly, getting out of my working and living spaces on the ship and out either into some passenger areas or (even better) on to land is important. The walls downstairs are tan and plastic . . . not very much fun to stare at. We're traveling to such beautiful places that it will become more and more important to fight the internal inertia of habit and get out of the "eat/work/drink/sleep" rut.

Perhaps it seems like I'm already feeling dark about this gig. I'm not, actually -- but what I see is several musicians around me in various stages of depression (not all, but some). This is not what I want to happen to me. I don't think it will, but I doubt any of them came on to the boat hoping to be miserable either. I don't know how the trap works, which is what worries me -- I hope I'm smart enough to avoid it, but since I don't know how it works I don't know how to fight it or how prepared I am.

It's the alto player's last night, and inspiration has struck while we're waiting backstage. He's got short, closely cropped hair, and the wig stand is sitting right here . . . he's trying to decide which one to wear on stage. There's a great soccer mom wig, but I think he's going to go with the Axl Rose. He just finished telling a story about when he was in college and shaved his head. Every week he wore a big curly black wig to a certain lecture class. One week he stopped wearing it, and everyone said "Dude, you cut your hair!" He quietly agreed. A few weeks later, his real hair began to grow back in, straight and blonde, and everyone in the class was totally freaked out. This is what happens when musicians don't have enough to do.

Actually, no. This is what musicians do all the time.

So you can see that while some people on this gig can get kind of dark about things, it isn't always that way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Entry 13 3.18.2011

Entry 13, March 18, 2011, 11:49pm

I went to go see the tango show again earlier tonight, as the two lead dancers are new this week. They were great, just like the other couple, and noticeably different in style. This time instead of sitting close to the stage, I stood all the way in the back of the palladium and had a very different experience. I still enjoyed the show, but the feeling of immersion disappears when you're surrounded by old ladies chatting, babies crying, and people constantly coming and going. It is something to keep in mind as a performer -- I can attend the same show twice and have two totally different experiences.

Afterwards I went and strolled around the ship. It was the second formal night of this cruise, and so I was in tuxedo again. Saw some friends working, said hi . . . about fifteen minutes into my stroll I realized what is so strange about this gig. As musicians, we have zero interaction with our audience. We get up, eat, sound check, play the gig, and as soon as we're done the curtain falls down and we head to the bar. The curtain is literally wired in such a way that the audience cannot poke their heads through or meet us afterward at all. We never really even seen their faces, with the lighting set the way it is. One of the biggest parts of being a musician is missing from our job -- knowing that we're making people feel something. Really, that's all a musician's job is -- help someone to feel something. No wonder musicians can get so dark on this gig. I think an important of keeping my morale up will be to get out in the passenger areas now and then, to remind myself that I am atcually playing for people, not just a black void.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Entry 12, 3.17.11

Entry 12, March 17th, 2001, 11:35pm

Hola amigos mios! Lo siento por the lack of entry yesterday, the ship's internet was down.

A short entry today, as not much happened. I had my firefighting training today, where we watched a pretty sobering video of a Scandinavian cruise ship that caught fire several years ago. Over a hundred people died, for a variety of reasons. The asbestos lining of the hallways meant that the fire was funneled through the ship instead of growing slowly. The plastic lining on the asbestos released massive amounts of hydrogen cyanide when burned, and when the captain shut down the ventilation to slow the fire it killed anyone still trapped in their otherwise fireproof cabins. Several security doors were blocked open, and the haphazard way in which they were closed from the bridge meant that the fire was actually helped in spreading (no one hit the fire alarm at the ignition point (naturally enough, as they were all dead) and so the doors near that point were never closed). The crew had been hired only the day before and had never conducted a fire drill on that particular vessel, and many of the officers and crew had no languages in common. All of the evacuation arrows were mounted at normal eye level, and so of course were completely invisible due to smoke. On top of all this, there was a convicted arsonist on board who had already started two fires on ships (ironically, he was one of the first to burn to death). They were pretty much screwed.

We then got to watch some very cool footage of experiments conducted with replicas of ship rooms that were then set on fire. It turns out that in a ship with steel bulkheads, heat can transfer into rooms otherwise isolated from the blaze in such quantities that paper and wood will spontaneously burst into flame (in the example, a calendar hung on the wall of a replica purser's office exploded into fire out of nowhere). This is why it is so important to keep the six bulkheads (port, starboard, fore, aft, top, and bottom) bordering the fire wet and cool.

Perhaps I enjoyed this training a little too much.

Unfortunately my training meant that I missed Aruba. I have personal survival training tomorrow and will miss Bonaire, also too bad . . . but my exploration budget is depleted at the moment and so perhaps this is not a bad thing. Besides, it will give me something to write about two weeks from now!

Had kind of a rough first show tonight, but not because of the musicians. The stage crew botched several important things -- missed cues, incorrect curtain pulls, click tracks cutting in and out, etc. Also, one of the dancers is sick, so the cast was dealing with reblockings. The second show was better (after most of the cast had a calming cigarette on the back deck), but it was still a bit down.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Entry 11, 3.16.11

Entry 11, March 16th, 2011, 10:57pm

Started off the day with super exciting business ethics training. To sum it up: be ethical.

Spent most of today in Willemstaad, Curacao. It is my favorite spot so far of all of our visits. Willemstaad is mostly Dutch in history, with extensive European architecture and canals that run through the old city. To get to the city you hae to pass through an old fortress that would be pretty cool if it hadn't been turned into an upscale shopping mall (a literal bastion of consumerism, as it were). Continue down the waterfront, though, past all the typical shops selling little touristy knick-knacks and some interesting paintings and you'll arrive at a pontoon bridge.

This pontoon bridge is a fascinating contraption. It is a wooden pedestrian-only bridge, supported on twenty or so floating pontoons. I didn't get to actually see it in action, but apparently when a freighter or cruise ship (there is another cruise ship berth right downtown, but it was occupied when we arrived) needs to come down the channel the entire bridge swings away to one side. Once the ship has passed through it swings back into position; I can only assume that it uses cables and winches, but I wasn't able to observe the mechanism itself.

On the other side of the bridge is the city -- brightly colored plaster buildings several stories high, arranged in a maze of narrow one way streets and alleys. The color scheme is reminiscent of that street in Charleston (South Carolina) with the brightly colored houses, except the entire city is that way.

It is my favorite location so far becuase it strikes a happy medium between the totally artificial feel of a place like the resorts in Roatan and the dirty, slum-like, potentially dangerous Colón. Most things were pretty clean and well-maintained, but it was primarily a working city instead of a tourist trap. Real people live upstairs in the buildings, drying their laundry out on clotheslines on their balconies. We got a couple glimpses into living spaces, and they were very airy with white plaster interiors and sparse furnishings. Most of them had large shuttered windows and doors all the way around, none of them with glass or screens.

My first order of business was to find the post office. I had some basic idea of where it was . . . after crossing the pontoon bridge I turned left until I reached a canal, and then turned right. This is where the floating market is located, one of my favorite parts of Willemstaad. Walking down the street, the buildings are on your right and the canal is on your left. Between the street and canal is a wide sidewalk where a long line of booths has been set up. Here vendors sell fruit, vegetables, candy, bread, and most other types of fresh food that you can think of. The reason that it is called the floating market is that behind the stands each merchant has a twenty foot boat pulled up. They were covered . . . I don't know if the vendors live in them or just use them for work, but a small flotilla of eight foot rowboats swarmed between them like ants, dangerously overloaded with melons and the like. Most of the customers are locals. I bought the most delicious orange I have ever eaten.

After a bit of wandering around (I actually found the old post office building, closed) and a bit of asking for directions, we found the new post office. It cost me about five bucks to send two letters to the United States, and holy crap do I need to learn more Spanish. Willemstaad is particularly difficult to get around in because the native language is some mixture of Spanish, French, Dutch and something else I forget. Most things are spelled like Spanish (with the replacement of all "y"s with other vowels) while most things seem to be pronounced like Dutch. There is also a sizeable contingent of actual Dutch speakers, so things can get complicated for someone who speaks none of those languages.

The next stop was a friend of mine's favorite café. I'm not entire sure that I can find it again, but it is is hidden in the center of one of the city blocks with no actual street access. Once you pick your way down one of the several alleys that lead to the café, there's a large open courtyard with several trees growing in the center (some of which have carvings of mermaids or other half-naked women in them). Shade is plentiful, between the umbrellas on the tables and the trees themselves, and at this time of year small purple flowers occasionally float down from the upper branches. I had an excellent Belgian beer called "Palm." This is one of the best things about Willemstaad, by the way -- fantastic Belgian beer is everywhere.

After that brief stop, we wandered through the city for a time. It turns out that Willemstaad is home to the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the world -- it is more than three hundred years old, but we were not dressed properly and couldn't enter. We also passed a very fancy wine shop and restaurant that looked wonderful, but probably well out of our price range. It was a small shop with much of its first floot open to the street and side alleys, while the inside was filled with old leather furniture, end tables, and chandeliers. They had at least as much, if not more, exterior seating than interior . . . if I'm ever in Curacao for a special occasion I am going to stop there.

They gave us directions to our ultimate goal, a bar called "Miles" that another friend of mine had heard of. A bit futher down the street we found it, and it was unmistakable. A small plaster building, painted bright yellow with "Miles" written in flowy cursive above the doorway . . . the real sign that we were in the right place was the fact that I could Hank Mobley playing inside (I should mention that "inside" is relative with all buildings in Willemstaad, as there are no doors except for large shutters that they close late at night and most places' floors merge directly with the sidewalk). The inside of the bar is tastefully decorated with prints of Miles Davis and old album covers which mix well with the warm tones of the interior walls and dark wooden furniture. The crowd is mostly Dutch . . . I spoke to the owner/bartender/upstairs inhabitant and once I told him I was a jazz musician he brightened right up. He's got a great jazz collection (mostly Columbia and Blue Note stuff from the 50's and 60's) on vinyl under the bar, and a pair of turntables where he prominently features the current selection. I took a picture of them -- on the left was Hank Mobley's "Roll Call," while next up was "Moanin'" by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I also got free drink tickets for the whole band next time we're in Curacao.

It was like a little slice of home for me. Although the beer was different (a strange Belgian beer you drink with lime), the cigarette smoke was different, and the languages were different, it immediately took me back to any one of the many, many hangs we had in college. It was that same vibe . . . to find it on a small Caribbean island was amazing. I'm actually listening to Mobley again right now after today's day ashore.

Later . . .

We're spending the night offshore either Aruba or Curacao (I'm not sure which), presumably waiting for a berth to dock. The ship isn't under power, and so we're wallowing a little bit in the chop. The movement of a ship under power and ship wallowing are quite different from one another. When under power, the ship has two definite axes of movement -- tipping from bow to stern as she breaks through the waves, and from port to starboard. When not under power, though, the movement is more like a top or a fishing buoy -- the ship tends to roll in a circle. We're probably actually a lot better off than some of the passengers, as my cabin floor is roughly at the waterline.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Entry 10, 3.15.11

Entry 10, March 15, 2011, 11:30pm (ship time)

I'm in a hurry tonight -- just finished with the the second show of the night and I need to do laundry before attending a birthday party on the back deck. Didn't go ashore today in Santa Marta -- saving my money for Aruba in two days. Also, my roommate saw someone get stabbed there, and another guy got caught in the middle of a gunfight in a restaurant, so maybe I should travel with a buddy there. When we're back in two weeks I'll check it out.

I did write my daily to-do list today. Here it is, reproduced from prosterity:


Study Spanish (I'm working through a couple books)

Daily Journal Entry/Budget upkeep

Work Out

Read (working on the second of two books Rob Bickley got me (thanks Rob!))

Write other stuff

This is, of course, in addition to playing shows, boat drills, meals, hanging out, and wandering around in South America. I'm keeping busy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Entry 9, 3.14.11

Entry 9, March 14, 2011, 2:35pm (ship time)

I have just set foot upon my third continent. Last time the boat was in Cartegena I didn't get off, as it was only my first full day and I was a bit busy. This week, though, I'm much less stressed out about "Where do I go?!? Which lifeboat is mine?!? When can I eat?!? Wait, where's my room?!?"

Which is why I am now sitting in a small port authority park with decent internet for the first time in a week, enjoying the shade and trying to bend my head around the fact that I'm in South America (by the way, I have yet to encounter a single internet café that plays well with google Chrome -- something worth noting if you're headed overseas anytime soon).

Later -- 9:24pm (ship time)

Had a good time in Cartagena. I am glad that I didn't go into the city by myself, at least this first time. Next week I want to go see the fortress, and that's probably something I can do myself now that I know where to go.

If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, this is what I recommend. Follow the sidewalk out of the port terminal, as the taxi drivers inside the terminal will charge you $20 for what the guys outside will charge $5. Apparently you have to have a special license to get into the terminal parking lot. We grabbed one literally right outside the gate who took us to the Old City for $5 (useful phrases to know: "Cuanto cuesta?" how much does it cost? and "Ciudad Vieja" the old city). After a fairly frantic ride (including a two-way traffic circle; yes, it IS as dangerous as it sounds) you'll probably get dropped off at a large stone gateway with a clocktower on top. This is the entry to the old city, a maze of old stone and plaster buildings. Horse-drawn carriages circle around the streets, mixing with tourists and cops on motorbikes. I didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but I still got a bit lost at least once. There was a pretty active night scene considering that it was a Monday. When you need to get back to the ship, "Barco Cruisero" is a useful phrase to know.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Entry 8, 3.13.11

March 13, 2011, 4:44pm

I'm sitting outside at Café Lebanese in Colón right now, trying to get some decent internet for a change (failing miserably, as usual). Today is turnaround day, and marks almost exactly one week since I first stepped aboard the Grandeur. There are two ships in port today, the Grandeur and the Jewel, a ship one class larger/newer than ours. Her general profile is very similar, but there is an extra deck of cabins and the Jewel is slightly longer. There are also some very cool exterior elevators amidships. My roommate Tyler has a friend on the Jewel, a tenor player who went to school in Michigan. I'm pretty sure he's a University of Michigan grad because he's young enough that if he'd gone to school at Michigan State I would have recognized his name. I'll put his name up on here later if I can remember it.

Café Lebanese is located in the little strip of shops that has sprung up around the port. There's a supermarket here as well -- earlier today I picked up some things I needed (shampoo (I've been washing my hair with soap), sunscreen, laundry detergent, etc.). The brick plaza is packed with noisy tourists, crew members, street vendors (they're pushy, some guy tried very hard to sell me a model sailboat as I sat here typing (no quiero, pal)), taxi drivers (again, pushy), and soldiers who apparently double as police officers here in Panama. This is a sight common here in the countries we have visited so far; there does not appear to be any distinct police force, and so the army fills that role. Tall men dressed in green fatigues, tall black boots, body armor, and the trademark flat-topped green hat are ubiquitous here. They are heavily armed, as well -- usually with a pistol stuffed in a front pocket and a larger firearm on their back (rifle or sometimes shotgun). Shells and belts of ammunition usually cover the front of their vests. Perhaps most worrying is that they appear to have no non-lethal method of crowd control. Mental note: don't get arrested in Panama.

I've found a decent meditation spot. Crew members are allowed to use the jogging track on deck 10 (the pool deck overlook) at night when the passengers are asleep. I've begun doing that, alternating cardio days with lifting days down in the crew gym (truly buried in the depths of the ship, it is on deck zero just aft of the forward thruster machine room). After jogging I head forward to a small deck above the bow café, where a compass and pair of mechanical starcharts are located. During the day passengers sunbathe here, but at night it is deserted.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Entry 7, 3.12.11

March 12, 2011, 9:42pm (ship time)

Sea day today. After this morning's training (workplace safety! exciting!) I had to report for something called the flag parade. I dutifully showed up around noon on deck 9 to find about forty or fifty deckhands, officers, cast members, and hotel staff all waiting at the top of the centrum. The idea is that we each carry a flag representing a country that has crewmembers on board. In fact, we're even supposed to end up with the country we're from, although apparently that doesn't always happen (not enough flags to go around). I had the stars and stripes this time, although next time I think I am going to go for something else. I don't know whether I should go alphabetically or some other way . . . perhaps chronologically by date founded. Or something.

Five minutes later we had marched out around the pool deck with flags waving in the breeze . . . I can now check off "carry flag for country at olympics" from my life to-do list. The cruise director did a little presentation for the guests, who got surprisingly excited about the whole process (apparently it was a good day to be from Chile, as the guy carrying that flag got mobbed by women in bathing suits). I imagine this whole process must have been very awkward during the cold war . . . "and the NATO countries are here on the port side, with the Warsaw pact countries on the starboard . . . hooray for a world living in harmony!"

It is the last day of the cruise -- tomorrow is turnaround day in Colón. We have two farewell shows to play, which as shows go are pretty boring for the orchestra. Most of the act is done by the two "gauchos" on the cast, a pair of a specialists that until now have mystified me with their presence. They put on a darklight show -- dressed entirely in black, they disappear on a stage that is lit only with UV lights. The show is then done with fluorescent puppets that light up when hit by the light. It is a pretty cool concept -- the prerecorded track goes through a bunch of different feels, mainly synth techno with a smattering of classical and an interesting number that's in seven.

We come on for the second half of their act. The second part is a gaucho show, with drums, lassos, whips, etc. We only really play some fanfares here and there -- they bring some audience members on stage and give them roses to hold, as they cut them in half with whips. I don't really understand the connection between UV light puppets and Argentinian gauchos, but hey, whatever.

Then at the end they bring out the entire cast and we play a corny "farewell" number. That wraps up the cruise for most people.

Last night I went to go see the tango stage show, as the horns don't play in it. Tango was brought on when the ship transitioned to Panama, as Rico (the cruise director, or my boss's boss) knew that the two shows we had wouldn't really be much of a hit with the 90% Latin American audience. The tango show wasn't produced by Royal Caribbean, its actually from Vegas, and therefore has some significant differences. The instrumentation is bass, piano, violin, drums, guitar, and bandola (mandola? whatever that little accordian thing is. Spiegel would know), with a few special musicians brought onboard just for that show. There is no click track, so the music is allowed to breathe and is much more alive than the other two shows. Additionally, there are two extra dancers brought on for the show as well -- a little older than the rest of the cast (who are all mid/early 20s), they are specifically tango dancers although usually you can find them dancing salsa or whatever else is going on onboard whenever they get a chance.

Taking all of these things together, the show likely costs Royal Caribbean more than the other ones, but the result is a performance SO much better than anything else we do that I think it is totally worth it (in fact, I wish that all of our shows could be that good. I wanted to play in it!) The music is more interesting, and the guest dancers are extremely good, but best of all the show actually has narrative. There is both storytelling and humor, two elements that I think are so vital to engaging with an audience in this format that I don't know what RCCL was thinking when they wrote the other two. For example -- at one point the male lead comes into the club (the stage is set up like a nightclub) alone and dejected, and is seated at a table for one. Just as he is about to drink his whiskey, the spotlight flashes on and she is there, dancing. He is frozen, transfixed by her beauty, while she refuses to notice him. Finally, as she is about to leave, she leaves him her shawl as an afterthought. Energized by this, he downs his drink and takes the stage, bringing her back but failing to win her over in the end. It's things like this that are lacking from our other staged repertoire, which are essentially hour-long medleys of pop tunes grouped roughly by genre.

I'm learning a lot about entertaining here, and what sort of things are necessary in my role as a performer. I'm also learning what I like about particular music, and that narrative is important to me. I feel like there are so many different ways to reach an audience that the standard format of "show up with a quintet, play three sets of tunes" is incredibly limiting. If I go on the road with a band, I want to either bring some other act with me (like a stand up comedian) or I want to make music that really possesses narrative. All of my favorite albums are storytelling albums (or I make them so in my head). "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is probably the best example of that, but even something like "Kind of Blue" has narrative arc, even if it isn't as specific in its details. This is the sort of music I want to make -- music with strong narrative.

There is also an indisputable atmosphere of sophistication that swirls around the Tango show that the other two lack. A slight bit of fog is introduced to the stage via fog machine, and it is mostly lit with spotlights or low indirect light. The end effect is that of a smokey, mysterious nightclub, and when combined with the fancy costumes the end result is a very romantic, passionate show (side note: I heard passion defined the other day as great anger combined with great love). Also, it is put on during the formal night of the cruise, and so everyone is dressed to the nines. I was in tuxedo myself, something that I find really enjoyable. Having real, quality dress clothes is the secret to actually enjoying dressing up, I think. Nothing is quite like climbing the stone centrum staircase, watching a smokey tango show and then going out on the fantail and watching the moon rise over the water, especially when you do all of these things in a tux. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually, but it hasn't yet for this guy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Entry 6, 3.11.11

Friday March 11th, 2011, 7:00pm (ship time)

Sitting on the back deck right now enjoying the weather. Tyler (my roommate) asked where I was headed; I told him I was going back to go write a little because the weather was so good. He laughed, and then said, "I forgot that 80 degrees and overcast is good compared to where you came from. You people from Michigan are weird."

Spanish word of the day: Claro. I think it means "clear," "I see," or "I understand." I'm guessing this because of how I heard it used today.

I should explain what the back deck is. The crew spaces on the ship (I will go into more detail about them some day when things are boring) are almost all deck 1 or lower and totally enclosed. A few lucky ones (officers, people with seniority, my boss) have a cabin with a small recessed porthole less than a meter wide. Other than that we live in a maze of welded steel, with the notable exception of the back deck (or alternately, crew deck).

If you take the ladder up from one of the mess halls at the stern of the ship (crew, staff, and officers' mess halls, but again, more details on this later), you will find on deck 4 a small hatchway that is usually propped open with something. Step over the lip and you emerge onto a small exposed deck with a rubberized floor, open to the air along the entire stern bulkhead and filled with battered old porch furniture. In fact, this is the rearmost location on the entire ship; the runninng lights and stern flags are all located here. The aft anchor and mooring equipment is directly below on deck 3, but the back deck is an area that is entirely at the crew's disposal. There's a small bar that serves beers for a dollar after 9pm, and sometimes there are themed music nights and dancing between the twin exhaust pipes of the emergency generators.

The main galley also has access straight onto the back deck, and so cooks and waiters taking smoke breaks or escaping from irate passengers can often be found here shooting the breeze. In some ways, the back deck is the place of refuge for the vast majority of the crew (i.e. everyone who doesn't have a window) as it is the only place you can get a breath of fresh air without having to deal with passengers. Occasionally a curious face will peek over the rail from the promenade deck when we're having a particularly good time.

Today we stopped in Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. I can tell that it was a manufactured port -- it consisted of a brand new concrete pier connected to the shore by a line of upscale shopping botiques. Once you passed through the gates it was a totally different world. There were only a few roads, most of them dirt, and while the area near the port seemed heavily populated there was no clear urban center. Countless small wooden piers stretched out into the water, most of them home to small wooden boats with outboard motors.

Most houses and other buildings in Roatan follow a predictable blueprint. The top story is the habitation or other primary area of the house. Underneath, half of the upper story is supported by a concrete or cinderblock foundation that serves as a shed or garage, while the rest of the building is supported with stilts. The reason for this became swiftly apparent, as a torrential downpour heralded the beginning of our day on shore and it never really stopped raining the entire time we were there. Puddles of standing water were everywhere, and anyone trying to live at ground level would find their house and belongings flooded very quickly.

I just had to move to a new chair, as we're sailing through a bit of a squall. It will be dark soon.

From the port, we took a bus inland. The island is very mountainous even from the shoreline, and quickly the road became a twisting path. Luckily it was paved, or else I'm sure that the heavily laden van (there were more than ten of us) wouldn't have been able to make it up the incline in the wet weather. The interior is very thick with vegetation; huge green leaves are everywhere and a machete would be absolutely necessary if one wanted to stray from the beaten path. Here and there are gated driveways appearing seemingly out of nowhere from the jungle -- homes of the rich and reclusive, I can only assume.

About twenty minutes later we came down the other side of the moutain. Here there was the first sizeable expanse of flat land that we'd seen so far, and it was absolutely jam-packed with resort buildings. Threading his way down a dead-end dirt road, our taxi driver dropped us off within sight of the beach and promised to see us again at 2:30. Unfortunately at this point it was still raining, and so our slightly bedraggled party trudged down the beach to a restaurant that someone knew about.

Besides a few condos and hotel buildings, almost nothing was indoors on the beach. We found the restaurant and pushed a couple tables together under a shelter so we could order. The restaurant itself reminded me of the Poseidon in San Diego taken another step further -- whereas at the Poseidon you can step from the patio right onto the beach, here the actual floor of the restaurant was sand. The first shelter went up right at the high tide marker! The food was decent, and I had a drink that was essentially a chocolate milkshake with several shots of rum in it called a Monkey-something. Delicious.

Still raining at this point, and everyone was sitting around in their beach gear with drooping faces. Finally I decided "screw it" and went for a swim anyway, because I didn't travel all the way to Honduras to let a little rain keep me from a dip in the ocean (not to mention we were already wearing swim trunks, what's the issue with a little more water?). The Caribbean was beautiful, warm like bath water and a gorgeous color of blue that you really have to see to believe. It was far warmer in the water than out of it, and I did shiver for a little bit in the wind as I ate, but the Brits were so busy talking about how the weather reminded them of home that I don't think anyone noticed.

Which is why, by the way, that the Brits have such an obsession with talking about the weather whenever they visit somewhere. The weather in London is so uniformly overcast and drizzling that to actually be somewhere else where there is different weather from day to day is very exciting to them. I know this is true because a Brit told me herself.

Other than that it was a fairly uneventful day. I am starting to become more acquainted with the Lady G's moods . . . this morning, I sat bolt upright in bed when the engines stopped. A ship in port and a ship at sea are two totally different things. In port, a ship is nothing more than a large, crowded, somewhat smelly houseboat. Once you pull out of the harbor, though, things are totally different. She becomes a living organism, you can feel her move and breathe all around you (especially down where the crew lives!). We are totally dependent on the Grandeur -- were something to fail catastrophically, we'd be at the mercy of the sea. This feeling of trusting your life to someone or something is a concept that I understood intellectually before that first day out of sight of land but had never actually experienced. I begin to understand why ships are always female to their crews.

It's a symbiotic relationship; while on one hand the Grandeur is our protector, our refuge, she also needs the million small things that the crew does every day to keep things running. For instance, there's a large metal casing on a pallet down in broadway that I'm pretty sure is a cylinder head (I could stick my head and shoulders inside of it with ease, if that gives you any idea of the size of the thing). Somehow I feel like that's a pretty important bit of the ship. Today another piece of engine appeared beside it, this one with rods running through it that probably connect valve rockers to the camshaft of a extremely large diesel engine. How the crew is replacing a cylinder head that probably weighs at least a ton while we're at sea I have no idea, but I'm impressed.

But the ship is more than just a protector. It's a home, and it is a home that moves. This may sound like a silly distinction, but it's important. The same way that being on a long train ride begins to blur the lines of what is real and what is not, being crew on a ship is doing the same thing to me now. I've only been on five days and already the rest of the world is beginning to slip sideways a little. It is hard to really be concerned with much on shore when tomorrow morning it will be hundreds of kilometers away.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Entry 5, 3.10.11

March 10th, 2011, 6:55pm

My phone keeps doing odd things. When I first arrived on the ship, it set itself two hours behind ship time sometime during the night, making me late to my second training. It stubbornly remained set to this time, and so I compensated by setting my alarm two hours early. Then last night it jumped back ahead two hours, skipping over my scheduled alarm, a situation that would've led to me missing training AGAIN if I hadn't woken up around 8am on my own (I think that's when the engines stopped, I'm beginning to learn by the feel of the ship what we're doing without looking outside).

After training I had my first day ashore visiting the Cayman Islands (well, technically I only visited one of them, but whatever). I took the tender boat ashore with some friends, and after walking around a bit caught a taxi to the "Treasure Island" resort located on the seven mile beach (this was the place I was told to check out by the other members of the band). Getting off the taxi and crossing the road, we walked under a large hotel and emerged in a space between several fancy apartment buildings. Here there were several pools (some with waterfalls and multiple levels, all of them sparkling and spotless), palm trees, and a bar/restaurant that you could swim up to (complete with barstools set a few inches under the water). Just past all of that was a small bit of private beach with its own stone breakwater. It was a heavenly little spot.

I swam a bit, laid in the sun, had a bacon cheeseburger wrap with a rum and coke, and generally enjoyed myself. Around 2:45 we headed back to the port, as the last boat leaves at 3:30 and you really don't want to miss the ship as a crewmember. Hustling up to the day room on deck 2, we all got paid as well which was excellent. We're paid in assembly line style -- they take your name at the front and hand you a piece of paper. Then you get an envelope filled with cash ($(removed so I don't get fired) for me, pretty good for five shows), sign for it, and then comes the fun part. The very next person in line shows you your ship bar bill (anything from the bars, internet usage, and purchases from the Slop Chest (snacks, soap, etc.)) and you pay that from the cash they just gave you. I had $15 to pay, mainly from buying soap, toothpaste, and one expensive drink at the schooner bar on formal night, but some people's bar bills ran in the hundreds of dollars. I think I will try and avoid that myself.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Entry 4, 3.9.11

March 9th, 2011, 9:35am

(DELETED so that I don't get fired)

Last night was a fun night. It was formal night, and Natalie invited me to go have a drink with the rest of the cast up in the schooner bar (deck 6, Starboard side, just forward of the South Pacific lounge). I poked my head out initially in standard dress blacks, but after seeing what everyone else was wearing I decided to go back belowdecks and break out the tux (pics to follow).

Spent the evening with the cast, who were in tuxes and evening gowns along with the rest of the passengers. There was a singer/pianist playing salsa in the bar, and then another four piece band down in the centrum also playing salsa. Guests were dancing everywhere . . . it was a fun night, between the drinks and the great music and great clothes.

So far, my favorite part of being in Latin America is the music -- not what I'm playing, but what is in the air around me. When you turn on the radio in the States, you generally get either stupid pop bullshit or stupid country bullshit. You can find that here, too, with cheesy Latin pop (current working term: L-pop), but turn the dial and you can usually find a great salsa band. The recorded music piped into the ship is not elevator music or lite rock, but is instead salsa, always with a full instrumentation of real musicians. Clave is in the air here, and I'm soaking it up.

Later, 9:32pm

Just finished my first time through the other full production show, "Full Access." It's the "rock" show, and there's a lot of good music. I don't care for the Madonna stuff as much, but there's some Blood Sweat and Tears, Queen, Sly Stone, etc. in it that's pretty good. The arrangement is less busy for the horns than the other show, and there are more pre-recorded bits which is too bad. I think if people knew how much music in "live" shows was prerecorded, they would be pissed.

We're on stage for this one though, which is nice. It gives us a chance to see the audience and cast. These two shows are not really aimed very well at the tastes of our mostly Central and South American passengers, so there's also a Tango show that has been added every Friday. The horn section doesn't play on it, but the Tango show is totally organic -- no click track, no pre-recorded stuff -- I'm going to check it out this week as I've heard it is quite excellent. I wish all the shows could be like that . . . but that's the bean counters at work.

Tomorrow's stop will be in Grand Cayman, and I'm hoping to get off the boat for the first time. There is apparently a hotel with a swim-up bar, private beach, and free internet that caters to crew . . . we'll see how it turns out. It's a tendering port, which means we have to take small boats into town from the ship instead of anchoring at a pier.

Jamaica was beautiful, by the way, as we were leaving. A storm was coming in over the moutains astern of us as we sailed out of Montego Bay . . . it made me wish I had a better camera. I got a couple good pictures but I don't know if they will come close to capturing the moment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Grandeur

For those of you interested in the ship I'm on, here's our homepage on the RCCL website. I think. It keeps redirecting to the Spanish website because of my IP address here.

20 knots, 74,000 tons gross tonnage (actually a measure of internal volume, but whatever), 2,000 passengers, 750 crew.

For the record, I think Royal Caribbean should dump the "of the Seas" bit from all their ship titles.

Here's some pictures:

Entry 3, 3.8.11

March 8th, 2011, 12:59pm (shipboard time)

More training today. Woke up at 7:30 thinking that I was late, threw on some clothes and ran astern to the training room only to discover I was an hour early. I passed the training officer on broadway on the way back and she gave me a rather quizzical look. Showered, shaved, dressed, went to training. Learned about the line, the fleet, rules, the cruises we'll be on, etc. I'm excited for the stops we'll be making -- tomorrow is Jamaica, and Aruba is on the itenerary as well.

Took a foot tour of the ship as well, mainly of the passenger spaces. It was difficult at moments to remind myself that I was not actually on vacation, I hope to get on deck later at some point today as the weather is beautiful. I have to wear a name tag in passenger spaces, but with any luck I can find somewhere where I will not get hassled as much (since I don't speak Spanish (No hablo espanol, Senor)).

We're making the crossing North from Cartegena to Jamaica today. There's nothing but blue ocean as far as the eye can see; it is glorious! Having never really been on the ocean before, all I can say is . . . wow. Only one word really described it: BIG. I didn't the think the Granduer could feel tiny after seeing it in port looming over Colón, but I feel like we are a speck in the ocean right now. I have a new respect for the explorers of old.

Grandeur, by the way, is one of the smallest ships in the fleet. We have about 750 crew and 2000 passengers. The Oasis of the Seas, by contrast, carries nearly 5000 passengers. Our pool deck is on deck 9 . . . their pool deck is deck 14.

Grandeur is a cozy, relaxed ship, though, as far as crewing her is concerned. She's either called (rather affectionately) "Lady G," or (less affectionately) "This Old Piece of Shit" (the word "antique" has been bandied about some already). The general feeling among the crew is one of relaxed camadrie, as far as I can tell -- every once in a while the captain has a waffle breakfast up on the bridge. The last stage production cast put together a redubbed version of that song "New York," filmed entirely on the Grandeur to be used as a humorous addition to the otherwise rather dull training videos, and I think that's the sign of a happy ship.
I'm one of 16 Americans on the ship (three of us compose the G's brass section), and in combination with the 12 brits and 3 aussies we comprise the Grandeur's native English speaking population. Most of the crew is from South America, Central America, or the Philippines. The officers and staff, though, are a much more mixed bag, with mainly brits and frenchmen (/women) at the top (including a security chief with the absolutely fantastic name of Dragomir) mixed with Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and such filling out the middle ranks. The new doctor is an incredibly timid South African woman, and the assistant who took my ID picture is from Ecuador I think. All in all there are 65 different nationalities represented on board.

A brief side note -- today's training officer explained that last fact, and then showed a brief DVD about that "What if we shrank the world down to a village of 100 people?" email that went around a couple years ago. When it got to wealth, it said, "6 people in the village control 50% of its wealth, and they are all American," I slid down in my chair a little as everyone turned around to look at me.

Last night's show went well -- we played an 8 and a 10pm. Each show is about an hour long, and we played pretty steadily through this one (the broadway medley show, "Rhyme and Rhythm" or something). It was a lot of sightreading but I came out the other side of it feeling pretty good. The lead player (a guy from LA named Rob) said everything sounded fine and he didn't have anything major for me, just a couple missed notes here and there. I have to work out some page turns (particularly in the Ellington medley, the thing is like 9 pages long!) but other than that I pretty much have the first show licked. The band sounds good and is very professional -- i.e. no one is late, sound check takes maybe five minutes, no one is drunk on the gig, etc. I'm really impressed with the quality of the cast (singers/dancers); talking with them at lunch I discovered that the while musicians all come on as individuals, the cast comes on as a single unit after rehearsing in Miami for 6 weeks. They were solid -- the show moves from song to song quickly and there are many costume and scene changes that all have to happen at the right times, but it moved like a well oiled machine. I suppose that's what you get when you do each show 2-4 times each week.

The other musicians told me that the band on this boat plays less than bands on other boats do. Part of that is the clientele that we have on board right now -- the Latin crowd doesn't really enjoy the midday jazz sets as much as the Europeans -- and part of it has to do with the fact that our music director is not pushing very hard to play any more than he already is. Personally, I don't mind playing a little bit more (especially if it's actually jazz) and neither do the pianist or bassist, so maybe we'll be able to work something out after the G transitions to Europe (this is not a gig that is about artistic expression, but I knew that going in).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Entry 2, 3.7.11

March 7th, 2011, 11:25am

What a day yesterday!

Taking a break right now, sitting in the staff lounge while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is playing in Spanish on the television (Senor Potter! Donde está Senor Weasley?).

Traveled through Colón yesterday after finishing my entry -- I can see why the rumor mill has it that we'll be taking it off the cruise circuit next season. Tall buildings are crammed together around tiny alleys filled with trash, some of them with crooked balconies held up with two by fours from the sidewalk below. I'm pretty sure that the ship was the only thing within a quarter mile of the shore that had seen a coat of paint in about twenty years. A few of the larger boulevards have park medians down the center, filled with mangy, partially cut grass, empty bags of chips, and homeless people sleeping on mattresses. If there is a Flint in Panama, Colón is probably it.

Perhaps there are nicer parts of the city, but we didn't visit those parts.

Anyway, our bus picked its way delicately through the city until suddenly the buildings opened up and there was the Grandeur! It towers above the surrounding buildings -- I took a picture later from the railing of the promenade deck, and you can see across the city to the ocean on the other side. It's not as sleek or elegant in build as some of the Cunard trans-atlantic liners, like the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, or like the old SS United States that I saw two years ago tied up at the scrapyard in Philadelphia, but it isn't nearly as ugly as some of the Norwegian line ships. Sure, she may be a little bit portly, but even though I've only been here a day I am starting to feel at home. We tied up next to a Celebrity Line boat today in Cartegna that was hideous with its monolithic facade of cabin balconies. The ship is probably great to sail on, but man, it looks like the Hotel of the Future at Disney World.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yesterday at the port -- processing, paperwork, luggage scanning, etc., all boring. Got on board eventually and was shown around by the head of the sports activities department, a wiry, energetic Romanian with a neatly trimmed beard. After finishing my (very) impromptu tour and showing me where I live, he gave me an excellent piece of advice: "Today, no one knows who you are. You've got four hours until your first training. Use it to go see all the parts of the ship you wouldn't see otherwise."

So that's what I did. Dressed in khakis and a button-up shirt, most everyone thought I was a passenger. I slipped out of the crew stairway on deck five and found myself in a spacious lounge with a bar and piano. There was a piano tuner working there; I nodded to him and passed through the motion-activated doors onto the promenade.

The promenade is the lowest open deck (deck 5) that stretches all the way around the ship. It is wooden underfoot, and perhaps twelve feet wide at its largest point. Overhead hang the lifeboats, and above them are other decks. I strolled around the ship, noticing the fuel barge that was tied up to the other side of the ship, invisible from the pier as it was totally obscured by the Grandeur's bulk. Leaning over the rail, I estimated the deck is about the height of a three or four story building. Pictures to follow.

I kept heading up until I reached the pool deck (deck 9). This is the highest full-size deck on the ship, and contains (naturally enough) the pool, several whirlpools (all of which I am strictly prohibited from using), a glassed in area with another pool and an extensive Roman decoration scheme called the solarium, a restaurant (where they were seating people by table and so I therefore did not enter), and some other stuff. There's an open deck above that as well that lines the outer perimeter of the pool deck and that has a jogging track and hundreds of chairs for sunbathing (there's also a rock climbing wall at the stern). A few structures stretch above even this deck -- a small area near the front of the ship that has a compass and starcharts, as well as the Viking Lounge, a bar that overlooks the pool and that is decorated with only moderately tacky statuettes of viking warriors. Above these you have only the stacks and foward mast.

I took the elevator down from the Viking lounge to the centrum. The centrum is a tall open space that stretches down from a skylight in the pool deck down to Deck 3 or 4, and is located roughly amidships. There are stairs wrapping around the central shaft, as well as a more functional set of stairs on the other side of the main elevators (aft of the centrum). At the bottom are foutains, a piano, and an assortment of little paths that wind about to various parts of the ship. Most of the larger passenger attractions can just barely be seen from the various decks overlooking the atrium -- the casino, the botique, the Ben and Jerry's store, etc. Meanwhile, a pair of long hallways leading to the passenger cabins connect on the port and starboard sides.

More about the ship later . . . at 4pm, I got my first dose of compulsory safety and employment training, which I can tell is sure to be a joy. Then I headed back to my cabin, met my roommate (he'd been asleep earlier), got dressed and met the rest of the band just in time for soundcheck. An hour or so later we played the "welcome aboard" show as the ship pulled away from the pier -- a rather corny introduction number that gives the dancers and cruise director (my boss's boss) a chance to introduce themselves, as well as three tunes with a tango singer/standup comedian who was fairly decent (or at least probably was . . . gotta learn that spanish!).

Anyway, tonight I'm playing my first full production show with the band! I've looked through the music but I haven't played any of it yet, we'll see how it goes!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Entry 1, 3.6.11

March 6th, 2011 8:58am
Flew in to Panama City yesterday. It was a surprisingly short flight from Atlanta at about four hours. Waited around at the airport after making it through customs and meeting the agent from Royal Caribbean. Saw more beautiful women wearing less clothing at the airport than I've seen in quite a while. Eventually the other guy we were waiting for showed up, a Romanian casino manager who is on his 11th trip. He's on a four month contract and is going to head home from one of the European ports as it is a lot closer to Romania than NYC (were he's from).

Got to the hotel (way shwanky, and totally westernized) to discover that we were the last two for the night, and that I was sharing a room with someone. He turned out to be a pretty nice guy from India who is going to be cooking on the boat (don't envy him that job). I don't remember where he's from, but he flew from Mumbai to Newark and from Newark to Panama City (don't envy him that flight either). It was almost midnight at that point and I'd woken him up getting into the room, so I quickly brushed my teeth and went to bed, setting the alarm for 7am as I wanted to be sure to catch the bus to Colon.

Got up at 7, showered, shaved, dressed, etc. etc. Couldn't find breakfast in the hotel but didn't want to venture to far from where I was supposed to meet the bus as I don't speak the language here and don't have a working phone. It turns out I probably could've found some breakfast, as the bus didn't leave until 8:30, but oh well. Currently I'm on the bus headed North to Colón.
The thing that really struck me about Panama City is how jumbled together everything is. RIch, poor, slums, mansions, huge steel apartment buildings, plaster hovels, everything is sort of pushed together in a way that made our ride through the city very interesting. Even in the space of one building you might have a beat up pawn shop downstairs, a clean apartment upstairs, and a hummer sitting in the driveway across the street. It was very odd. Things were pretty quiet, but it is Sunday morning after all. I imagine the city is much more busy during the week.
There is also an odd prevalance of used auto and auto accessory shops here in panama city. We passed more than I could count on our way out of town. It was like it was a law that for every building constructed in panama city, a corresponding auto shop must also be installed. My favorite was the decript old ruin with a corrugated tin roof and rotting plaster walls that featured a pristine pair of white Greek colums at the main entrance (no cars in that lot though, it's a shame).

Now we're on the highway, a four-lane paved affair that I imagine Balboa would have appreciated. Every once in a while a dirt track will wander off from the freeway to a collection of houses made of cast off building materials and blue plastic sheeting. Some of the villages are clearly more prosperous than others, with clean plaster buildings around the outskirts and cars parked in yards, while others are barely hanging on (or at least look the part, maybe my standards are skewed as a Northerner). Near one of them there was a huge circling flock of black crows, which was a bit ominous, but I couldn't see what they were circling. There is a little bit of cattle ranching going on, and some large open meadows filled with grass as tall as a person. I'm not sure if they were cleared artificially with logging or if that's just how the vegetation of the area grows. Most ares are covered with wide, leafy trees, and filled in with dense green undergrowth. There is a taller type of tree with a white trunk that I see occasionally jutting out of the forest that doesn't seem to have leaves at this time of year. The vast number of drainage gullys and pipes along the highway tells me that when it rains here, it really rains!

Panama reminds me of pictures I've seen of other Latin American countries in that the juxtaposition of modern and older technologies is often jarring and sudden. There are regularly spaced pedestrian overpasses made of contcrete crossing the freeway, and twenty feet from the shoulder they become a dirt path marked on either side with two lines of sticks driven into the ground. The afore-mentioned village exits from the highway are totally unmarked and usually just a pair of tire ruts that abruptly end on the shoulder.

One thing is certain -- I need to start really learning a language. I brought a few Spanish books with me and I think that will be my first one -- it should be useful at most of my destinations on this contract. Since I got off the plane, I've met one other native English speaker, and he's a Brit so that doesn't really count (and that's out of 35 of us on the bus to Colon, all headed to work on the Grandeur). Most people speak a little English, but if I need to make myself understood or get into trouble I am going to have a rough time of it (and this is pretty much my own fault, as I'm the one who only knows one language).

We keep passing an odd type of vehicle that I'll make note of here. They're old school busses, painted first white and then covered in ridiculous colored murals and writing. Small fins (longitudinal, like sharks, instead of latitudinal, like a spoiler) have been added to their roofs here and there. At the rear of the bus the exhaust pipes are usually brought past the rear bumper and then turned up to the roof like a pair of semi-truck exhaust pipes. Usually they're made of a rust-spotted chrome. The buses seem to be filled with youths who do not look too happy about the arrangement -- my first thought was that it was some sort of church program (it is Sunday after all) but the decorations look too commecial to be a faith-based organization.

I'm excited to reach the boat and get settled in! It will be good to start working -- I'm ready to meet the musicians and start playing. Hopefully I'm not too out of shape, as the past few days have been so busy with preparation and travel that I've played very little.