Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Central America - from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans

M & J at the Veragua Rainforest reserve
Passing through Limon, Costa Rica
Beyond Key West, Sea Princess journeyed towards less prosperous countries, including Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru.  The latter deserves a post to itself so that is for another day.  We simply sailed through the Panama Canal, taking all day with commentary from "Hutch", the ship's destination director.  We had traveled through the Canal in the reverse direction in 2014 on Cunard's Queen Victoria, and thought we would be using the new canal, still being built in 2014, 
but it wasn't to be.

Houses are poor quality and public services lacking in many places.
But first to Costa Rica, a politically stable but fairly poor country which straddles the America continent from coast to coast.  This time, we berthed on the eastern or Atlantic side, at Limon.  This side of the country has only two climates: wet and wetter.  The Pacific Ocean region of the country has six months of dry season to complement the wet season and the more prosperous side.  But Limon province is famous for its rainforest and has been developing a thriving eco-tourism and educational industry alongside its banana and coffee agricultural industries.

We reach the rainforest reserve eventually
John had pre-booked an accessible excursion to the Veragua Rainforest Reserve through Princess Tours and I was on a wait-list, but later found no record.  Upon enquiry, two days ahead of the scheduled arrival at Limon, the Tour office told me that the accessible coach had been canceled. I pointed out to the company that we had so little opportunity to access an excursion and that we were not the only passengers affected, so could they please do something for us!  

Our top-class guide

Diane and John, both from Sydney
Anyway, I must have been persuasive, because the next morning they phoned and said they’d been able to “re-secure” the accessible coach. In the end, both Diane (also in a wheelchair and unable to stand) and John were able to use the coach’s electric hoist. There was only one space on the coach for a wheelchair user, however, and Diane had a fall, not hurting herself but getting a shock nevertheless, and had to be lifted into a seat by her husband Paul and the driver and her wheelchair stowed underneath.  Luckily it was a manual chair.  All of this was a hassle we could have done without.

Our ship is on the other side of these mountains

Boarding the cable car in the Rainforest

Altogether there were 30 passengers on this tour and we thoroughly enjoyed it, although the journey to the rainforest was exceedingly slow due to the state of the roads.  It rained the whole way in the coach but fortunately stopped for the rest of the day upon our arrival 105 minutes later.  

Sadly, just a toy sloth
We expected to see monkeys and sloths, but if we saw a sloth, it was hardly recognisable, being so high in the trees.  We certainly heard the howler monkeys though.  They did screech, calling out to one another.  The wildflowers were beautiful, many in the wild, more in a conservatory.  There are also an abundance of frogs in the rainforest and they are a particular focus of local research, since some are endangered.

Upon returning to Limon city (in Limon province), we wandered the streets for a while.  The gutter ramps were adequate, the shops busy but run-down and everything was covered with mildew because of the constant rain.  The people were certainly friendly.

Panama Canal locks
Returning to the ship, we had another sea day to experience before reaching the Panama Canal.  Then it was a waiting game, with other ships also wanting to navigate the canal.  Cruise ships are allowed through first, followed by freighters and then yachts and other commercial vessels.  

The Panama Canal is far more interesting than the Suez, especially for the retired engineering and mechanical gurus amongst us.  This is because of the differing levels of the two oceans, and the locks required to manage the difference.

The first Panama City
At the far end of the Canal, I took a photo of the “real” Panama City, especially for the benefit of my cousins who live in the Florida city of the same name.  Hello Shirley, Donna, Cheryl and Ben!

Market at Manta
Manta, Ecuador was our next stop.  This is a very poor country and it showed.  The working dock is not within walking distance of the town so shuttle buses, including one with wheelchair access were provided.  

Elaine and Vincenzo from Sydney
Unfortunately, Sea Princess administrative arrangements did not work for John.  All passengers wishing to use the shuttle buses were allocated a numbered ticket so we duly collected ours which were numbered 888 and 889.  This required a long wait to be called to for a seat on the shuttle buses.

However, after waiting for 90 minutes in an allocated area, we were duly called, went to the secure exit at 11:30 am, and were told “Oh, sir, you’ll have to wait until 2:00pm to get off on the lower deck when the non-stepped ramp will be set up.”  Both of us were livid to be told this, after waiting so long.  The security team knew that the ramp would not be available, they knew in advance what the tides would be (or could have looked them up), and the management should have told us beforehand, rather than making us wait for a non-existent exit ramp.  Not good enough.  John was also worried about returning to the ship and was so disgusted with their lack of information and administrative arrangements that he decided against going out. 
Hat-making in the market

Ecuador is the home of panama hats, not Panama

So much indigenous craft to choose from

Manta port with the working dock in the distance
I went out on my own, catching an ordinary shuttle bus to the market, but feeling disgruntled about our experience.  I wandered along the fishing pier as well and took some photos on a grey day.  But at least it wasn’t raining.

The Client Services staff, Tour Excursions staff and the Security team all work in silos – time and time again they cannot co-ordinate their processes to manage arrangements for passengers with mobility issues.  An example is: “We’ll announce later when the mobility ramp will be available” and never do.  We just find out by trial and error when we can disembark.

It is very tiring having to check and double check information, and often find it inconsistent.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Key West: the very bottom of the USA

Typical architecture in Key West
Yet another port in Florida, Key West is a very pretty place, but oh so hot!

Vibrant colours contrast with the white buildings in the old town
Many celebrities and other wealthy people have holiday homes here, but August is not the time of year they visit.  It is a winter playground, as is Miami.  Nevertheless, cruise ships turn up and many people live here all year round, as they do in hot places in Australia.

I expect many all-year-rounders stay inside during the day if possible, just like they would in England in winter.

Shuttle bus

The cross breeze was beautiful
Being America, we appreciated the opportunity to take a ride on a shuttle bus with an electronic hoist at the back.  It worked perfectly as a hop-on-hop-off bus.  We took the full 90-minute tour around this small island, just one section of Florida Keys.  The cross-breeze kept us comfortable and the tour driver was articulate and informative.  He handed out – or more accurately threw – prizes of cheap plastic ponchos – to passengers who were the first to answer questions about the island.  John won one for knowing that Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on the Hot Tin Roof.

At the back of a motel, we saw some iguanas.  Not as large as the "dragons" in Komodo, however.

Many famous Americans lived in Key West at one time or another, including poet Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. Oprah has a holiday house on a small neighbouring island.

First settled in 1828, Key West has some beautiful old homes, many of them painted white.  The city has a real buzz to it, with many young people taking the heat in their stride.

I was glad of an ice-cream or two, as were many of our fellow guests.

A good place for a photo or three
The shuttle bus took us past the USA's most southern point.

HIghway 1
Here is the start of America's Highway 1.

The evening breezes were most welcome.  A perfect summer's evening.

A seaman - statue at the Museum
My turn now!
Called: Pondering the benefits of exercise
I think John could win this race

At the dock

Due to the strength of the Gulf Stream, our Captain cut our time short by two hours – still a late hour for us of 9:30pm – so we could reach Limon, Costa Rica in time, 36 hours later.

Monday, 27 August 2018

More about Miami, Florida

Bad luck if John wanted to shower
Whilst we didn’t see much of Miami on the Sunday (19th August) when we reboarded Sea Princess, we did take some photos and recorded the shortcomings of the bathroom.  I expect the Miami Port Holiday Inn did have a properly accessible wheelchair bathroom, but as we booked just the day before, it was not available.

View from our window at 1:30am
The night photos were taken about 1:30am.
  The day photos simply showed us a big city with palm trees everywhere:  I’m sure we did not do Miami justice.
Same view at breakfast time - we could see our ship

All of this is necessary for us to travel by air
We had pared down our luggage to the minimum for flying but there are items we cannot do without.  Whether we cruise, fly or travel by train or bus, the ramp, pull-apart travel shower chair, medical appliances and pharmaceutical goods and clothes are indispensable.

Shower and toilet in C314 on Level 9

Never enough bench space for John's many tasks

Compared to the motel bathrooms, our Sea Princess bathroom is quite adequate, although I still need to “pardon the French” when John bangs into things as he cleans his equipment. This is a time-consuming task he prefers to undertake himself, not just for his own satisfaction, but also to allow me to do my own thing – much appreciated.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

An unexpected adventure: Halifax for six nights

Margaret in park at Willow Tree, Halifax
Dedicated followers of this blog who are not regular Facebook users must wonder if the Sea Princess was swallowed up by the Adriatic or the Mediterranean Sea!  Not so.  Rather, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block.  Whilst I’ve cropped and enhanced many of John’s photos of places we’ve been to since, and uploaded them to Facebook, my word-craft has sadly been missing in action.  I can’t even blame our latest adventure, mentioned above.

A leisurely walk in Halifax
But back to Halifax in Nova Scotia.

This was a port not on the original itinerary.  We had envisaged visiting L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables territory, Prince Edward Island, but due to tidal conditions and coast guard rules which did not suit the ship, we called in to Halifax on 12 August.  We were initially disappointed about that, since we’d already visited the latter in 2014 and I was looking forward to an excursion to Anne’s farmhouse.

But the plus side was that we had Moxon friends there, whom we’d first met in 2014 whilst we were commuting from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary 2.  But Len and Penny responded saying they were out of town for 10 days. C’est la vie.

However, the day in port arrived, and I was too ill to get out of bed.  John stayed with me.  I knew I didn’t have that curse of cruise ships worldwide, Norovirus, but I was no better during the day.  By 3:30pm I was on a drip in the ship’s medical centre, after our friends Hazel and Deb (both highly experienced and qualified retired nurses) agreed with John that I was bringing up “coffee grounds”.  This was an indication of bleeding in the stomach.

Queen Elizabeth 2 hospital, Halifax
I needed medical attention not available on the ship, including an endoscopy. John had been given a choice to stay on the ship or disembark with me, but of course, chose to disembark too. All our gear had to go with us. Whilst Hazel and Deb were unsuccessfully attempting to supervise the crew members bundling up our personal belongings and John’s medical equipment so that John could find what he needed overnight, I was being loaded into an ambulance, having been taken down the ramp by two basketball playing ambulance officers.  Passengers were queuing up to return from their excursions and pleasant day in Halifax, and some of them recognised me and got quite a shock.  I was not known for my ill-health!  Hazel and Deb were able to fill in the details within the next 24 hours but apart from my health, friends wondered if they’d see us again onboard.

Atlantica Hotel across the road from QE2
In each port, including Halifax, Princess employs a port agent.  Each has a varied – and to my mind interesting – job.  Port agent Kate organised a wheelchair accessible taxi for John so he could meet us at the QE2 hospital, about four kilometres from the port, book him into a neighbouring hotel and transported all our luggage which was so badly disorganised that it included at least 10 blue Princess shopping bags.  She was also the liaison officer between the ship and Princess Family Services staff in Seattle, USA.

Having perked up slightly after I was attached to a drip, I was as worried about John as he was about me.  He had visions of the hospital discovering an ulcer or the Big-C (fortunately it was neither); I was worried about him being alone in a hotel for however long I was in a hospital in a strange country. 

Meanwhile, the Sea Princess sailed away without us.  We’d been on board over eight weeks at this stage, and it almost felt like home.  We had planned to be on board another six weeks.

But how fortunate we were that I took ill in Canada rather than in the USA! 

Margaret starting to feel better at Dilly Dally cafe
Despite travel insurance – which may or may not kick in – imagine what the bill would have been like in the latter!  At the time of writing, we are about $4.5K out of pocket, with the cost of mailing a large suitcase back to Sydney (postage unknown) to come, but the Halifax hospital charged us only $550 for the endoscopy and $30 for a prescription.  Being off-loaded – like other passengers, including Kiwi friends David and Elwyn were – in New York, Charleston (South Carolina), Miami or West Key would have been far more expensive.

We loved this local cafe - beats Starbucks
Port agent Kate must have alerted the hospital to John’s predicament, because within 30 minutes whilst the ambulance officers were still with me, the hospital social worker turned up.  She was able to connect John with a non-expensive but flexible home support service.  The home care worker was later able to assist John with finding everything he needed immediately in the hotel room – from toothbrush to medical equipment needed overnight and in the morning.  That was a relief.

John had been booked into the four-star Atlantica hotel across the road from the hospital.  They are used to looking after relatives of hospital patients and gave us a 15% discount on all hotel services.  In fact, the restaurant staff, the concierges and the reception staff were exceptionally helpful, and in my view, rather spoilt John for the whole six days he was there.  They got him out of a scrape on the first morning: he was stuck between the mattress and his wheelchair for ninety minutes whilst trying to transfer.

Meanwhile, I was handed over by the ambulance officers to the nursing staff and doctors and the gastro specialists and received excellent care.  I kept forgetting to keep my arm with the canular inserted straight – I’m not a very good patient although I did try!  An initial x-ray and endoscopy the following afternoon put our minds at rest about serious diagnoses, but I did not sleep at all well, and still felt very ill until after the endoscopy.

The doctors appear convinced that my condition stemmed from long term use of iron tablets – originally suggested by my GP but never reviewed.  I ought to have known.  Many senior citizens – amongt whom I must now count myself – have adverse reactions to medication and vitamin combinations.  As soon as I get home at the end of September, I will have a total check-up and maybe make an appointment with a nutritionist.

On the second morning, I was able to walk over to the hotel and check-in.  My energy levels varied wildly for the rest of the week but are now improving rapidly.  Upon discharge, the doctors were prepared to state that I was well to continue cruising for the next six weeks.  At first, the Sea Princess doctor was doubtful, but I returned to the hospital to obtain further clarification in writing about visiting South American countries without problems.

After feeling very depressed and negative on Tuesday and Wednesday, we received clearance to re-join the World Cruise very late Wednesday night.  We were dealing with the Princess Seattle Office running four hours behind Halifax time.

Since we now had to resort to flying out, whether it was to Miami or home to Sydney, we had too much luggage for a flight, despite the extra allowance for our disability equipment.  I’d spent the time at the hotel reorganising our luggage and deciding what we could do without.  One large suitcase was handed over to the port agent to be posted home.

A lovely catch up with Halifax locals Penny & Len Moxon
We decided to find out if our Moxon friends (no relation but members of The Moxon Society) had returned to Halifax.  They had, and so we were able to spend a very pleasant two hours with them over a cup of tea at the hotel on Friday.

Despite the Seattle Office suggestion that we fly into Miami on Sunday 19th, the day of Sea Princess’s departure, we were not prepared to take the risk.  We settled for a Saturday flight with an overnight stay at the Miami Port Holiday Inn.  The airfares were expensive of course, being booked at the last moment; the available flights were through Newark, NJ where we had a four-hour layover.  Both John and I found the airports an ordeal, John because of the complicated procedures for dealing with his wheelchair, and me simply because I was not yet running on all four cylinders.

The second flight ran behind schedule and some luggage initially went missing, so John was in his chair from 6:30am until 1:30am the following morning – not good for his skin at all.

With little choice of accommodation, both hotel rooms  (Halifax and Florida) had a shower over the bath.  But at least John could get into the bathroom and there was running water.  Better than nothing in a crisis.

Taxi transport was variable.  In Miami, the design of the wheelchair space would not suit larger chairs.  Luckily, John is/was only 5’8’’ and could fold his footplates up and raise his chair so that he could put his feet under the seats in front.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties with accommodation, transport and airports, we got there.  By 11:30am on Sunday, we were back on the Sea Princess.

It was so good to be home.