Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Sounds of a Steel Drum Christmas

I would like to admit up front that Christmas is hands down, the best holiday of the year. While others dread the shopping, music, and enormous amounts of weight gain, I welcome it…all of it. Every year, our family celebrates the normal traditions by getting together, opening gifts, eating great food, and watching our all-time favorite Christmas movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I have quite a few fond memories that I’ll always keep tucked away; however, one year in particular sticks out in my mind.

In 2007, my family and I decided to take a cruise at the beginning of December. We’ve always been a family of summer vacationers; however, that year, we decided to spice it up a bit and enjoy the warm climate at a time when everyone else we knew would be fighting the bitter cold.

I have to tell you…there’s nothing like cruising through the Caribbean and enjoying the hot sun in December. To see a cruise ship decked out in Christmas décor and hearing Christmas music being played…there’s just no better time to cruise if you ask me.  Our cruise ship was adorned with tall Christmas trees, lights, and garland; guests truly felt the holiday spirit when coming aboard. 

Enjoying the fact that I could slip into my bathing suit and bask in the sun, in the middle of December, I was anxious to arrive in our specified ports. I wanted to see just how countries in the Caribbean celebrated the holiday season.

One of the ports was St. Thomas. Having visited this beautiful island before, we knew what to expect. However, to see it decorated with Christmas trees, lights, and being able to watch school children dance and sing in the town’s center, it was quite a sight.

Megan's Bay in St. Thomas
We visited Megan’s Bay, as always, and enjoyed the hot sand and amazing view. I made sure to keep in the Christmas spirit by incorporating Christmas songs on my iPod. Listening to Bing Crosby and some of course, some Jimmy Buffett holiday music was just what I needed to relax and enjoy my visit to the Caribbean.

After spending most of our day on the beach, we found ourselves walking through the shopping square that was settled conveniently right outside the docking area of our boat. Dozens upon dozens of shops were open and available for tourists to open their wallets and pour out the money inside.
Overlooking St. Thomas

Since I wasn’t planning on buying everyone’s Christmas presents there in St. Thomas, I chose to keep my money tightly secured in my bag. However, a few little knick knacks came home with me, but no major spending on my part. This was one of those trips that simply walking around and admiring the sights and the locals were enough for me.

My thoughts were quite similar when we reached the island of St. Maarten. As soon as our boat docked, we were already dressed and ready to go with our swimsuits on and clothes to cover. The island itself was breathtaking, with sailboats, yachts, crystal blue waters, and homes that sat along the shoreline. This place was the epitome of the care-free lifestyle that so many of us wish we could have.

Just imagine…walking out onto your patio and looking out onto an ocean that goes for miles, water that allows you to see straight to the bottom, boats coasting up and down the shoreline with relaxed travelers aboard; it would be Heaven.

My sister and I on the ferry

The ferry ride over to the French capital of Marigot allowed us to take in the sights of the island. It was agreed that if we were to ever win the lottery, not only would we buy a vacation home there, but another definite purchase would be one of the dozens and dozens of yachts that sit near the shore. Hmm…talk about the good life, huh?

Arriving at the island, we walked over a wooden walkway and into a quaint, little shopping area; one full of small outside diners and open markets. Cats walked up and down the market area, laying in the sun and enjoying the relaxed lifestyle that only an island in the Caribbean could give. Of course, if you’re a cat, you’re lifestyle is pretty laid back as it is.

After spending the afternoon in the city, we decided to grab some lunch. Luckily for us, the beach that we planned on spending the rest of our afternoon on was only a short distance away from various restaurants and more open markets (imagine that?)

My family at a dockside restaurant
Sitting at a little dockside restaurant, we waited for the deliciously good hamburgers to arrive. Not only did the outside table provide the perfect setting for an afternoon lunch, but the sun, the music, and of course, the view of the ocean only made it better.

Filling our bellies with food, the only thing that sounded good was chilling out and relaxing on the beach. Opting for the side of the island that allowed for tourists to keep their clothes on, we headed down to the warm sand and grabbed up a few lounge chairs. Throwing down my towel, I stripped down to my bathing suit and lathered on my lotion.

“Now this is how I could spend my Christmases from now on,” I leaned over to tell my sister.

“Agreed,” she replied back.

The beach we lounged on in St. Maarten
Laying there with the most perfect view, I relaxed back into my lounge chair and took in the beauty that is St. Maarten. Out of all of the islands I have ever visited in the Caribbean, St. Maarten has to be one of my ultimate favorites. It is quite hard to beat St. Thomas, but it ranks pretty high up there, if I’m being honest.

Locals walked up and down the length of the beach trying to sell homemade jewelry; one of which convinced my mom to buy a bracelet. My mom is such a sucker for that kind of stuff. I have to say, it was quite beautiful.

My sister and I swimming
Never wanting to leave the beauty that, that one particular beach in St. Maarten provided us; it was now time for us to head back to our cruise ship and bid farewell to the island. Begrudgingly, we walked along the soft, warm sand, and made our way towards a small boat that took us back to our cruise ship. Boarding the boat, we were greeted with the sounds of steel drum music; a sound that was heavenly to hear as it played to the tune of Christmas songs.

I remember sitting down, closing my eyes, and tilting my head back in an attempt to soak in the sounds of this unique and definitely favorable Christmas music. I immediately wanted to find out how I could get a CD with that kind of Christmas music. I may live in Arkansas but the sounds of the Caribbean could come with me and keep me company for any future holiday.

Unfortunately, I could not find what I was looking for, but in my mind, I can still hear the sounds of those steel drums and even though I’m in Arkansas and bearing the cold, I just close my eyes and I’m back in St. Maarten, enjoying the sun, the sand, and the steel drum bands.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ways to Make Your Super Shuttle Driver Mad

Coming from the south, I tend to have a bit more patience than those living in the north. Not that having loads of patience is a great thing, but I’m a firm believer that everyone should have at least some. Well, that was most certainly not a trait that one New York City man obtained. No, this man seemed a bit more easily agitated, not one for lateness, and most of all…downright rude.

While my sister was living in New York, I went to visit her during the Christmas holiday season. Never having been to New York at Christmas, I was in complete awe of the city and its vast array of decorations. Not only was Saks lit up with lights, but Macy’s in Herald Square, donned window-to-window scenes of Miracle on 34th Street. The Empire State Building lit up in green and red and to top it all off, there is nothing like seeing the granddaddy of all trees, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

Going into the city, my sister invited her best friend Erica, to join us for a day of shopping and sightseeing. Erica lived outside of Manhattan, so we met her at Grand Central that morning. Our day was full of shops, sights, and belly-aching laughs due to certain events that occurred throughout the day. 

You see, there was a certain little burger joint that Erica was just dying to visit so, my sister and I decided that a burger sounded pretty good and we made our way towards the “restaurant.” I won’t mention the name but I will say that Sarah Jessica Parker once visited this hot spot and claimed to have loved their burgers. Well, Sarah Jessica Parker must have horrible taste because the moment we stepped into the burger joint, I was ready to leave.

Sitting down, I felt as if I was crammed in like a sardine, unable to move. I was afraid I might need an oil can to help me get out of my seat. Of course, the seating was only the beginning of what would be one of the worst and one of the most hilarious moments of my time spent in New York. Ordering our burgers, I was prepping myself for the most delicious, juicy, monstrous burger one could imagine. Imagine my disappointment when our meal arrived and on my plate, sat one of the smallest and lousiest burger I’ve ever seen. No wonder Sarah Jessica Parker is so tiny…the burgers at this place could be taken down in two to three bites. As if the meal wasn’t bad enough, upon leaving, we asked our creepy waiter where we could find the bathroom. Directing us towards the back, we started down the stairs and into what looked like a hallway full of trash, junk, food and who knows what else. Half way down the hall, we were giving each other that, “uh…are you sure about this” look.

“Oh my gosh…what is that smell?!” I can’t remember who yelled it out but it was by far, one of the worst odors I’ve ever smelt in my life. A mixture of greasy burgers, gas, and someone probably doing more than just a number one, filled the hallway and I literally started to gag. This in turn caused my sister and her friend to start laughing hysterically. Unable to stand the stench any longer, we high-tailed it up those stairs and out the front doors of the restaurant. (We paid for our meals…don’t worry). Trust me when I say, I would take the smell of New York City air over that, any day of the week (and that’s not saying too much).

Reaching Fifth Avenue that night, I had been walking in my handy-dandy Wal-Mart snow boots that I bought out of desperation, for fear that snow might fall by the feet while I was in New York. Well, the weather played a nice little trick that year and decided that New York was going to have a mild winter, so all in all, the boots were unnecessary…but I digress. I don’t know whether it was the exhaustion from having walked all day long, but once we reached FAO Schwartz, the excitement that should fill you when you step inside the doors; it just wasn’t there for me. Instead of running around like a five-year-old and jumping around on the mega keyboard that they have, the three of us decided to take a break and try out FAO Sweets. Mmm…I can still taste the yummy goodness of that five-freaking-dollar cupcake I bought! Me being the generous type, I even bought my sister one, and the three of us drinks. Now please explain how two cupcakes and three drinks can equal $25?

Once again, I digress. Upon leaving the over-priced cupcake land that can’t hold a candle to Sprinkles cupcakes (at least in my opinion), we made our way towards Rockefeller Center. I kid you not, the moment I turned the corner and spotted that enormous tree, I felt like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when he finally gets the Christmas lights to come on. My eyes lit up and at that moment, I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in such a popular spot.  The sounds of Christmas music played in the background, people were snapping pictures left and right, children were squealing as they continued to ice skate, and me, well, I just stared and took in the beauty of the tree itself.

After taking multiple pictures, we decided that it was getting pretty late. Knowing that we had an early morning flight (ahem…like 6 a.m.), we needed to get back to the train station to see Erica off. Her husband, Josh worked at the Hyatt in Manhattan and he was to meet us at the train station as well. Sitting around, we waited and waited…and waited. The next train was to leave around 10:30 or 11:00 I believe, and the three of us continued to look at our watches, hoping that Josh would make it in time.

Due to the fact that our feet were aching, the three of us sat on the floor and waited some more. The later train was beginning to look like it would be their ride home; however, Erica’s cell phone suddenly rang and she was up on her feet in seconds.

“Josh is coming!” She spouted. As soon as the words left her mouth, we saw a man sprinting towards the train, wearing a white chef jacket and black pants…it was Josh.

“Erica let’s go!” He yelled. He managed to yell a quick “hi” and “bye” to both my sister and me, and with a quick hug, we watched her sprint off behind him.

By the time we caught the subway from Grand Central to my sister’s apartment, it was quite late. We were hoping for maybe 2 hours of sleep before we needed to be downstairs for our Super Shuttle guy to pick us up at 3:20. Thankfully, we had already packed our bags, except for the few things we would need when getting ready when we woke up.

Before we fell asleep, my sister set her alarm for 2:00 maybe 2:30 a.m., so we could get up, throw some clothes on, and go. Well, anyone who knows my sister knows not to trust her when it comes to setting alarms, etc…Not only is she an incredibly deep sleeper, but she is also the type of person that, when she hears an alarm clock go off, she finds it necessary to get up, turn it off, and lay back down to go to sleep. Completely disregarding the fact that we needed to get up right then, she told herself that she would just sleep a few more minutes…yeah right.

A loud buzzing noise and the sound of my frantic sister rushing into the bedroom, yelling for me to get up, had me up and out of bed in seconds.

“Oh my gosh! Nicole get up! The Super Shuttle guy is here!” She yelled.

“What?!” I screamed. Due to my horrible eyesight, I couldn’t see the time, so throwing in my contacts, I looked to see that we had overslept and it was now after 3:00 a.m.

From the point on, things got a bit fuzzy. I’m fairly sure that I threw on my clothes, grabbed our suitcases and ran out the door of her apartment. Her building had no elevator and at 3 a.m., most people would be courteous and carry their bags down the stairs…not me. We were in such a panic that when my sister told me to go meet him downstairs and that she would be right behind me in a minute, I took those two suitcases and pulled them down the stairs with me, all three flights.

“You’re early,” I told the driver, who was now looking pissed off because we weren’t waiting on the steps when he arrived.

“Yeah well we have other people to pick up and you’re supposed to be ready,” he spat back at me.

Now putting me in a ripe mood, I handed him our bags and prayed that my sister would get her butt outside so we could leave.

“My sister is coming, she just had to grab our carry-ons,” I told him. Rolling his eyes, you would have honestly thought we were 30-45 minutes late, if not more. By the time I saw her fly out the front doors of her apartment building, I didn’t see her carry-on.

“Kree! Where’s your carry-on?!” I yelled. Surprised that she had forgotten it, she ran back towards the building, only to climb the stairs to the wrong one.

“Isn’t she going in the wrong building?” The driver asked me.

“Yes,” I said as casually as I could, but trying not to laugh at this point. I looked up to see what I thought was a flying chicken, come racing down the steps of the wrong apartment building. My sister had both of her arms out to the sides, flailing them as she rush down the stairs and up onto the correct ones leading to her apartment. This visual brought back reminder of a photo that was taken years ago at my aunt’s house. She, for some reason, owned a hat that had a turkey sitting on top of it, and well, my sister put it on and started flailing her arms. Turkey…chicken…it’s all poultry.

So anyway, back to the story. She finally joined us and the moment we opened the door to the van, the people sitting inside literally glared at us. Taking our seats, I looked down at my watch to see that it was 3:21. We were one minute late…that’s it.

“You didn’t forget anything else did you?” The snarky girl in the front seat asked. I looked at my sister and rolled my eyes, obviously not wanting to listen to anyone’s comments. By the time we reached the airport, my stomach was killing me and I didn’t want to exactly breathe on anyone since I had yet to brush my teeth. Thankfully, the first place we visited at the airport was a bathroom.

In the end, we boarded our flight on time and made it home for Christmas in one piece. Luckily, in Arkansas, we don’t have Super Shuttle. Instead, our parents were there to greet us warmly; a vast change from the last person we greeted.

In no way am I saying that all New Yorkers, or Northerners for that matter, are rude, but would it honestly kill you to take a chill pill and relax a bit? People in the south, with the exception of my sister, seem to be more laid back and willing to wait (at least a little). However, because it was the holidays, I think that might seem to put a little kink if everyone’s daily routine.

Everyone’s trying to get home, rushing, pushing, pulling…maybe the driver’s attitude was valid but come on man, we made you one minute late, not ten. Maybe his holiday bonus was a year long, free membership to the Jelly-of-the-month club, maybe he was irritated that he had to be at work during the wee hours of the morning, who knows. Either way, during the holidays, if you’re traveling in New York and relying on Super Shuttle to be your mode of transportation, make sure you are sitting outside (no matter what the temperature is) and waiting for your driver to arrive, because if you don’t, you might just meet this guy.

So, to sum up the point of this story…if you ever want to know how to piss off the Super Shuttle guy, just leave the alarm clock setting business to your sister, confront him on being early, and well…I guess, attempt to fly like a chicken in order to hurry your pace.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Florida Thanksgiving

Seeing as how I am a week late in posting my Thanksgiving story for my blog, I have opted to make it this week’s post. I believe that once the Thanksgiving season rolls around, the feeling of being thankful and joyous tends to follow you through Christmas and the New Year.
So, even though my Thanksgiving was spent at home this year, I couldn’t help but recollect my time spent in Destin, Florida last year. The bitter cold here in Arkansas had me longing for the days spent in Florida where, although it was still a bit chilly, the warm sunshine and tall palm trees provided the perfect setting for Thanksgiving.
If you have ever been to Florida, it is hard to deny that Destin is probably one of the most beautiful places in the state. It’s white, soft, bury-your-toes type of sand make for the most relaxing day on the beach, while dozens of shopping areas allow you to open your wallets and drench yourself in souvenir t-shirts, sunglasses, and beach towels. Granted, most shops are a bit on the “touristy” side; however, in some areas, you can find name brand stores with “quality” shopping.
Of course, one of “Destin’s” hidden treasures is visiting Seaside, Florida; a cozy little town that holds a variety of shops, beachside grills, and yes, the Truman House. You see, part of The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, Florida and the actual Truman House is settled right on Natchez Street. Because it is someone’s house, we couldn’t go through it; however, we settled for taking a nice little drive past the residence.
During our time spent in Destin, not only did we visit the beach, which was just a short walk away from where we were staying, but we lounged by the pool, shopped, and even took in a movie. I have to admit, if you travel to Destin, some of the nicest condos you can stay in are the ones at Hidden Dunes Beach and Tennis Resort. For five people, our condo consisted of a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, a loft, and three bathrooms. Oh and I forgot to mention the lovely little patio/balcony that overlooked the pool area.
One of the neatest things about Hidden Dunes is that they have “neighborhood” cats. If you’re not a cat lover, don’t worry, they aren’t everywhere. However, I must say, going down to the hot tub each night, one of the neighborly cats tended to stroll along the wall ledge and grace us with her company. (I love cats so this was not an issue for me)
Once Thanksgiving Day arrived, naturally, we clicked the TV on to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (I’m convinced that it is not an actual Thanksgiving unless I watch it) Of course, my mouth continued to water all morning long and the smells of roasted turkey, dressing, hot pumpkin pie, oozing sweet potatoes, creamy gravy, and my favorite, deliciously good deviled eggs, filtered through the air. Needless to say, the second the food hit the table, it was a showdown between my stomach and the spread.
Never have I ever been able to celebrate Thanksgiving in a sunny and warm climate. I have to say, it was pretty awesome. It was something we had always talked about doing but because of grandparents, we decided it was necessary that we spend our holidays at home. Unfortunately, in November of 2008, my grandmother passed away. She was the last grandparent to go. As much as I enjoyed spending Thanksgiving in a warm and sunny climate, I would have graciously taken the bitter cold weather of Arkansas, if it meant getting to spend another holiday with my grandmother.
Her chicken and dumplings grace our Thanksgiving and Christmas table every single year and in the two years she has been gone, my mom and aunt still continue to the tradition. However, there’s always something about a grandmother’s touch that makes it all the more special. I guess this year, spending my Thanksgiving at home got me to thinking just how thankful I am for the memories and traditions that continue in my family. Even though our loved ones have gone, they’re memories continue to live on in those of us who choose to remember and for that, I am so grateful.
P.S. Sorry there are no pictures this time!!!! I wanted to get this posted and I didn't have time :(

Friday, November 19, 2010

Of All the Roman Gladiators, We Couldn’t Find Maximus

So, I was kind of struggling with what to write about this week; especially, since I already have next week’s post planned out. However, while I looked at various pictures of my travels, I found myself reflecting longer and longer on the ones revolving around Rome. I can’t help but look at the pictures I took at the Colosseum and wish that I was back inside that amazing piece of historical architecture.

As some of you may know, my sister and I spent two weeks in Europe this past summer. For three days, we were given the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of Rome and let me tell you, that place is like none other. As much as I would love to tell you all about those three days, I’m afraid that blog post would be pages upon pages of reading; hence, my decision to focus solely on our day at the Colosseum…for now.

Okay, so you’ve seen it in pictures and movies, and even learned about it in school, but to see the Colosseum in person is quite a sight. Considering that it has been around since 70-80 A.D., it is holding up quite well. Granted, Mother Nature has taken its toll on it, but no one can deny the beauty of this structure.


Sitting Down on the Job...tsk, tsk
So we’re standing in line, waiting to buy our tickets, and I look over to see some men dressed as Roman gladiators. The first thought that popped into my head was that they looked nothing like Russell Crowe and secondly, there was no way I was going to pay to have my picture taken with one of them. I had heard rumors before we left on this trip, that in Rome, when you visit the Colosseum, there would be men dressed up as gladiators and if you want a picture with one of them, it will cost you an arm and a leg. Granted, I didn’t approach one of them, but I assumed from the various reports and stories that I had heard and read that I much rather preferred to keep my limbs. So, with my spiffy little camera, I snapped a few photos from afar…sneaky, I know.

Once purchasing our tickets, and managing to stay in front of two older gentlemen who kept trying to cut in front of us, we finally made our way into the Colosseum. Quickly, I pulled out my video camera and began filming. I didn’t want to miss any of it as I am one of those kinds of people who like to have more than just pictures for memories. Walking up the concrete pathway, into the main arena, I was completely taken back when I saw the enormity of it all. I could almost picture crowds of people standing in the stadium-style arena, cheering (or jeering) for the gladiator below.

“Okay, so where’s Maximus?” My sister laughed.  Yes, unfortunately, Russell Crowe was not there to grace us with his role of Maximus in Gladiator.  I do believe that is the only thing that could have made our day at the Colosseum even better.

The "Hypogeum"
The wooden arena floor has been cut back to showcase the underground chambers and passageways, also known as the hypogeum. As we looked out over the railing, it looked much like a maze—an area that held animals that were used for fighting. How I wish we could have gone down into that. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be expected to fight for your life, in front of hundreds upon hundreds of people; what it was like to battle fierce tigers, elephants, lions, bears, and other wild animals, in an attempt to survive in the arena. Would people cheer for you, or would they hope for your death? I guess it depended upon the nature of why you were there in the first place.

History tells us that men who were trained to become gladiators were not the only ones fighting in the arena. Criminals and Roman citizens were often executed within the Colosseum. Christians were often subjected to public humiliation or death in the arena. I kept this in mind as I zoomed in on the one thing that grasped my attention.

“Look over there. Talk about irony,” I said to my sister. 

When she spotted what it was that I was pointing at, she shared my expression. There, placed for all to see what a large cross. It sits there as a reminder of the Christian martyrs that died in the arena. Now, I realize that things have changed since the days of gladiators and all, but if the Catholic Church in Rome opted to place that cross there, for that reason…then I applaud their respect.

However, history hasn’t changed too much since those days. People may not be thrown into large arenas to be killed in front of thousands of people, but the nature of killing others because they have a different religious belief continues today.

Before I get on my soapbox about that, I’ll refocus and get back to the topic at hand. Both my sister and I simply could not believe that we were actually standing inside this place. Known for its incredible architecture, the Colosseum, I am convinced, is a sight that everyone should see at least once. As you stand outside one of the numerous entrances, you see that you are surrounded by even more of Rome’s great history. Near the Colosseum, you have the Arch of Titus, as well as the Arch of Constantine. And, on top of that, you are right across the street from the Roman Forum…incredible.  
My sister and I (I'm on the right)

Coming from the U.S., I find it absolutely fascinating when I see buildings and structures that are older than my own country. Granted, that is pretty much the rest of the world; however, to be given the opportunity to see it for myself, I couldn’t feel more humbled or appreciative.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

All Gave Some, but Some Gave All

"America will never run... And we will always be grateful that liberty has found such brave defenders."--George W. Bush
There is a place in this great nation that memorializes those who have sacrificed, witnessed, and survived; a place where younger generations can go to learn about and appreciate the defenders of this nation’s past; a place where names are etched in stone, where statues are erected in honor, and where history lives on—the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
When arriving at this amazing sight, you are greeted with the Washington Monument. Standing at 555 feet tall, the large marble obelisk, which was built in honor of George Washington, provides the perfect starting point for entering the National Mall. On my first trip to D.C. in 2007, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sight before me. I’d always heard about the National Mall and the feeling it gave you when walking among the massive monuments; however, actually being there and experiencing it for myself was incredible.
Entering into the large open space, my eyes fell upon the long overdue memorial dedicated to the heroes of World War II. If you read my earlier post about my time spent at Normandy, you realize that I am somewhat of a World War II buff. For years, activists worked and rallied for a memorial to be built, honoring those who served in the Pacific and Atlantic. Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg became spokespersons for the cause, and in 2004, the National Mall became home to the World War II memorial. A large circular center allows you a 360 degree look at the various concrete structures; all of them dedicated to those who fought. If you are facing the Lincoln Memorial, on the left will be the Pacific and on the right, the Atlantic.  
The Pacific Memorial holds a special place in my heart. My grandfather fought in New Guinea and in the Philippines; specifically, Luzon.  He was an Army medic, which meant that he was an easy target. However, he managed to make it through the war and return home with only a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his head. (Surprisingly, it didn’t begin irritating him until many years later) As I became older, I learned the location of Luzon and was surprised to know that my grandfather had been fighting close to Bataan. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Bataan, in 1942, 75,000 Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese and were forced to march an estimated 61 miles, in the infamous Bataan Death March. It is unclear as to how many died along the march, in the detention camps, and aboard the “Hell Ships.”
Now that I’ve given you a bit of Pacific War, World War II history, let’s get back to the main point here shall we? A large archway stands on the North and South ends of the memorial with the word “Pacific” etched into one and “Atlantic” etched into the other. Standing in the center, you can look up to see four eagles holding a laurel, signifying victory.  The Freedom Wall, complete with 4,000 golden stars, stands for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Each star represents 100 lives that were lost. If you’re doing the math, that is 400,000.
Seeing all of this can make a person quite emotional; especially, when it hits so close to home. However, I’ve never seen it become as personal as when we walked down towards the Vietnam Wall. My uncle Bobby fought in Vietnam and was there during the TET offense. Joining us that day, it was a humbling experience to see him walk that pathway, looking at the thousands of names etched in that stone; each one having lost their life. A book sat at the start of the black wall, containing the names of the fallen and the location of where you can find them on the panels.
As you look down the long pathway, you can see cards and flowers lining the wall; each from a loved one expressing their sorrow and love for someone they lost.

Standing next to my mom, my uncle, his daughter (whom he hadn’t seen in 30 years and was reunited with her on this trip), and the rest of our little group, we all watched as he tried to keep a strong front while looking through that book. You see, during his tour in Vietnam, he and some of the guys from his unit were driving through a field when they hit a land mine; everyone was killed but him.
“I can’t…I can’t even remember their names,” he said as he wiped his eyes and cleared his throat.
“I’ve tried to block all of that out,” he added.
We all just stood there and watched him gaze upon a wall that he thought he’d never see in person. I couldn’t help but wonder if he felt guilty for not being among those names. To stand by a man who has seen the horrors of war and lived to tell about it, well, I’m quite proud to say he’s my uncle.

My Uncle Bobby

Leaving the wall, we continued towards one of D.C.’s most recognized statues; the Lincoln Memorial. Climbing the steps, you come face to face with ol’ Abe himself. Sitting there in his oversize chair, he is estimated to be 19 feet tall. And as far as I’m concerned, he holds the best seat in the house. Turning around, you are presented with an incredible view overlooking the entire mall. To know that many important events in history took place right there, it gave me chills. Looking out onto the beauty of the National Mall, everything can be seen, from the tall trees that provide a small canopy over the walkways, to the amazing Reflecting Pool that sits in the center. Standing atop those steps, you can imagine what it might have felt like to be there when some of the greatest speeches in history occurred, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.”  Yes, Abe had quite a view and I was a bit jealous.

Mom and me in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to visit the Korean Memorial, but I have already promised myself that the next trip I talk to D.C., I will make time to see that incredible memorial. After leaving the National Mall, I would highly suggest going to visit the Marine Corps War Memorial, otherwise known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. Approaching this enormous statue, various inscriptions can be read along the base. Looking up, you see the iconic pose that was captured February 23, 1945 by Joe Rosenthal. There, stand five men, raising the American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi.

Having read “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley, it helped to know the story behind the flag raisers and how that picture came to be. A rumor persists that there are 13 hands instead of 12, on the statue; the 13th hand signifying the hand of God. I didn’t hear about this rumor until after I visited the memorial, so I cannot be sure.
One thing I can be sure of is that each and every one of us should be thankful for the reasons behind these memorials. The men and women who fought for this great country are reasons as to why these memorials exist. You speak to a veteran today and they will tell you they are no hero, but that the real heroes are those who died on the battlefield. However, I beg to differ. I’m a firm believer in that if you fight and are willing to die for this country, you ARE a hero. My grandfather and my uncle, both will forever be heroes in my eyes, and not just because they are family, but because they felt it was their duty to fight the freedoms of this country.
Whatever you stance is regarding our current war, it is our job as American citizens to stand behind our troops. As someone who has a close friend in Afghanistan right now, it hits so close to home. Our men and women in uniform deserve the utmost respect and it is our responsibility to give it to them. On this Veteran’s Day, tell a veteran just how much you appreciate their service. A simple “thank you” or smile could mean so much. As you watch the parades, ceremonies, and rallies, I ask that you take a moment and be truly grateful for the freedoms we are given as American citizens.
(*Side note: You may ask why I didn’t write about my visit to Arlington, well, that is a post all on its own and one I will save for another day.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Delicacies of Cruise Ship Cuisine

The Delicacies of Cruise Ship Cuisine
Margherita Pizza, Fish & Chips, Beef Wellington, Lobster, Ice Cream, and Chocolate Molten Lava Cake… Is your mouth watering yet? I know mine is just from reading that list of amazingly delicious foods. Now, a regular person could never find a place that would serve all of these dishes, but I am not a regular person. You see, I like to think of myself as a “cruiser”; someone who is well-versed in the realm of cruise ship vacationing (at least that’s my definition of the word).  That also includes knowing my foods when it comes to cruise ship cuisine.
On one specific night, the crew creates these unique pieces from an array of food. Here you have a lobster and a chicken!

I don’t know about Royal Caribbean or any of those other cruise lines, but Carnival cruises offer some of the best food selections you could ever imagine. From the moment you step on board, the various aromas capture your senses and you feel as if you are literally being drawn to the Lido deck. Up there, you will find a smorgasbord of food.  Every culinary, cultural cuisine (like my alliteration there) can be found, and the best part about it all is you can have all you want and more.
Outside by the pool, each and every day, you will usually find a line of people waiting for a slice of Italian delicacy. Whether it is pepperoni, cheese, or supreme, adults and children alike line up in droves to taste the pizza that is baked right before your eyes. This is the kind of pizza that when it enters your mouth, that warm, gooey cheese is the kind you have to pull and pull at in order to separate it from the pizza; that’s only the best kind, am I right?
If you’re not in the mood for pizza, you can always enter into the food lover’s haven.  There you will find everything from good ol’ American hamburgers and hot dogs, England’s well-known fish & chips, Chinese noodles and egg rolls, and even Mexican tacos and burritos; whatever you crave, the Lido Deck on Carnival will deliver. Oh, and did I mention that after you’ve filled your belly full of deliciously good food, you can mosey on over to the massive dessert bar that they provide? Yes my friends, this is where you will need to take a few breaths, kick that belt back a few notches (oh who am I kidding, it is a cruise ship…whose wearing a belt?) and make way for that second stomach that is often used during the holiday season. Here at your all-you-can-eat dessert buffet, you will find decadent chocolate cake drizzled in hot fudge, creamy cheesecakes with strawberry toppings, flavorful pecan brownies, jiggling Jell-o is a variety of colors, and finally, the greatest dessert of all…ice cream. And you may gripe and complain that there are only three flavors but in my book, chocolate, vanilla and swirl only exist. This is where you grab yourself a sturdy cone (or cup for those who are weird) and pull on that lever. Pile it as high as you’d like because trust me, some kid is running around with it piled higher than yours!

Tell me all of that doesn't look good...

This type of eating can be enjoyed in the afternoon and at night. The mornings bring biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, omelets, cereal, and basically any other type of breakfast food you can think of. If you’re dieting, there are always low-fat yogurt selections, gorgeous fruits that shine of bright red apples, yellow bananas, and a delicious mix of honeydew and cantaloupe. No matter what you choose, walking away from breakfast, lunch, or dinner should be a filling occasion.
For those who choose more of a fine dining experience, you can venture away from the buffet-style eating and instead, dress in more suitable attire and make your way to one of the cruise ships two dining restaurants. The great thing about Carnival is they offer an early and late seating. For those who like their meals earlier, they can choose the 6:00 dinner; however, my family and I have found that the 8:00 seating allows for more time spent out in the sun and immediate nightlife after dinner. There’s really no waiting around.
Of course, before dinner, Carnival offers the most fabulous array of sushi; all made to order, right before your eyes. The chef stands behind a small glass window and as you point to your sushi of choice, he quickly works his magic; transforming rice, fish, and seaweed into your very own, perfectly cut sushi. My taste buds usually favor mackerel, crab, salmon, and shrimp; however, for the more daring (this not including my sister), you can venture out and try an octopus tower. Yes my friends, you see the little suckers still attached to its tentacles in this sushi concoction. For me, this is just a bit too much…so I’ll settle for other fine choices that are available.
After eating our semi-sushi appetizer, we make our way towards the doors of the dining room where guests are treated to either a private table (just enough for your party) or a larger table that requires you to sit with other cruising guests. Over the years, we have tried both; however, after a few experiences with some interesting people, we now opt for a table of our own.  While looking over the menu, you are provided a basket of bread which my mother and I both feel is probably the most dangerous item at the table. You see, the bread on this ship…there is something about it, something that makes it so good that you simply cannot stop eating it; hence the groan you might hear when we see the waiter coming with it.

Isn't that pretty? All of it is fruit!!!!

Each night, the types of food you can order are different and range from Prime Rib to Lobster. Chicken and beef can always be found on the menu but my personal favorite…well, that is definitely, without a doubt, the lobster. Large, shelled lobster tails are delivered to your table with your very own cup of piping hot butter, just waiting to coat the yummy goodness. Of course, you cannot have lobster without your side of creamy mashed potatoes and an assortment of colorful vegetables. Let’s not forget that before you get your main entrée, you are given the choice of another appetizer (don’t forget, our family has sushi before dinner) and a salad. Fruit plates, crab cakes, soup (lobster bisque being my favorite), and your choice between two salads are just a few of the incredible starters you will find.

Now let’s not forget that during your meal, you can order anything else you would like, pretty much at any time. If you ordered the prime rib but want lobster afterwards, you are certainly able to do so. My dad is notorious for that. While you’re enjoying your elegant meal, the bread continues to be refilled, causing menacing glances to occur between my mom and me.  However, once our waiters see that each of us has made a happy plate, because let’s face it…you’re on a cruise and you absolutely refuse to let any of this delicious food go to waste; they arrive and clear your table, only to present you with yet another menu, only this time, it is filled with chocolate, cake, and pastries…time for that third stomach that you pull out only for dire times like these.
Unfortunately for me, the rich and chocolaty goodness that is present in the chocolate molten lava cake is something I cannot consume (Chocolate gives me migraines). However, there are cheesecake, crème brulee, ice cream, cheese and fruit plates, and even a diet-friendly cake that you can choose. Never in my life have I been surrounded my so much food. I’m dead serious here because if you’ve ever seen my family at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you know that we definitely do not skimp on food; however, Carnival Cruise Ship food takes the cake.
If I were to give you any advice prior to your cruise ship getaway, do not eat the entire week before you leave. You may starve and beg for something to fill your stomach, but the minute you step on that boat, you will fill it right back up to the point that it is screaming for you to run away and never feed it again by the time you are coming back to the mainland. For those who are picky, this is the perfect time to try new cuisine and tempt your taste buds. If you don’t like it, go get something else…no questions asked. (I did that with a langoustine, which is a crawfish. It came out whole and I simply could not crack open the head...sorry, not going to happen). This is your chance to branch out and taste what the world has to offer. Oh, and while you’re at it…have that ice cream cone at breakfast…you know you want to!