Two Weeks In Europe: Day 2 – Boarding The Vision of the Seas

Continued from Day 1.

Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.

The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?

After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.

It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.

Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.

We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.

After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.

To be continued on Day 3…

From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the surreal. As in, one of the most surreal experiences you’ve ever had. I’ve had more than my share; pretty sure I’ve at least mentioned almost drowning in Thailand, fighting a house fire, sleeping overnight in a deserted LAX, going to the top of Gibraltar, and going on a 900-mile road trip around Hawaii’s Big Island. But aside from a single photo – my only functional camera back then was an iPod 4 Touch – I haven’t mentioned my brief time in Morocco.

Back in early 2011, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my mother to Málaga. Most tourists traveling to Spain would rather spend their time in Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While we got to see that last one, I didn’t particularly mind. It was only my second time in Europe, and it was Pablo Picasso’s home town. No way I’d turn that down. If anything, I was more concerned with Mom. Back then, she and I approached vacations quite differently; she was typically spur-of-the-moment and incessantly pestered locals with questions, while I was a methodical planner and standoffish. We’ve both mellowed over the last few years. She’s far more willing to listen to my advice and navigation, and I’m bolder and more random in my adventures. But back then? We could barely agree on where to go for dinner.

Tension mounted when Mom found and signed us on with local tour group going to Morocco. I chafed at the idea; we’d been in Spain for only a day and a half, and she already wanted to visit another country? It was a foolish sentiment in retrospect – these days I’d kill for a $50 trip to another continent – but I was more concerned with logistics. How long would it take to get there? What would we see? Can the people running this tour group be trusted? Where is the American embassy in case something happens? Our cell phones didn’t work; how would we find each other in case we got separated? These questions are kind of important. This was happening in May 2011; the Arab Spring was just getting underway in Morocco. Mom just shrugged and said to roll with whatever happens, and I inwardly cringed and prepared for the worst.

The bus arrived around dawn. Two hours later, we were on board a ferry at Tarifa – a serious contender for the Windiest Port Ever – and en route to Tangier. For all you curious San Francisco Bay Area commuters out there, it was comparable to going from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square; nice accommodations, a little crowded, and far too brief. After taking another bus into the older part the city – the protests hadn’t reached that far yet – we stopped and had lunch. Not only was there live belly dancing, but the host generously gave me a little bundle of their spices after I asked and complimented the food. Didn’t declare that when I went through customs…

Afterwards, all that was left for the afternoon was exploring the medina. Take your favorite farmer’s market, multiply it by a hundred, and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. I could spend months exploring all the nooks and crannies. Everywhere you turned, there was another ancient arch, mosaic, stairs, and art. It’s more than a shopping area; this place has survived more than 2,000 years, maintaining the heritage and culture of its people. Like any typical American kid raised on Safeway and Costco, I was pretty sheltered when it came to shopping abroad. This section of Tangier rocked my world. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, each stand and counter crammed with every food and item imaginable. To this day, I still recommend the medina for anyone looking for fresh food; it may not be shrink-wrapped, but you’ll never find such an amazing and delicious selection anywhere else. I looked at Mom to see how she was taking it.

That’s when things started getting weird.

Like I said, Mom wasn’t exactly the planning type. But I didn’t know the extent of it until I realized she’d traveled to Africa fully decked out in heels and jewelry. It was like having a big, neon, “Look at me, I’m a rich American!” sign on her back. The local peddlers certainly noticed; we had a small group of people trying to sell her stuff the moment we were outside. Unlike other tourist-driven places, these vendors didn’t give up when we walked away; they kept following us. That’s worrisome, as my mother is about 4’10” and could be easily confronted or even grabbed by an aggressive passerby. I’m normally spared that kind of attention; aside from being a guy, my olive skin tone usually lets me pretend to be a local. But not here. I was bombarded with offers, especially for cigarettes. After being turned down, one grizzled old fellow just laughed and said, “Do not worry! I know America! I come to Alabama with a banjo on me knee!

I didn’t fully appreciate how weird that moment was until later. I was halfway around the world, deep in a foreign port, trying to keep an eye on my mother, surrounded by merchants, and being heckled by an old man singing the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. It was quickly forgotten, though. Mom had to use the restroom, and the only option was to allow one of our guide’s assistants escort her to one nearby. I could only watch in silent apprehension as she disappeared around a corner, and hope I was just being paranoid. I stayed with the tour for another half an hour, but she still hadn’t returned. I was about to talk to the guide, when we entered a stylish rug showroom. The Moroccan rug industry is huge; vintage works go for thousands online. But there I was, right at the source. In middle of it all, my mother was haggling with the merchant. Apparently, she’d decided to skip ahead of the group, went shopping, and wanted to buy one of the most expensive souvenirs ever.

I understand why Mom wanted it. It was a beautiful piece of handwoven art. The intricate patterns of browns and blacks were absolutely stunning. It could’ve been put on exhibit in a museum. However, it was also bigger than any floor in her house; at best, she’d have to hang it on a wall. I briefly tried talking her out of it, but she hadn’t spent all of that time negotiating with the merchant for nothing. They offered a special shipping service to America – for an extra fee, of course – but Mom politely turned him down and said we’d take it back ourselves. And by that, she meant me. How much she spent on it was her business, but getting it back home was suddenly mine. The merchant was kind enough to get the rug bundled, but nothing else. So, I awkwardly lugged 50-plus lbs of luxurious, authentic Moroccan rug through the bustling streets of Tangier, onto the bus, across the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry, and another bus back to Málaga. It was kind of like backpacking…if your backpack was huge, off-balance, and didn’t have any practical use. I got quite a few confused stares and questions from fellow travelers, but I could only shrug wearily and say it was Mom’s idea.

Getting the rug out of Morocco was tricky enough. But getting it to America required some Tetrisstyle puzzle solving. You think getting bags checked is tedious? Try smuggling a rug sometime.The only feasible option was to somehow cram the rug in Mom’s rolling luggage bag, but there wasn’t enough room for her clothes and toiletries. I tend to pack light, so there was just enough room for her stuff in my bag. It took a few tries (and a sacrifice of two boxes of chocolates, sadly), but we got it to work. At the end of the week, we got our hidden treasure through customs in Madrid and checked in with the airline without any extra charges. We thought we were home free…until we got back to SFO and discovered that the rug had gone missing in transit. Because it just couldn’t be that easy. I think I was more livid than Mom at that point; I hadn’t hauled that thing all the way from Africa for it to simply disappear. It was eventually found and delivered the next day, and my mother finally got the rug she’d wanted.

…It’s currently sitting in storage, bundled in the same rope it came with. Four years later, and she still hasn’t touched it.

That used to annoy me, of course. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate that surreal, wonderful trip for the sake of experience. If it weren’t for Mom diving headlong into things, I don’t know if I’d ever set foot in Africa, let alone make such a bizarre adventure otherwise. I’m thankful for it; sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you never expect.