Thank you, National Geographic

My photo on the cover of National Geographic! (Okay, I admit, I PhotoShopped it–but it IS a photo from my first trip to Africa.)

I grew up with National Geographic. My father subscribed to the magazine for many years—the only magazine we did subscribe to, BTW. Dad even compiled his own index to the issues, cross-referenced by subject, date, and what else, I don’t know. As a very young child, I saw him at his beat-up wooden desk, meticulously entering the information in a duotang with his precise engineer’s printing, using a pencil, no less. That was, perhaps, the first lesson I learned from Dad’s relationship with NG: that the information was precious and worth organizing so that you could return to it again and again.

Return to those magazines I did; when I was ill and stayed home from elementary school, I would creep to the bookshelf and take down a half-dozen copies to have in bed with me. Peppermint tea, Vicks VapoRub, and NG.

I didn’t read every article, although I did read many. But I did pour over every photo in those thick, glossy pages. Maybe I’m looking back through the rose-coloured glasses of childhood now, but I remember the photos as spectacular, marvellous, intriguing, thought-provoking, sometimes even stunning. To me, they set the bar for photography for the rest of my life. Fifty years later, when I see a photo with that wow factor, my first thought is still, “That’s a National Geographic shot!”

As I grew older, I read more of the text and I’m sure that NG’s clean, well-edited, journalistic style started me on the path to being a non-fiction editor and writer. The photos caught your eye and engaged your emotions; the words gave you the background and story. I met Goodall and Heyerdahl, Tutankhamun and the Leakey clan.

I dreamed of being a NG photographer or writer: that was the pinnacle.

Then there were the National Geographic television specials, broadcast during my childhood maybe four times a year. When we saw the ads announcing an upcoming NG special, the excitement would start to build in our household. On the night, the whole family would gather around the TV. I can still feel the old thrill every time I hear the iconic NG music with its pounding percussion and triumphant horns. The World of Jacque-Yves Cousteau, 1966. Amazon, 1968. Search for the Great Apes, 1976. Etosha: Place of Dry Water, 1981.

I imagined the African sun on my back as I patiently stalked lions, or the boredom of waiting in a hide for days to get a unique shot. I excavated tombs and dove the oceans for shipwreck treasure. I met cannibals and climbed castle walls.

It has only been recently that I really began to reflect on how much all of this has influenced my life. Why do certain destinations and experiences call to me? Why do I love to photograph animals and birds? Are all my travels merely attempts to live out childhood fantasies?

There is no question in my mind now that National Geographic has shaped my world view. If so, I can think of far worse mentors. Opening my eyes to the color, complexity, mysteries, and magic of places outside my small community was a priceless gift from all the scientists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who poured their passion and talent into NG. I thank them, and I thank you, National Geographic. Long may you inspire.

Did you grow up with NG magazines or documentaries? What was your favourite article, photo, or show? Let me know in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

 

 

First-time Cruising Part 2

In my first blog on cruising last week, I covered the basics. This week, I’ll talk about all the fun extras.

Entertainment As a performer myself, I was, of course, curious about the type and quality of entertainment provided—all for free—on the cruise. I’m happy to report that I found the musical talent to be top class. The family-friendly “main-stage” shows presented each evening in the large theatre were all very good and varied, including magicians, acrobats, a stand-up comedian, Motown review singers, a country music review, and a couple of shows that involved the whole cast. The daily entertainment found scattered throughout the ship in lounges, bars, and at poolside featured guitar and piano soloists, a reggae band, and a couple of dance bands. I enjoyed all of them, although I didn’t hear as much of some as I would have liked, as they played in areas where there was cigarette smoke. Also, the bands tended to be amped at ear-splitting levels, not conducive to quiet enjoyment.

Grade: A+

Activities This is where my expectations really were not met. Everyone I spoke to prior to the cruise who had cruised before said, “You’ll never be bored. There are so many things going on all the time.” However, when I looked at the list of daily activities that they provide each day, I could quickly eliminate those that:

  • Required extra fees (e.g., bingo)
  • Were thinly disguised attempts to help you part with your money (e.g., a talk on How to Spot a Real Emerald)
  • Were targeted at specific groups to which I don’t belong (e.g., LGBT meet-up)
  • Were dance parties of various kinds

This left me with a short list of things such as the “Crossword Challenge.” The “Crossword Challenge” consisted of a bored-looking staff member handing out copies of a puzzle–but only if you asked for it. That was it. No interaction between people, no game aspect to it. Wow. Basically the same as if I sat at home and did the daily crossword in my newspaper. To add insult to injury, there was a glaring error in the puzzle.

My friends went to the “Family Balloon-Twisting.” When the balloon they were working with popped and they asked for another, they were told they’d have to go up to a higher deck and get another balloon from the kids’ club. It obviously hadn’t occurred to anyone that twisting balloons inevitably results in some collateral damage and it might be a good idea to have spares. Duh. Not to mention that if an error like this occurs (i.e., they neglected to bring extra materials), it’s the staff’s job to solve the problem, not the person with children who should go running to another deck.

For the “Caribbean Dance Lessons” by the poolside, I was the only participant, which wasn’t their fault, but the staff person in charge spent a mere five minutes teaching me a simple set of moves to the music, then seemed to lose interest. After muttering about how brave I was (to be the only participant) and that she would “reward” me, she started talking to the band, leaving me standing there like a bump on a log, not knowing if there was more to come. When she finally noticed me, she shooed me away, saying I could sit down. Again, as a sometime performer myself, I know that when you only get a small turnout, you work twice as hard to ensure that those who do show feel extra special and are glad they made the effort.

So much for activities. There were a couple of fun group games that we enjoyed, but most were equally lame.

Grade: F

Shore excursions  Getting off and on the ship at the ports of call was much easier than I expected. Line-ups were minimal and the staff was efficient.

We only booked one organized excursion. It was okay, but expensive for what you got. From the cruise ship dock, we spent approximately one hour getting herded onto the bus and driving to the tour dock, one hour motoring to the snorkel spot, an hour in the water actually snorkeling (and the snorkeling was good, so we pushed the time to the max), a half hour eating lunch and lounging on the catamaran, and an hour to return to the cruise ship. The bus ride back to the ship was quite uncomfortable, as we were all in wet swimsuits and the bus air conditioning froze us, plus some of us were forced to sit on seats over the wheels where there was literally no leg space, so you either sat with your knees around your ears (for the young and flexible) or twisted around to jam your legs into the aisle where fold-down seats and their passengers already took up all the space. It’s the kind of situation I would normally just laugh off when I travel, but when I’m paying a premium price for a tour, I expect better.

Grade: B

A few health and safety issues

  1. In my humble (non-smoking) opinion, there are too many smoking areas, especially since the smoke seeps into adjoining areas. The ping-pong zone, for example, a hub of youthful activity, was always choked in fumes from nearby smoking areas, as was one hall where people–including families–would wait for the theatre to open.
  2. Some of the globe lights are set along corridor side walls at a height and angle such that my not-extraordinarily-tall companion smacked his head on one. A ship’s officer who happened to witness the incident merely paused for a moment and then continued on his business without apologizing, expressing sympathy, or checking whether my friend was injured.
  3. Most flooring was secure, but one outdoor area (around the outdoor aft eating area) was extremely slippery when wet. Both myself and one of my companions had scary near-falls and we witnessed a number of others skid in the same area. And no, none of us had been drinking!

Overall, I would have to recognize that this cruise was good value at about $100 per day per person. Would I get a luxurious, spacious room in an all-inclusive resort with gourmet food, excellent entertainment, pool time, beach time, and new scenery every day for that price? Unlikely. So it isn’t really fair to expect all of that plus more from the cruise.

In addition, I admit to being awed by the efficiency of the behemoth. Just planning for, keeping safe, feeding, and managing several thousand people floating on the ocean is a logistical miracle.

Would I recommend this cruise? If you like to eat, drink (for an extra charge), sprawl in the sun, dance to loud modern music, and watch some great entertainers, this cruise might be for you.

Would I cruise again? Never say never, I say. There are a wide variety of cruises and cruise lines, and I’m ever amenable to trying something different. Under the right circumstances, the open seas may beckon again.

First-time Cruising

I admit it: cruising has never been high on my travel list. I understand the appeal for many people, but I had my reasons why I steered clear. Recently, however, several factors came together to nudge me onboard. Like a good traveller, I tried to set aside my preconceptions and be open to a new experience.

After eight days at sea, I had compiled a stack of notes too long for one blog, so I’ve broken the topic up into two. This first entry will discuss the basics: general comfort and atmosphere, stateroom, food and beverages, computers onboard, and staff. I’ve assigned a letter grade for each category and included jottings about whatever caught my notice, good or bad. Since this is my first cruise, I’m not sure whether some things are specific to the cruise line (Norwegian) or common to the whole industry, however, one of my travel companions has cruised before and we were able to compare experiences, which gave me some context.

General Comfort & Atmosphere  Decor ranged from bright and colourful to garish in some areas (e.g., purple, orange, and silver in one lounge). Staterooms were calmer and more tasteful. Twelve elevators seemed sufficient to transport everyone at most times, except when large crowds came through at the same time (e.g., when the theatre shows let out, there might be short waits). Pools were small but adequate, since surprisingly few people actually go in. Staff were vigilant about keeping youngsters out of the adult pool (bonus if you’re an adult, not so much if you’re underage and trying to sneak in).

It could be hard to find quiet spaces outdoors, as there was almost always loud music broadcast. Even in the upper-deck “quiet zone” you could still hear it.

Grade: A-

Stateroom  Our room in the cheapest price range was excellent, more space than we expected , bed large and comfy, everything clean and in good repair, TV remote didn’t work probably due to a dead battery. Despite it being an inside cabin, it was quiet and had no smells. I am not claustrophobic, so having an inside cabin (no window) didn’t bother me.

Pet peeve: toilet set into bathroom at an angle that made sitting on it straight impossible, I had to sit sideways. Awkward and uncomfortable. (I know—too much information!)

Grade: A

Food  We did not eat in the paid restaurants but tried all the included (free) eateries. Food was plentiful, available nearly round the clock, and of solidly good–not brilliant–quality. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a foodie when it comes to savouries. For me, the main dishes were fine. However, my companion–who has cruised before–was not impressed, especially when she compared to her previous cruise on another line.

Pet peeve: French fries were universally crap. Thin and cold, like they salvaged them out of the trash bins of the closest fast food joint. Come on, folks, I know you can do better than this.

Grade: B

Desserts  Given their central position in my solar system, desserts form a separate category. Sadly, most were based on the “pretty but virtually tasteless” model. What my companion has aptly christened “sweet goo.” Comes in a variety of colours and shapes, sometimes shaped like cake, sometimes in a bowl, but always the main “flavour” is sweet. I stopped eating these after one day, having sampled enough to know they would all follow this pattern.

Bonus point: what saved desserts from a D grade was the crepe bar, where the chef hustled up fresh crepes with your choice of toppings. Yum.

Grade: C-

Beverages  The expected restrictions (pay as you go alcohol and soft drinks) aside, beverages did not impress. Watery, sugary “fruit” drinks and unsweetened ice tea were on offer at meals, plus coffee & tea.

Pet peeve: fruit drink bar. Fresh fruit and veggies aren’t expensive–they provide racks of them at every meal. But if you want those same fruits and veggies freshly squeezed and blended, you have to pay. That’s just stupid.

Saved from C- by unrestricted palatable water and ice.

Grade: C

Computer  Internet available but expensive. I wonder how long they’ll hold out on this one, considering that the grubbiest little cafe onshore anywhere now provides FREE wifi and people expect it.

Pet peeve: the onboard Internet cafe computers do not provide any programs for general use e.g., Word. They only allow paid access to Internet.

Grade: D

Staff  In general, I found the staff to be excellent, very friendly, helpful, and efficient. 

Bonus point, bumping this grade from A to A+, goes to the Washy-Washy Lady* who turns an incredibly dull but vital task into a bouncy moment of song-and-dance fun. For me, and, I’m sure, everyone else on the cruise, it will be her face, voice, and cheery greeting that stays in memory.

Grade: A+

*For you fellow cruise neophytes, the Washy-Washy Lady stands at the main door of the central dining room with a spritzer full of hand sanitizer, encouraging and assisting everyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Our WWL was a smiling, ad-libbing, entertaining individual who, I’m sure, had a night job headlining at some Philippine cabaret.

To be continued.