Cruise, 2017

      The old guys who normally gather at Denny’s on FM 1960 every Friday were in their rightful places when the subject eventually slid around to ocean cruises.  Since it had been a little over two years since Shirley and I had sailed to Key West and the Bahamas with the Creel bunch, I had been thinking about scheduling another trip to give us a chance to get out of town and relax a bit.  Other than a trip to my sister’s home in Missouri, we haven’t done much traveling lately, so it was time to go somewhere.  If I were given a choice of where to go, Hawaii would  always be my first choice.  However, I have found that the older we get, there is another factor we consider when considering a vacation trip: the hassle factor.  To go to Hawaii requires air travel (with all the wonderful hazards of airports, security checks, and flight delays,) hotel/motel/condo rentals, car rentals, arrangements for food, and planning for any entertainment.  In a word, a Hawaiian trip rates very high on the hassle factor scale.
    Counter the effort of planning a Hawaiian trip with the ease of a cruise: you walk onto a boat, and for a week you do not have to do anything but enjoy.  No planning…. eat when you want and what you want, do everything or do nothing.  Your time and your planning are own.   Five years ago, the idea of a cruise seemed remote and not necessarily attractive.  Why would I want to be trapped on a boat for a week?  I have learned the attractiveness of a cruise: ease of  planning (buy the package) and ease of scheduling (do what you want when you want.)
    Anyway, at Denny’s on a Friday in July, Jerry Stewart, a good friend who also happens to be a cruise expert having enjoyed over twenty cruises in recent years, mentioned that he and his lovely wife, Bobbie, had decided to take a cruise in September.  I mentioned that Shirley and I had been considering the same idea, and he made the mistake of saying, “You all ought to go with us.”  Within 48 hours, Shirley and I were scheduled for the same Carnival Breeze cruise out of Galveston on September 10-17 going to Jamaica, the Caymen Islands, and Cozumel.

Sunday, September 10, 2017,  Departure from Galveston

      We had agreed to take our car to Galveston, picking up Jerry and Bobbie along the way, so about 10:00 a.m. we slipped into the Stewart driveway.  Within a matter of seconds (since they were waiting on their porch) we were back on IH45 headed south to the Galveston docks.  Arriving at the parking area just across the street from the hulking Carnival Breese, a 1,000 foot behemoth of a boat as tall as a 14 story building, we begin probably the most stressful event in the life of a cruise trip: the checking in process.  One has to consider that in a matter of three hours or so, Carnival has to check in 4,100 passengers, each one loaded with luggage, and all have to walk through a single door into the ship.  It all begins with parking about a quarter mile away from the ship.  You unload your luggage and walk to a gathering area where eventually a 15 passenger bus comes by and picks up you and your luggage and hauls you to the terminal.  There you unload, and horse your luggage to the nearest baggage check in person.  He will load your luggage onto the cart and then say, “Go down there to the end of the line for check in,” and point to the end of a line seemingly a quarter mile away.  You then walk down to join the long line of excited travelers waiting impatiently to get on board and start having fun.  Since these are international cruises, the official check in begins with showing your loading pass (downloaded from your computer), then showing your picture identification (passport), and then, just like the airlines, go through a security checkpoint with x-ray and metal detection.
     Going through security, I had to remove my belt just like at the airlines, but that didn’t mean that security was tight…when I walked through the metal detector, it started buzzing because of my metal hip.  I was prepared to explain the situation, but no one ever questioned me or raised a head when the alarm went off…so I kept walking.  All the luggage went through the x-ray, but the guy looking at the luggage appeared more bored than anything else, and the conveyer belt never slowed down.  
    Next came the registration and room confirmation.  We had our pictures taken (they took a photo of our passport photo), and were told to proceed upstairs to the next level for boarding.  There we sat for several minutes until someone told us to begin boarding by going “that way.”  We followed the crowd walking down a hall which turned into an escalating walkway which zigzagged back and forth going ever higher until we were at the same level as the entryway to the Carnival Breeze. It was a hard climb for Shirley with her uncooperative back and knee.  She had brought her cane, but it wasn’t much help, I think.  We walked across a gangplank onto the ship to a chorus of “Welcome aboard!” greetings and into a room with deafening music and many chairs.  It was the Atrium of the Breeze, an open area extending from the third deck to the twelfth. We sat down to rest after the hour long boarding process.  Eventually we were told that our staterooms would not be available until 1:30, so we decided to go up to deck ten to the Lido Buffet and have lunch. 
    The last couple of years I have been on a fairly stringent diet.  I wear a Fitbit to keep track of my steps and monitor my calorie intake, but I left my Fitbit at home for this trip because I knew I would never stay within my guidelines.  I weighed the morning before we left, and I calculated I would gain a few pounds this week, but after getting back home, I’ll just have to go back to my normal regimentation and hopefully the excess will eventually go away.  That’s the plan, anyway. 
    So we had lunch in the Lido and relaxed a bit until nearly 2:00 p.m.  In the meantime, Jerry went to see the maitre’d in the main restaurant to see if he could sweet talk him/her into a reserved table for us.  At that moment we had “open dining,” which meant that we could go anytime we wanted for the evening meal, but it was first come, first served.  With “early dining,” you have a reserved time and even a reserved table every evening, so all you had to do is walk in and have a seat.  Jerry came back saying that he would know sometime tomorrow.   Anyway, we headed to our rooms.  We couples were four rooms apart: we were in stateroom 6279, and Bobbie and Jerry were in 6289.  We were neighbors.  
     Our luggage still hadn’t arrived to our rooms yet, so we took brief naps, since we were a little tired from the check in ordeal.  Our stateroom was the standard balcony stateroom.  We were on deck 6, the starboard side, so we could look over the city of Galveston while we waited to shove off from the dock.  Of course, before all this went down, we had to go through the obligatory emergency drill and preparation, which involved going to our designated lifeboat boarding area and reviewing the instructions for putting on a life jacket, etc. The term “calm and orderly evacuation” was used several times, but I really doubt that in a truly emergency situation there would be very much done in a “calm and orderly” fashion.  Just ask the folks on the Titanic.  
    Shortly after the training ended, we made our way back to our stateroom just in time to see that we were slowly moving away from the Galveston dock and easing our way toward the Houston Ship Channel.  Thirty minutes or so later we passed the last point of the south jetty of the channel.  I saw the spot where I caught my last 22-pound bull red when we church guys chartered a fishing expedition a few years ago.  And out to sea (or gulf) we went.

   About 6:30 I called Jerry, and we all made our way to the Sapphire Restaurant on decks three and four (the restaurant has two levels,) where Jerry and I got into a…um…discussion about early dining (reserved) and open dining (unreserved.)  I said something about that even if we got the early dining like he wanted, we may be in the same restaurant, just the upper level. I knew this because it said so on our Carnival app which I downloaded after we got on board.  Jerry said that was impossible because the only place for reserved seating was in the stern of the boat in the Blush Restaurant (can you believe that name?).  I (calmly) showed him the app, and he said he didn’t care what the app said; he knew it wasn’t right. He then said that since it was a sure thing and so it wouldn’t be like gambling,(!) he would bet me $5.00 he was right.  I graciously accepted, and then Jerry sealed his own fate by saying, “Let’s ask our waiter.”  He did.  I was right.  Justice had prevailed.  Since he is the head usher in our church and a man of impeccable reputation, I preserved his sterling image by not collecting my winnings and instead graciously forgave him his debt.  I may not let him forget it, though.
    In the spirit of tradition, I ordered my usual shrimp cocktail, flatiron steak, and melting chocolate cake.  It was…okay.  The cocktail consisted of five small shrimp, the steak was a little tough and, and the chocolate cake was somehow not as awe-inspiring as what I remembered.  The service was good, but the food was average at best.  Maybe it was just the first meal, and things will get better.  Anyway, by the time we finished we were all pretty well done for from the events of the day, so we said our good nights and headed to our rooms.  We finished putting away our clothing from our luggage and packed it in for the night.

Monday, September 11, 2017,  Sea Day #1

    As I’ve already mentioned, the Atrium of the Breeze is the open area extending from the third deck all the way to the twelfth deck. It glitters with glass elevators, flashy decorations, and overlooking balconies on each deck.  On the bottom (third) level (where we entered yesterday) is the entertainment area with open bar and loud music.  It’s a place to make boisterous merriment, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I mention this to get to the point that I learned that noise can come from not only your next-door neighbor, but from three decks down as well.  Our stateroom was just off the elevators on the sixth deck, and it was like we were sitting on one of the bar stools on the third deck.  The sounds of heavy music, laughter, yelling, and glasses tinkling pervaded our room until about midnight.  Fortunately it didn’t bother me.  Thanks to the magic of iPods and ear buds, I listened serenely to beautiful music and drifted off to sleep.  It was only between songs that I heard the dull rumblings of the invading racket.  Well, at least it always ended about midnight, and toward the end of the week they actually began having adult music performed, such as a string trio which played very serene music. It was okay.
    What was more troublesome were the heavy seas and headwinds we began to encounter during the night.  It’s hard to imagine how a ship of this size could squeak and groan as much as the Breeze did, but that was the case.  From the balcony came the sounds of whistling wind, clanging doors, and rattling whatevers.  By the time we awoke, the captain was on the intercom telling us we were feeling the after-effects of Hurricane Irma which was in the process of slamming into Florida.  As we headed up to deck ten for breakfast with the Stewarts, people everywhere were giving good impressions of a colony of drunks after a long night’s binge.  It took a little concentration to stand somewhat respectably and wait for the elevator, and as we walked I held Shirley’s hand, partly to help her but also to steady myself.
    After a good breakfast, we decided to visit the shops on the fifth deck.  On the port side of the shopping area are all the name brand shops with everything at full list price, so watches that sell at your local jeweler for $250 you can buy here for $399.  On the starboard side of the ship are the $10 tables (buy four, get the fourth one free.)  My kind of shopping.  The tee shirts and souvenirs are still too expensive, but from experience, those items tend to drop in price later in the cruise, so the first day out is not the best time to shop.
    Amazingly, when we returned to our stateroom we found a note under our door telling us that we had received Early (reserved) Dining.  We will be dining in the Blush Restaurant, third deck, at 6:00 p.m. and our table number is 549.  So we are set for evening dining. 
We also met our first of a series of little towel creatures the steward placed in our room every day.  After a couple of hours of writing on this report, I was told by Shirley that she wanted to go wandering around, so I shut down the computer (my old Sony VAIO laptop from 1998…about all it’s good for is Word writing.) and we headed down to deck three to see what’s to see.  Besides the two major restaurants, on deck three is the Ovation Theater where a hot bingo game was going on.  It was too late for us to join, so we moved up a notch to deck four.  Deck four is the photo gallery where you can pose in front of a myriad of backdrops with your current companion or buy the photos that the wandering photographers take of you during your cruise. Having already experience deck five, we skipped up to deck eleven, which basically surrounds the pool on deck ten along with its large outdoor video screen where evening movies and last night’s Monday Night football game with the Cowboys was shown.  I don’t even know who won as of this writing.  We decided to walk to the back…I mean stern…of the ship where we marveled at the wake the ship was leaving.  It was quieter there, since there was no loud music going on, but it was awash with jacuzzies, hot tubs, mini pools with mostly young people soaking and interacting.  I can only say that somewhere there should be an international law forbidding some…um…weight-challenged…people from wearing what passes for a bathing suit.  For every person who looked semi-acceptable in a bathing suit, there were ten poor souls who really needed to put on a robe.  Other than a great view of the ocean, there wasn’t much to appeal to the mature adult at the stern of this ship, so we moved on. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth decks of the ship are partial, forward decks where all the outdoor youth activities take place.  No interest to us…we skipped. Back to the stateroom.

    After relaxing a bit more, around 4:45 we began preparing for our new dining experience at the Blush Restaurant.  We sailed by the Stewart stateroom (four rooms away), picked them up, and headed for the Blush Restaurant on the third level.  Sure enough, although there was a line of people trying to get in, we passed them all up and walked to our reserved table and met our dining companions.  The tables were all set for eight souls, so we were curious who we would meet.  Jerry was hopeful it wasn’t a quartet of Black Panthers or some other group who felt they had been downtrodden and were out for retribution.  Fortunately, with the wisdom of the maitre’d evident, we were grouped with souls of like persuasion and equivalent age bracket, so we all got along famously.  
    Having been disappointed with the shrimp cocktail and flat iron steak from last night, I ordered as an appetizer fried oysters and as an entrée a ribeye steak with baked potato.  When the appetizer arrived, on the plate were TWO fried oysters…that’s it.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Only two oysters?  Mental note: tomorrow night, do not order the shrimp cocktail or oysters.  I was feeling a little down, to say the least.  However, when the ribeye arrived, I felt better.  Compared to the steak last night, it was at least flavorful and tender, and the baked potato was well dressed and tasty.  We were well served with bread, tea, and coffee.  I decided to give the melting chocolate dessert one more chance before I marked it off the list, and I’m glad I did.  This time it was very flavorful chocolate, hot, with two scoops of ice cream.  It was like how I remembered, so at least with this dinner I got two “satisfies” out of three.  Progress was being made.  Shortly before 8:00, we headed back to the stateroom, pleasantly full and ready to relax.  We were thankful that as we had sailed further south, the seas had started to quieten a bit, resulting in the ship pitching and yawing less, which made walking less of a challenge.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017,  Sea Day #2

    Well, nothing like being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by a phone call from the Guest Services department saying that we had an emergency message from Kimberly Downing.  I asked him to give us the message, and he said we would have to come to Guest Services to receive it…which raised the level of concern even higher.  We dressed in record time and imagined every terrible scenario that could have taken place as we made our way to the third deck and the service desk.  The desk person identified us and using his cell phone, dialed a code and then handed me the phone.  On the other end was our beloved daughter, Kim.  
     Kim cut to the chase immediately and said, “First of all, everyone in our family is OK.”   That was good news, but then I waited for the other shoe to drop.  She told me Buddy had passed out for some reason and fell, resulting in serious facial lacerations.  There was concern originally about possible cranial damage or heart problems, but the ensuing tests were all negative.  Apparently, this event took place on Sunday. Because of the original fear of brain damage or aneurysm, he was being kept in an unconscious, cooled-down state until a conclusion from the tests could be reached.  As of this writing, he is being prepped to regain consciousness in the next 24 hours.  We closed our conversation with Kim suggesting that we buy the internet package that Carnival offered to allow us to stay in contact. 
     I told the desk person that I wanted to purchase the internet plan, and I was surprised when he graciously offer to give us for no charge their best plan to allow us to keep in touch with the family back home..  Carnival made a lifelong friend out of me.  Within a few minutes I was receiving messages, and I sent a message to Jeannie.  She gave further details about Buddy’s fall and the stress of the last two days.  I will not retell the story on these pages, but it was clear that Buddy had a road to recovery that will take a while.  Fortunately, he has a large, strong family around him to offer all the support he will be needing.  
     By this time it was 7:30, so I called Jerry.  He had told me to call him whatever time I got up, but I don’t think he was expecting a call at 7:30 because he was still in bed.  Anyway, we and wives met a few minutes later at the Lido Restaurant and enjoyed a breakfast.  It was a lighter breakfast, since I had exceeded my daily capacity for food in the last couple of days.  I was a little uncomfortable trying to sleep last night due to my overindulgence at dinner last night, so I decided to try to control the eating a bit more today.  Coffee, roll, fruit…that was breakfast.  
     Afterward, Jerry and Bobbie headed off to some sort of trivia game, and we decided to try our hand at Bingo.  On our previous cruise we had played and had a good outcome, so the hook had already been set.  Down to deck three to the Ovation Room, and forty-five minutes later we left with a wonderful experience… but no winnings.  Oh, well, it had entertainment value.

     Back to the room.  The seas had really settled and we were actually cruising normally without having to hang onto railings, so maybe our unsteady sailing was over.  As I wrote this we had just passed the western tip of Cuba and were within a day’s distance from our first stop, Montego Bay, Jamaica.  We looked  forward to a tour of a city we have never visited.

    Around 12:30 we headed down to a new experience…eating at Guy’s Pig and Anchor Barbeque on deck five.  Turned out to be amazing barbeque.  While we sat on the outside deck and as we were getting ready to eat, we ran through a bit of a rain squall, so we escaped indoors where we discovered a coffee bar with Starbucks coffee.  After finishing off the barbeque, I got us a couple of coffees and the biggest slice of carrot cake I’ve ever seen.  It was loaded with icing, which Shirley doesn’t care for, so I happily took care of her rejected icing. (Sigh) So much food…so little time.

   Around 1:30, Shirley and I went to the Ovation Theater where a game of Clue was commencing.  This Clue game involved live characters, a murdered person, and an inspector who needed the audience’s help in solving the crime based on clues.  Sort of a humanized version of the old board game. Each “suspect” was questioned, and we listened to their alibis.  In the next couple of days, additional clues will be posted around the ship, and come Saturday, the person who guesses correctly who committed the crime, with what instrument, and where has the potential of winning $2,000.00.  Not too sure we’ll get involved, but watching the kickoff of the game was entertaining.

    About 3:15 I went to the tenth deck to listen to a guy play a guitar.  I am sure I have seen him on previous cruises because he sort of stands out amongst the herd.  He was from Fiji, went by the name Jerry and could sing any kind of rock and roll or country with an exact imitation of the voice of the original singer of each song.  The singing was pretty amazing…it’s not often you see an Asian from Fiji singing a Merle Haggard song as well as Merle himself, but it was his guitar skills that were amazing.  He played a hollow body cutaway folk style electrified guitar with a skill and entertainment quotient far higher than nearly any other guitarist I’ve ever heard.  It was totally entertaining for an hour, and the crowd got into it and enjoyed every minute. Near the end of his performance, he played an instrumental of “America, the Beautiful” that was a work of musical art.
    Back to the stateroom for an hour or so of rest, then at 5:55, we trotted by the Stewart homestead, and we all made our way back to the Blush Restaurant for our reserved table dining experience.  I enjoyed escargot in garlic butter, a Caesar salad, and grilled pork chop.  The pork chop was not as impressive as Perry’s massive pork chop, but it was good.  In fact, this was probably the best meal I’ve had so far, especially since it was topped off with (what else?) a melting chocolate cake with ice cream...although the chocolate cake wasn’t as good as last night.  Three nights of chocolate cake…I may have to try something different tomorrow night.
    By this time, we had gotten the message that Buddy was still holding his own and showing more awareness of his surroundings, so our prayers continue with him, Jeannie, and the family.  We have also received three calls from Guest Services asking if everything was under control back home, and did we need any additional help from Carnival.  Even though I answered “no” to the questions, we were told that if we needed to get off the boat in Galveston quickly after we arrived on Sunday, just to let them know and we would be allowed to get off first.  Pretty impressive.  Of course, I told Jerry of Carnival’s offer, and that we were considering taking advantage of the quick exit and that he and Bobbie may have to find their own way home.  But after a minute or so, I told him we would graciously wait for them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017, Jamaica

Hello, Jamaica!

We arrived in Jamaica this morning, but our tour did not begin until 11:30, so we had time for a more leisurely breakfast in the Lido Restaurant.  We decided to head on down to deck “O” for disembarkation and maybe do a little shopping or at least snooping around the stores before we headed out on the tour.  When we got to the tour gathering area, however, we were whisked away to the bus, and by 10:45 we were on the road..  Apparently, they had busses leaving every hour or so, and they just loaded up whoever was there and took off on an hourly basis.
    Our tour was “The 10 Best of Montego Bay,” a combination sightseeing and shopping tour.  We learned a lot about Jamaica, but I will not turn this blog into a history or geography lesson.  Suffice it to say we had a very entertaining, knowledgeable tour guide, and an excellent driver.  The excellent driver was critical, because the roads were crowded and narrow with honking cars and people wandering in all directions.  I have never heard such horn honking, not necessarily out of driver anger, but simply to warn the other  drivers that “here I come, ready or not.”  And here we (or they) came.  Spaces between cars were measured in inches, but somehow it all worked, and drivers took charge or yielded as the need arose.
     We drove through the old, narrow part of Montego Bay, very quaint, with its historic buildings, such as the 17th century jail for runaway slaves.  All of this contrasted with the newer parts of Montego Bay, where the celebrities had their villas.  All in all, Jamaica is a beautiful island, larger than I expected (200 miles long, 80 miles wide at its widest) with the type of weather your would expect…sunny and warm year round.
   The tour ended at the hot spot for drinkers…Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.  We did not enter, but the place was jumping.  We got to see some lovely sights…a corn-rowed scraggly dude smoking marijuana and actively hustling it to the tourists…. until he got stopped by the police.  Apparently, he saw them coming because they searched him thoroughly but found no pot, so they let him go with a warning.  Our bus tour guide said he is there every day selling pot and watching for the cops, but that he is a magician when it comes to hiding his stash. And if they can’t find it on his person, he can’t be charged.  The cops also stopped a couple of young…um…ladies who were also apparently selling more personal items, and to listen to them, you would have thought they were on their way to Sunday School.  They weren’t dressed for Sunday School, though.
   The crowning moment of the tour, though, was our 45 minutes spent in the Margaritaville vicinity, the end of which as we were loading, one of our young lady tourists was brought back to the bus stumbling drunk…in 45 minutes, no less.  As we continued our cruise, she began throwing up in a barf bag, conveniently given to her by our tour guide.  Fortunately, the drunk was sitting right in from of the tour guide, and the guide handled it very professionally.  With backup barf bags in one hand and the microphone in the other she continued her comments about the sights we were seeing.  Probably half of the people on the bus were never aware of the unfortunate girl.  The things I just mentioned sound a little negative, but the tour was actually very entertaining and informative.  Naturally the tour ended at the Shoppes at Rose Hall, the place to go when buying Jamaican souvenirs.
    Back to the boat about 4:40, just enough time to rest a little, and then prepare for dinner.  Picked up the Stewarts about 6:00 and we were shortly at our assigned table, ready to eat. Had the usual average steak and sides, and my melting chocolate cake for dessert.  I think that may be the last one.  It was good, but not great, and not near as good as even the one from last night.  Tomorrow night I go into new dessert territory and try something else.
    Afterward, we decided to go to a piano bar on the fifth deck, primarily because next to it was a Starbucks.  We enjoyed good coffee and visited, while the girl singer on the stage tried to channel Patsy Cline.  She had a way to go.
     After this, we had to walk through the casino to get back to the forward part of the ship and our rooms.  Jerry mentioned he had never won anything, and I tried to get him to try his luck.  He had said before the cruise that he was going to bring 100 pennies and if he lost those, he was going to quit.  I told him the penny machines are not really penny machines but you play a quarter, 40 cents or whatever on each pull.  Too rich for his blood, he said.  But then he goaded me to try my luck, so I put in two dollars….and won $42.00 in about 45 seconds.  Jerry could not believe it, and of course I attributed it to clean living…. but I quit while I was ahead.  Anyway, we left with Jerry mumbling about how lucky I was.  I have to admit, I have brought up the subject a couple of times since then.
    Back to our rooms about 9:00 with Grand Cayman Island on the morning horizon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017, Grand Cayman

    Today, Shirley and I had to be in the Ovation Theater at 7:30 for our tour, so we were up early for a quick breakfast, then on our way.  Walking into the theater about 7:10, the guide led us to the elevators, down to deck “O” to be loaded into tenders for the trip to the shore.  Grand Cayman does not have a port for cruise liners, so everyone must take a tender, a smaller ship with a capacity of about 200 persons from the cruise ship to the docks.  We did so, and quickly hooked up with our tour company, the “Amphibious Bus Land and Sea Adventure.”
    We have ridden “ducks” before in Branson and Galveston. Ducks are military surplus amphibious assault vehicles which have been converted to private use by various tour agencies.  This vehicle we were to ride in today looked like a bus except it was equipped for traversing water also.  Much more comfortable than the old ducks, with video cameras, and covered roof, the vehicle was like nothing I had ever seen.  But off we went, first through the (as usual) narrow streets of George Town, and then when the opportunity arose near a boat launching area, driving into the water with a great splash.  The diesel engine fired up, the props begin whirring, and we were on our way into some of the most pristine, clear waters I had ever seen.  We cruised over a couple of shipwrecks, clearly visible on the TV monitors and also by simply looking over the edge.  In a while, we stopped and began throwing bread upon the water, and it created a feeding frenzy of fish as they came from everywhere for the bread morsels.  I got the feeling they had been fed like this before.  The largest fish we saw was a five-foot barracuda, and we saw it as we were driving out of the water near the docks.  The big critter was no more than ten feet away from the shoreline.
    From the water, we motored up the road to the world famous Seven Mile Beach, a strip of white powdery sand with upscale hotels.  We parked at one of them and were given 45 minutes to roam around, but to be honest, there were no shopping areas, only drinking areas, so I went to the beach, took a couple of photos, and Shirley and I stayed in the bus.  About 11:00 Shirley and I caught the tender back to the boat.  We rested for awhile, and then up to Lido for lunch where in a few minutes Bobbie and Jerry showed up.  The early afternoon, I rested.  Shirley went wandering around somewhere, but we both just sort of chilled out for the afternoon.
    Back to the Blush Restaurant (formal, dress up night tonight.) I ordered soup, filet mignon and spare rib with green beans and potatoes, and….no, I did not get a melting chocolate cake…I got some sort of rich chocolate layer cake with a cream sauce.  The filet was good, not awesome, but the dessert was very good.

Friday, September 15, 2017,  Cozumel

    Our tour didn’t start until 1:00 p.m. today, so we had a leisurely breakfast in the Lido from about 9:00-10:00.  The Breeze wasn’t due into Cozumel until 10:00, so about the time we sat down for breakfast, we nudged up against the dock.  I think I like leaving for tours a little later, because the moment the ship touched a dock, the majority of the passengers flooded the elevators to get to deck “O” for disembarkation.  With a later tour time, the mad rush to vacate the premises is over, and we could take a civilized process to exit the boat.
    We did so about 12:15, walking down the (really) long dock to the terminal, which by the way forces entering passengers to walk through the liquor store, souvenir store, perfume store, and whatever else they can think to sell you before they let you out into the countryside.  Coming back is the same way; they take one last crack at you as you board the boat, forcing you to walk through all the shops.
   Anyway, our tour today was the Deluxe Beach, Catamaran, Sail, and Snorkel Tour.  We boarded a 65-foot catamaran that very soon was jammed with fellow swimmers/snorkelers.  We left port and set sail down the coast about five miles to an area not far off the beach.  We were told the water had 70 feet visibility, lots of fish, and beautiful coral.  Shirley chose not to participate, primarily because we were required to walk down a ladder and jump in, but more importantly, climb up onto the ladder and step out when the time came to exit the water.  She did not think she could make the climb.  I was ready to snorkel, however.  The last time I snorkeled was in Hawai’i in 2011, and I enjoy it.
   Into the water I went, along with the rest of the boat’s mob.  It wasn’t perfect snorkeling for several reasons:  We were restricted to a certain area which was too small for the number of people, and as a result it was difficult to snorkel more than ten feet without running into someone.  The water was clear, but the coral was dead rock…very little live coral was seen, and that goes for the fish also.  I may have seen a fish or two, but I’m not sure.  That may have been my fault; I, of course, snorkeled without my glasses, and my vision is somewhat limited without them (an understatement.)  Fortunately, I had my GoPro camera with me, so when I view my video, I’ll know better if there were fish in the waters or not. 
But at the time I saw nada.  When I snorkeled in Hawai’i in 2011, I had prescription goggles, which are wonderful for the visually challenged.  The last think about the snorkeling was…I ran out of gas after about 20 minutes.  I had to keep kicking to avoid other snorkelers and to keep even with the boat due to a slight current pulling us away from the boat.  We had been scheduled to be there for 45 minutes, but I was done in short order.  Came out of the water and sat by Shirley.  It wasn’t a lost cause; the weather was beautiful, and the scenery was lovely.  After all, it WAS Cozumel. 
     We hoisted our sails and weighed anchor at the scheduled time and headed to our next spot, a beach set up for the fun times: beach volleyball, kayaks, floats, hammocks, chairs/umbrellas, unlimited/open bar (we didn’t do that one), and places just to sit and relax.  The beach was lovely white sand with gentle waves.  Shirley and I both enjoyed the water and floated, swam, sat, dug for shells, and enjoyed the ambience of the areas for most of our hour and fifteen minutes there. The weather and temperature were ideal.  It was a nice time. The most interesting sideline to this part of the adventure was that as we approached the beach to unload, the captain asked everyone to go to the front of the boat.  That in turn raised the propellers in the rear and allowed then to remain unstuck as he ran the ship as far onto the shore as it would go.  We exited down the same stairs we snorkeled from to get to the beach.  When we left, we did the reverse…everyone to the front of the boat, he put the engines into reverse and the props pulled us off the sand as smooth as you can imagine.  About 4:30 though, the sails went up again (literally) and off we went back to the Breeze.  It was a beautiful sailing day.
     We got back to the docks about 5:15, and with the deadline to return to the boat was 5:30, we had no time to shop.  But we dutifully walked through all the stores headed back to the ship.  As soon as we exited the stores, however, we still had a long walk to the ship, so I dealt with one of the local “transporters,” these guys who have a bicycle with two wheels in back with two side by side seats.  We climbed aboard and were whisked to the gangplank in no time and zipped through check in with no problems.
     By this time it was 5:35, and our dinner time is 6:00.  We were both salty and hot, so we had to freshen up before dinner.  I called Jerry and they had the same dilemma from their tour.  So we told them we would meet them at our assigned table.  As we were walking by their room, however, out they came, so other than being about 15 minutes late, we made it to dinner.
    Tonight it was roasted meatballs as an appetizer, fried, crusted Portobello mushrooms with vegetable sides, and cheese cake.  The mushrooms did not look impressive when delivered, but were actually pretty tasty.  The cheesecake was so-so.   We had a good dinner and visit, and afterward, Jerry felt the need for popcorn, so we went to the tenth deck where popcorn is distributed, and he and Shirley got their popcorn.  I eat popcorn occasionally, but there are other foods that attract me more.
    Since we were all pretty well famished from the day’s activities, we said our goodbyes about 8:30 and went to our staterooms to collapse for the night.  A good day.

Saturday, September 16, 2017,  Sea Day

     I think all of us were worn from yesterday’s activities, because we didn’t begin to stir until after 8:00   We decided that since this was the last full day of our cruise, we would enjoy a nice, sit-down, order-from-the-menu breakfast in the Blush Restaurant (where we have our evening meals) instead of the buffet in the Lido. 
    So down to deck three we went.  We did not have a reserved table for breakfast, but the line went quickly and we were soon entabled not too far from where our normal evening dining spot was.  So we felt at home.  We even had the same waitress and waiter.  They apparently work long hours.  Much more high-class menu than the generic stuff at the Lido.  I enjoyed eggs Benedict with sausage links, cinnamon rolls, and chocolate pancakes. Plenty of coffee, orange juice, and pineapple juice. It was very nice.  We even had a table-hopping magician visit and dazzle us with his tricks.  He really was pretty good.  We chatted and sipped coffee for over an hour, thoroughly enjoying the ambience and the company of our friends, the Stewarts.  I would tell you how I felt about Jerry Stewart, but I know he will read this sooner or later, so I will say simply he’s a great guy (choke.) Let’s just say he is married to a VERY patient, understanding, and wonderful woman. I’ve never heard her raise her voice…. I doubt if Jerry can say that.
    Since this is the last full day of travel, all the stores on the ship had their clearance sales going full blast, so we had to at least look the merchandise over.  Naturally, I had to buy a couple of tee shirts for posterity’s sake.  They had flashy watches 2 for $30.00, but I must be getting really cheap, because I didn’t buy any.  I still had my watches from the last cruise, so I couldn’t justify shelling out even fifteen bucks for another watch.  I’ve become MUCH more discriminating.
    Somewhere along the way we lost the Stewarts, so Shirley and I went to the Promenade Deck (5th) and sat out under an umbrella and absorbed the scenery. It’s very tranquil to watch the sea slowly slide by, especially on a calm day when there is absolute no ship rocking at all.  It’s like sitting at an oceanside hotel.
    At 11:00 we went to the Ovation Theater where we had a thirty-minute briefing about debarkation procedures for tomorrow.  The process was pretty routine for cruise debarkationers, since everyone was scheduled at various times to disembark, starting around 8:30.  Our time to disembark was 11:15, which was a little late, but at the same time gave us an opportunity to get one more breakfast in before we had to go back into the world.
    After the briefing, we went back to our stateroom.  Shirley’s back and leg were still bothering her, and she needed to get off her feet.  While she read, I sadly pulled out the suitcase and began packing items for our exit tomorrow.  We had to have our luggage packed and outside our stateroom door that night between 7:30 and 10:00 for it to be carried down to the receiving room inside the terminal,  Saves a lot of luggage lugging, but you’ve got to plan for what you’re going to wear the next day and pack accordingly.
     About 1:00 Shirley got a hankering for something to drink, so we went up to the Lido.  Naturally you can’t drink tea or whatever without something to go with it, so we went through the “sweets” line and picked up a few morsels of sugary stuff.  With a little coffee to finish it off, we sat and consumed a day’s worth of calories, probably, but it was good.  Back to the room to continue packing
    By the time 5:15 or so rolled around, we had enjoyed a nap, did a little reading, and gotten most of the packing done.  We readied ourselves for the evening dinner and promptly at 6:00 we picked up the Stewarts and headed to our final cruise dinner together.  Tonight I had baked onion soup, cornmeal crusted chicken breast with broccoli, and cherry pie and ice cream.  For once, it was all very tasty.  Shirley had tiger shrimp creole which was apparently very good, also, according to Shirley.  We finished and, since this was the last night, we drifted by the den of iniquity (casino), if for no other reason than to cash in our winnings, modest though they be.  I maintained my record of having never lost.
    Back to the room to finalize our packing and place our luggage outside our door.  As I mentioned earlier, we would not see it again until we got into the terminal in Galveston, and by 9:30 our luggage had disappeared en route to its final destination.  We were hoping for a happy reunion with our luggage tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017,  Return to Galveston
    Woke up this morning about 5:30, just in time to see our Carnival Breeze being gently pushed into her dock.  Needless to say, it was not time to get up, since debarkation did not begin until 8:30.  So it was back to bed for me.  Around 7:00 we began to stir and prepare for our saying goodbye to our cruise vacation.  To unload 4,100 passengers in the most organized fashion, Carnival assigns debarking times by the same zone number that our luggage will be placed in the terminal. In the terminal, the luggage area is divided into zones, and your luggage is placed in an assigned zone.  Our debarking number was the same as our luggage zone…29.  Since there were only 32 zones, it meant that we would be some of the last people off the boat, but the good side of that situation was we would have time for one more hearty breakfast in the Lido restaurant.
    We had to be out of our room, though, by 8:30.  At that time all passengers had to go to a waiting area, breakfast, or somewhere to await the crew calling their zone numbers, at which time passengers could make their way to deck three and the gangplank. So to the Lido we went, which was abuzz with last minute activity, but we were able to find a table, and indulge in another great breakfast.  I’ve learned to like eggs benedict, especially with sausage, potatoes, pancakes, toast, etc.…you get the picture.  It’s going to be starvation city when we get home.
    Our estimated departure time was 11:15; however, everything went much quicker than planned, and by 10:30 we were headed down to deck three.  We flashed our Carnival cards one more time as we walked onto the three-story high gangplank, which zigged and zagged until we were down on the ground floor.  Apparently, the big thing as of this cruise was the lack of having to make any sort of declaration to customs upon leaving the ship.  We just walked over to where our luggage was, picked it up and walked out the door.
    Then, of course, the fun began, as one had to haul the luggage about half a block to where the buses were picking up passengers to take them to their cars.  Since there were 4,100 people trying to get to cars, there was a bit of a line.  Actually, it did not take too long; in probably 30 minutes, we were loaded aboard and taken to parking lot number two, where our Sorento stood out all alone because all its neighbors had already headed home.  We loaded up and shortly were approaching the onramp to IH45…and that’s where we stopped.
    Bumper to bumper as far as you could see.  It took us almost an hour to get over the Galveston causeway bridge, and over an hour to get to exit ten, where we had decided to stop at McDonalds for a pit stop.  Inside there were about a hundred people, so we decided to press on.  To make a long story short, it took us nearly three hours to get to Lupe Tortillas just south of FM1960 on IH45.  Turned out there was road construction and one lane traffic for several miles.  It had traffic backed up clear back to Galveston.
    The Stewarts and the Downing had their last meal together…Tex-Mex, which folks on Carnival Lines ships do not know how to make.  I’m not that crazy about Mexican food, but my three companions ate like it was their first meal of the week.  Give me steak or seafood any day.
    By the time we dropped off the Stewarts at their home, it was after 1:30, and it was after 2:00 by the time we rolled into our driveway. It was good to be home, but it had been a great cruise.
    In summary, if I had to give a grade on every facet of the cruise, I would give top marks on everything except one area.  The ship was beautiful, and the entertainment was great. The service, be it our cabin steward or restaurant wait staff, was exemplary, and the staff’s concern for us when we received the emergency call was beyond the call of duty.  The excursions we took were interesting and enjoyable, and our stateroom was comfortable and quiet (well, mostly.)  The only area where Carnival fell down was the quality of the food.  This is our third cruise with Carnival, and we have ridden three different ships.  Previously, the quality of the food could be ranked with any fine restaurant in Houston, but now the food service has been “Americanized.” (In Jerry’s words) No table cloths on the tables except on formal nights.  One set of silverware (one fork, one knife…NO spoon unless your food choice required one.)  The steaks I had were fair to good…not great.  Good flavor but tough, or tender and flat tasting.  Even the servings of sides and appetizers were marginal because they were really small….the two fried oysters as an appetizer were the perfect example.  I don’t expect an appetizer to be a full meal, but that’s representative of the size of offerings.  In general, the food was average…edible, but you didn’t take a bite and say “Wow! That’s good!”
    Everything else was very wonderful; however, I’ll admit my own bed at home really felt good that Sunday evening when I crawled between the sheets.  Will we take another cruise?   Let’s see…I have a break in my work in May…..

No Matter Who Won...We Lost

   By the time this little essay gets published, the 2016 U.S. presidential election will have been decided, and half of the country will be elated while the other half will be dismayed.  Peace and prosperity…or apocalyptic doom…will be the mantra for the day depending on one’s political outlook.  The truth of the matter, however, is that no matter who has won, we citizens of this great nation have lost.  The choices we had in our quest for a new leader were abysmal, to say the least.
    Donald Trump, the standard bearer for the Republican Party, proved to be the ultimate carnival huckster…a re-embodiment of the notorious used car salesman we all dread to come across.  Promising the moon to weary Americans, he even drew the enthusiastic support of allegedly religious conservatives, who tossed their own apparently not very deep convictions aside in order to support “anyone but Hillary.”  Trump embraced the evangelicals with the all the sincerity of a poker player, while they blindly ignored the facts that Trump has never seen a reason to repent about anything, has never felt a need for a relationship with a supreme being, has always been extremely liberal in his approach to social issues (“Katlyn Jennings can use whichever bathroom she wants in my building!”), and considers marriage vows to be like any other contract to be broken at will.  An equal opportunity insulter, he was able singlehandedly to lower the political discussion in the United States to a fifth-grade level…except fifth graders don’t usually get up at 3:00 a.m. and tweet insults to their enemies.  You have to wonder what Trump would do if early one morning about 3:00 a.m. Russia’s Putin were to tweet a derisive comment about the United States.  Would Trump lob an insult back to Putin…or a missile?
    If a potential voter was repulsed by the likes of Donald Trump, he or she was left with a single choice.  I know there were third and fourth party candidates who were playing the game, but their possibilities and probabilities in achieving the presidency were far less than remote.  Like it or not, the United States political machinery runs on a two-party system.  So we were left with Hillary Rodham Clinton.  One fact I found interesting about Clinton:  Though she has been reviled by religious conservatives, she personally is deeply religious.  Few know that she receives daily Bible readings from her pastor, attends church on a regular basis, and can quote scriptures probably far better than some of those Pharisees who are throwing stones.  The difference with her is that she considers religion a personal matter and does not use it as a political weapon to gain votes.  All of these items make no difference to the anti-Clintonites, however.  Because she openly accepts alternate lifestyles, embraces the liberal social agenda, and dares to suggest that the country should insure that gun owners are responsible American citizens, she is a far-left wing, gun grabbing liberal, and that’s that.
But Clinton’s Achilles tendon is that she is the consummate politician, with one hand in the governmental money jar and the other outstretched to whoever wishes a favor to be done.  The last thirty years of the Clinton family history has been one of financial scandal, and they have spent countless hours and fortunes putting out legal and moral fires of their own making.  The Clinton Foundation, an organization which has done a great deal of good around the world, has become the latest source of embarrassment because of the Clintons’ penchant for taking more than their fair share.  Couple this fact with the other Clinton penchant for peddling their influence to the highest bidder, and what one has created is a recipe for scandal.  The Clintons have baked this cake over and over. 
    The canvas that covers this whole pile of political scandal (and probably acerbates it) is the Clinton’s obsession with privacy.  Faced with a prickly situation or caught in an uncompromising act, the kneejerk reaction for the Clintons is to throw up a cloud of lies to wiggle out of the situation.   When it became clear she was carelessly using her computer and private email account, rather than admit to the error and correcting the problem, she swore that no messages she transmitted or received contained classified information, and continued to state the same line even after the real facts were exposed.  In that vein, Trump and Clinton are similar…neither can admit a mistake.  Thus, we can look forward to a litany of litigation in the coming months.  Should Trump become president, he has already stated he is going after Hillary Clinton and whomever else he considers enemies.  Should Clinton become president, it will the Bill Clinton Presidency, Part II, as she defends her foundation shenanigans while trying to serve the office of the presidency.

    However, if there is any saving grace to this sordid election campaign, it is that equally divisive political wars have been waged in the past, and somehow America has survived.  I am convinced we are still the greatest nation on the planet, Trump’s opinion notwithstanding.  Once the political dust has settled and the victor has moved into the oval office,  we citizenry can only hope and pray that a wave of civility and common sense will sweep the country, and that…in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln…”this government, of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Missouri

Noel, the good days
    Southwest Missouri has always been a sentimental vacationing grounds for the Downing family.  I guess it is because in the early nineteenth century my great grandparents and earlier generations of Downings lived in the area.  My great grandfather was a circuit minister who traveled the area by horseback preaching in various small congregations, eventually building a small country church just outside Noel, Missouri.  Noel in later years, due to its scenic location and the picturesque Elk River meandering through the town, became a vacationing spot for many, until the main highway was rerouted around the city, and the tourist industry vanished.  Around 100 years ago, my grandparents moved for an undisclosed reason to Western Oklahoma, near Mangum, Granite, and Altus, Oklahoma, where they were able to operate a farm and help feed their fifteen children.  My dad was the fourteenth child born to the family and the first (I think) born in Oklahoma, but he always stayed aware of his roots in Southwestern Missouri. 
    When I was around seven years of age, my dad decided to go back to Noel, Missouri, to retrace his ancestry, thus beginning a long Downing tradition.  We were able to locate the grave of his grandfather (my great grandfather, the preacher) and several other early ancestors.  Much to his delight, he found cousins he had lost track of and met people in stores who actually remembered his father and grandfather.  For the better part of 30 years, a couple of weeks per year were spent in Noel, Missouri.  It was heaven on earth for us kids (read my blog “Paradise Revisited…Noel, Missouri.”)  It was heaven enough that Noel, Missouri, was where Shirley and I spent our honeymoon.
    To fast forward to the present, my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Leroy, have lived in Grove, Oklahoma for several years.  Grove is only twenty miles or so from Noel, but it’s a different world.  Where Noel is gifted with the Ozark hills, Grove is relatively flat farm land…not nearly as scenic as Noel, but a more bustling community situated on the banks of the Lake of the Cherokees.  Kathy and Leroy have yearned for a little more breathing space for gardening and whatever and a few months ago purchased a five-acre plot of land in Anderson, Missouri.  Situated about ten miles north of Noel, Anderson, like Noel, is not far from Elk River and benefits from the Ozark hills ambience.  Although the property was a little neglected when they moved in, it is now a showplace of neatness and organization thanks to their hard work and meticulousness.
    Shirley and I, along with my two other sisters, Mary and Judy, made our annual trek to visit our distant relatives in June, and learned that when Kathy and Leroy say they are “away from it all,” they really mean it.  Had we not had an up to date GPS, we probably would still be looking for their home.  As we approached Anderson from the east on Missouri 76, we turned right onto a narrow asphalt road which quickly became a dirt (actually, mostly rock) road which in a couple of miles and a couple of turns became what appeared to be a single lane rocky driveway.  My GPS said keep going, so we did, and in a half mile or so, in the midst of rocky, wooded, and overgrown terrain we came upon a plot of ground that was neatly mowed, trimmed, and accentuated with bordered trees, a garden, and a neat home.  “Knowing Leroy and Kathy, this has got to be the place,” we said, and we were right.
     For the next few days, to be totally honest, we did very little except visit, eat, drink coffee, hit antique stores, and hibernate, so this little essay is not about all the wild things we did on our visit.  In fact, I am sure that if anyone under the age of 50 reads this, he or she will instantly think, “These poor people have no lives!  They didn’t do anything exciting, active, or fun!”   Au contraire, my hyperactive friend.
     One of the first things that Leroy built after moving onto the property was an approximately 50’x15’ porch attached to the home facing the evening sun (sunsets, you know) and overlooking a majority of the property.  Although approximately half the property has not been cleared yet, what is cleared is beautifully maintained with an abundance of deer, rabbits, and other creatures which we saw only occasionally.  What strikes you first upon sitting in the comfortable porch furniture and looking over the landscape is the total lack of any sound of civilization.  The noisiest sounds come from the hummingbirds which dine at the several bird feeders Kathy has placed along the porch’s edge. The other birds sort of chime in when the urge hits them, but if there is no breeze blowing, bird noises are the ONLY sounds to be heard.  The nearest neighbor is down the road and completely out of sight; yet when a neighbor kid hollers, he/she can be faintly heard from Kathy and Leroy’s porch.  Well, we did hear one more sound...occasionally off in the distance we would hear the braying sound of an upset mule.
    One evening, in the depths of our relaxation (or stupor, the youngsters may assert), we noticed a spider busily building a web on one of the porch’s posts.  It became fascinating to watch this little creature spinning string after string of webbing to create his trap for some poor, unsuspecting gnat or insect.  All the evening hours as we visited, Mr. Spider worked feverishly, never resting, and as we retired for the night, he was still working frantically.  The next morning, believe it or not, we checked on him, and his web was complete, and he was resting comfortably (probably from exhaustion), no doubt satisfied with his night’s work.  I could not help but comment how that little spider was indicative of the instinct that is in every creature to survive.  A great majority of the youngsters of today with their electronic gadgetry and tendency to panic if they are not “connected” are missing out on the lessons of the world around them, and their negligence will be their loss.  But I digress.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-electronic. We travel by GPS and I have a dash cam in my car, and while we were visiting I was frustrated with limited phone service and dutifully packed my tablet…and in my heart thanked Kathy and Leroy for having good internet access through their cable modem.  However, I found out after a couple of days, the fact that I didn’t know what was happening around the world every five minutes seemed less stressful, and the fact that I was missing phone calls…mildly concerning but not a reason for panic.  Truth be told, it was a good place to lower your blood pressure.
    Not being one to rest on his laurels, Leroy put in a garden (see photo below) which was still in its embryonic stage, but we still enjoyed lettuce, strawberries, and whatever else.  In a few weeks all their friends and neighbors will be avoiding Leroy and Kathy because they will be flooding them with surplus vegetables and fruits.   Wish we lived next door.
    The weather turned hot, and the early evening sun made sitting on the porch a little warmer than desired, but about sunset, the western sky would turn aflame with a palette of colors.  The cool of the evening would see us drifting back to the porch, coffee in hand, to enjoy another evening of camaraderie and remembrance.  In time darkness would set in, and the sky would become “a thousand points of light,” as some famous politician once said.  The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they ain’t bad in Southwestern Missouri.  We would visit and talk until bedtime, and then the next morning the cycle would begin again when, by the time 6:00 a.m. rolled around, coffee was already on and the birds were a-twittering.
    Just as an aside, my sister, Mary, is a cat lover (choke.)  No, more than that…she seeks out cats to pet them, coddle them, feed them.  Well, Kathy and Leroy have this old tom cat which I’m sure thought he had died and gone to heaven when Mary came along.  Mary latched onto him, snuck him food, held him, caressed him to the point that his purr sounded like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at idle.  In gratitude, the old cat would bring Mary an occasional dead (or barely alive) mouse to share with her.  No doubt the cat was disappointed with Mary’s response, but continued to bring mice to the porch to share with whoever desired a fresh entree.  If there were no takers (and there weren’t) he would eat them himself.  But we had our chance.
   The only downside to the whole trip was when we took our annual pilgrimage to Noel.  Because of the memories there, anytime I am in driving range I have to go back and at least drive through the little village and reminisce of days gone by.  Regrettably, the Noel of my youth is gone.  Our government has deemed it a good place to transplant refugee Somalians, so now on the streets of Noel, one can see women shrouded in yards of cloth, and it is possible to eat at a “genuine African cuisine” restaurant.  Years ago Tyson Foods (the chicken people) built large chicken processing plants in Noel and began importing many people whose citizenships were in question, and so now the home town, relaxed, Americana of Noel is gone.  Sad.  But the memories of yesteryear still remain as fresh as ever. 
    It is probably good that we headed back to Houston when we did.  Kathy had told us we could stay as long as we wished, and I was drifting toward seriously considering the proposal.  I decided, however, not to mess up a good thing and remembered the axiom…” Leave before they want you to go… not after they want you to go.”   We said our goodbyes and made our promises to visit again next year.  All in all, a trip almost devoid of activity…but crammed with loads of relaxation.  Isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to be?
Leroy and Kathy Boatright
The Porch
The Garden