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Monday, December 5, 2016

Day 7, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (At Sea)

Gave my final presentation of the cruise, "Ghosthunting Florida," which included a crash course on paranormal investigation followed by examination of a number of specific reputedly haunted sites in Key West and Miami. Was was to tighten it up to just 30 minutes as bingo was scheduled to take place in the theater right after. Always glad to accommodate the needs of the entertainment program but, unfortunately, many of the people coming in for bingo were stunningly rude, walking in front of the podium while I was talking, chatting noisily, and generally being disruptive. This prompted people who had come for my presentation to go as far as yelling at the oblivious, trashy bingoers and to go to my poor activities manager after the event and complain to her, although she was certainly blameless in the whole thing (the person selling bingo tickets and not running crowd control on their customers, however, probably warrants a good thrashing). 

Day 6, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (At Sea)

Had a fun and productive day at sea and, among other things, gave my third presentation of the cruise, on "Exploring the Bermuda Triangle," which is always popular and in this instance had a turnout of about 80 passengers. 

Day 5, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (Basseterre, St. Kitts)

Went ashore on island of St. Kitts for the first time and spent time exploring Basseterre, capital city of the Federation of Kitts and Nevis. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Day 4, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (Philipsburg, Saint Martin)

Made port in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, about 9:30 p.m. Had coffee and breakfast in the cafe and then went ashore with an eye to eventually renting a couple of chairs and sitting on the beach a few hours. Noticed significantly larger police presence on the main street than during previous visits and everything seemed a littler seedier than it had before and, while it certainly did not fee dangerous in any way, it was a little offputting and made us decide against the beach. Had a couple of beers at the Greenhouse, a restaurant-bar on the way back to the cruise terminal that we have gone to several times before. 

Returned to town on my own to take a few additional photos and visit the museum run by the St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation to see if I could get answers to a few questions I had about the history of the island. Met museum director Elsje Bosch, who generously spent more than an hour visiting with me, showing me around the musuem, and helping me sort out things I had questions about. Learned a number of interesting things about the island that I had not known before and which will allow be to correct some errors picked up in my earlier research. 

Day 3, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

Gave my first destination presentation, on "The History of St. Martin," at 10 a.m. in the Celebrity Central theater. 

Made port in San Juan, Puerto Rico, about 3:30 p.m. Went ashore soon afterward and head directly to the Cathedral of Saint Join the Baptist to visit and take pictures. Then, went across the street to Hotel El Convento to reprise our tradition of drinking a pitcher of sangria there whenever we are in town. 

Walked back through the darkened streets of Old San Juan and re-boarded the ship well ahead of its 9:30 p.m. departure. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Day 2, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection (At Sea)

Relatively quiet sea day as we continued south through the Caribbean toward San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Slept late, until about 10:30, as I had been up late working the night before. Had breakfast at the buffet. 

Tried walking around the promenade deck, Deck 5, but discovered the front and back ends were blocked off to passengers and that a smoking area had been set up in part of if, all of which made it unsuitable. Went to jogging track on Deck 15 but found it hard to maneuver through because it was so crowded and so only walked around once.

Had lunch in main dining room. Sat at tables between other people but none seemed overly inclined to socialize. Discovered on the way out that the ship was being decorated for Christmas. 

Spent a couple of hours working on the laptop in a funky little area Deck 7 midships called the Hideaway. Then, went back to room and worked a little longer before changing into trunks. 

A little after 4 p.m. went to the Solarium to sit in the hottub and chatted with five Canadians and three Brits, Abe, Nigel, and Amy, the latter travel professionals on a fam tour. Then went and sat in the sauna at the spa for 15 minutes.

Had dinner in the main dining room with two Canadian couples (Gene and Rosemary, Wayne and ??) and a Finnish couple (Tom and Martina), and enjoyed our time with them all very much. 

After dinner went to Ensemble Lounge to listen to a Beatles tribute musician and continue chatting with Tom and Martina. 

Picked up some cheese, olives, two pieces of coldcuts and some bread and butter from the cafe and was back in room by midnight, where I ate, drank wine, and worked for a couple of hours. 

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, sauteed mushrooms, coffee. 

Lunch: Seafood brochette (three shrimp and a scallop), iced tea, chocolate mousse, coffee. 

Dinner: Escargot; Caesar salad; rack of lamb (rare) with mashed potatoes, broccoli, and carrots; coconut sorbet. 

Drinks: Two glasses Tapiz 2015 Malbec (pre-dinner and nightcap), one glass Kendall Jackson cabernet sauvignon (dinner), one glass Pernod and water (after dinner). 

* Keep an eye out for one-day promotions on cruise ships. Ours today, for example, was offering a c. 50% or more discount on bottles of wine -- $20 each for bottles priced at up to $45 each in the dining room -- which passengers could then drink in their staterooms or take with them to the buffet (but not the main dining room).  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Day 1, Eastern Caribbean on Celebrity Reflection

Arrived early at Miami Cruise Terminal via shuttle from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, c. 10:15 a.m., due to it being able to leave about 20 minutes sooner than expected and a quick drive south on I-95 through a corridor dominated by palm trees, industrial parks, and self-storage facilities (tipped driver $2 for two bags handled).

Celebrity ground crew was very efficient and we got our suitcases check curbside in just a couple of minutes before heading into the terminal itself (tipped baggage handler $2). Went through security consisting of metal detectors and baggage scanners without any delays and then took escalators up to the second level for check-in. Took a little longer for me than for a regular passenger, as usual, because I show up with a letter from the corporate office rather than a ticket, but was still very quick. Got in line behind maybe 20 people, waited about 15 minutes, and were then some of the first people to board the ship, about 11:30. 

Got to explore ship and take care of a number of things before it got crowded, to include finding out how dinner reservations work, checking out the fitness center (which I never use), checking out the sauna in the spa (which I always use), visiting with one of the Park West Gallery art auctioneers, etc.

Mandatory safety drill at 3:15 p.m. These are much less onerous than they used to be, as muster stations now include places like the theater rather than outside, and as wearing or bringing life vests is no longer required. 

Right after the drill went to Celebrity Central, the small theater where I will be giving my presentations, to meet with Activity Manager Charlotte. Went to her office to discuss which lectures will work best, when I will be giving them, etc. 

Departed Miami Cruise Terminal at 3:30 p.m., as part of the 48-hour voyage to San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Lunch: Vegetarian Indian meal of rice, dahl/lentils, curried cauliflower, roti bread, spicy pickle, and ice tea. 

Dinner: Escargot; forest mushroom soup; prime rib (rare) with mashed potatoes, green beans, and carrots; dulce de leche (very much like creme brulee).  

Drinks: Five glasses champagne/brut (three probably about half full), one glass Kendall Jackson cabernet sauvignon. 

* Bring with you onto the ship anything you will want or need for about half a day, until your luggage gets delivered to your stateroom. 

* Carry a bunch of $1 bills to use as tips with baggage handlers ahead of boarding, for room service wait staff on board, etc. We usually bring between 50 and 100 of them just to be safe. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By Train from San Marcos, Texas, to Detroit

When I was making travel arrangements with the organizers of the ConClave science fiction convention in Detroit, for which I was a Guest of Honor for 2016, they asked me if I preferred to fly or take the train. I had actually been looking at the viability of making a train trip for more than a year at that point and the choice was therefore an obvious one for me. Suffice it to say that I have enjoyed it very much and may have found a new favorite mode of travel.

Most of my trip was on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line, which runs from San Antonio to Chicago, where I had a layover and needed to transfer to another train for the final six hours into Detroit. I initially assumed I would want to travel from San Antonio, but then realized that I lived a little bit closer to San Marcos, which was easier to get to and 50 miles or so further up the line.

Kept a log of my journey for anyone who might be interested!

* Arrived at the train station in San Marcos at 8 a.m. for a train scheduled to depart at 8:32. It arrived more than half an hour late, however, a little after 9. Did not realize my fare was 1st-class and was surprised when the conductor called my name and then had the steward for the sleeper car show me to my Roomette, Room #20 on the upper level and starboard/eastern-facing/non-station-facing side of car 2232. Train pulled out of the station at 9:09.

* Steward asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee and then directed me to the dining car for the final call for breakfast. One of the pleasant surprises of this trip was learning that food was included in my fare, which is a pretty big deal. Had scrambled eggs, grits, chicken sausage, a croissant, some cranberry juice, and my coffee (but should have skipped the sausage and stuck with my commitment to eating meat just once a day and then for lunch or dinner). Amtrak adheres to “community seating” in its dining cars, having unaffiliated people share tables to make the most of its space, and I ate with a nice lady from Oklahoma City named Felicia was had been visiting her daughter and grandson in San Antonio and had also boarded in San Marcos. Train pulling into Austin, about 40 minutes after San Marcos, as I finished up.

* Train stays in some stations longer than others and I had enough time in Austin to get out, stretch my legs, and take a few pictures before it pulled out about 10:09. Back in my cabin I propped up a pillow, found the most comfortable position I could, and closed my eyes. Sometime later, as I was dozing, I heard the conductor announce we were coming into Taylor, Texas, and that we would not be there long: “If you’re not planning on staying in Taylor, stay on the train.”

* Woke up about 1:30 to the announcement of final call for lunch in the dining car and got up and headed straight over to it. Was seated with a glum trio, father, grandmother, and grandson if I had to guess; older two declined to my eye contact or acknowledge my presence but the teenage boy did. Had a beautiful spinach salad that included cherry tomatoes, red onions, and cucumbers, with a balsamic vinaigrette, and some ice tea; declined grilled chicken with it because I was not that hungry and knew I would not want to spoil my appetite for a nice dinner.

* Pulled into Fort Worth shortly after I got back to my room from lunch. Got out to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine and take some pictures. Saw my breakfast companion was getting off to transfer and wished her well on the rest of her trip.

* Wrote, took pictures, and shot video between Fort Worth and Dallas. Wanted to get out at Dallas, where we were stopped for about 15 minutes, but no one was getting out of my car and the doors to it were not open, so I decided not to mess with it. Pulled out of Dallas a few minutes before 4 p.m.

* Lucias, the dining car chief, came by my room about 4:25 p.m. to take dinner reservations, offering 5:45, 6:30, and 7:15 as options, and for any number of reasons I took the latest one. Went down to the café car afterward to buy a cup of coffee (had pushed the call button for my steward to see if she had any left but she never came).

* Pulled into sleepy-looking little Mineola, Texas, about 5:30 p.m. and once doors on my car were not opened, so I just took a few pictures from inside. Pulled out at 5:40 and, as we picked up speed, the dining car steward announced that people with 5:45 reservations should head to dinner. Not hungry at all and glad I won’t be eating for another hour-and-a-half! Continued heading east as sunset neared through the Piney Woods region of Texas, marked by many streams and marshes. Have found this leg of the journey from Dallas to Texarkana to be a little dreary while driving, generally along I-30, but perfectly pleasant by train!

* Pulled into Longview, Texas, at 6:29 p.m. Conductor announced this was where people could get connecting buses to Shreveport, Lousiana. Was immersed in writing at this point and did not bother to see if I could get off and just took a couple of pictures from the window of my room. At 6:35 Lucius announced that people with 6:30 dinner reservations should go to the dining car. Pulled out at 6:36.

* Went to dinner at 7:15 and had a surprisingly good medium-rare steak! Enjoyed a baked potato, some vegetables, and a half bottle of cabernet sauvignon with it and then had date pudding cake and coffee for dessert.

* Worked for awhile in my room and planned to do so until 11 p.m. the latest at which I could call for turn-down service, but by 10 was exhausted and not getting anything done and so called for the steward and went to take a shower. Turned in a little after 11 and slept off-and-on throughout the night, periodically waiting up because of some noise or movement or when we pulled into a station; woke up at one point, probably around midnight, and saw we were in Little Rock, Arkansas.

* Woke up around 7 a.m., while we were stopped in St. Louis, Missouri, and decided to grab some breakfast in the dining car (pancakes, which were just OK, with some bacon, milk, and coffee). Went back to my room and spent the rest of my time on the train working, dozing, and watching the scenery as we passed through Missouri and then Illinois.

* Got into Chicago Union Station on time, right around 1:52 p.m.! Had been travelling with just a sales receipt and not actually tickets, and so had some printed for the rest of my trip first thing. Then went to Amtrak’s new Metropolitan Lounge to get something to drink, avail myself of the first Internet connection I have had in almost two full days, and wait for my departure time. Was also pleased during check in at the lounge to be offered an earlier train out of Chicago and be rescheduled for it! 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Most Recent Layover at Istanbul Atatürk Airport

Suffice it to say that, like many people, I am upset and saddened by the terrorist attack that occurred at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in Turkey on June 28, 2016. I have personally flown through this airport three times over the past decade and always had positive experiences there. 

When I flew out of this airport in October 2006, at the tail end of a three-week trip that had started in Athens and taken me through the eastern Mediterranean to Istanbul. During that trip I distinctly remember thinking how much better an airport it was than Washington Dulles International Airport, a somewhat sloppily run affair located in northern Virginia that I have had the misfortune of using any number of times over the years. 

My most recent visits to at the airport occurred in November 2015, when I stopped over there very briefly on my way to Ethiopia via Turkish Airlines, and then a few weeks later, in December 2015, when I spent about 12 hours in the terminal on my way back to the United States. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Catacombs of Paris

Over the years I have made a number of visits to the Paris catacombs, and the photos that appear here are from an expedition I made into them in 1990, as part of a story I was working on for The Planet, the student newspaper of the American University of Paris. Some of the photos include captions that I or someone else typed on their backs and when available I have included these in quotes. 

"Journalist Mike Varhola." This is what appears to be the sole picture of me taken during the "12 Hours Beneath the Streets of Paris," as my story was titled. 

This is the crew that I accompanied, which called themselves the Rock Eaters. None of them wanted their real names used in print but used nommes de guerre or had nicknames assigned to them by me for purposes of the story. The girl went by Pitou and she was the leader of the group. Her boyfriend and second-in-command is the kid with the sword. 

Above left: "'American Bull Terrier' examining the bone-filled passageway." One of the areas we passed through, dubbed the "Dragon's Throat," was half-filled with bones and skulls, forcing us to crawl through it. Anyone having issues with confined spaces or human remains would have had especial difficulty in this area. Above right: "A night at 'the beach.' From the left are the Dwarf, Pitou, and 'American Bull Terrier.'" (So named for the slogan on his jacket.)

"The shrine to the cataphile lost during the Terror. Tristan on the right (and the Dwarf on the left)." 

Above left: Surely not a stairway to heaven in such a place as this ... Today these steps lead nowhere and have at their head a capstone that appears to support the ceiling. On it, however, is listed the spot located some 43 feet above us, and originally this might have been part of a now-closed route to the surface. Above right: This shaft and the ladder set in it, which we did not follow, probably did lead up to the surface, likely via a manhole in a street. 

More to come! Have got another dozen or so photos I am going to scan and add and will see if I can find the story I wrote for the paper so that I can scan and post it. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Road to Vegas, Day 1 (Van Horn, Texas)

Headed out a little after 11 a.m. on the road for Vegas and the GAMA Trade Show, March 14-18, where we will be exhibiting Skirmisher Publishing's product line for game store retailers. Drove 435 miles, about a third the distance to our destination, and stopped for the night in Van Horn, Texas, where we checked into the historic El Capitan Hotel and ate dinner at the famous Chuy's restaurant

Above left, lobby of the El Capitan Hotel, which was built in 1930. Above right, the mural at Chuy's, which depicts Jesus guiding John Madden's touring bus to the restaurant, an event that has been attributed to much of its subsequent success. 

Started off heading south on Highway 281 to Bulverde, where we picked up Highway 46 west in Bulverde and took it to the junction with I-10 in Boerne to avoid going through San Antonio (although we are going to look at going even further north and west through Hill Country and picking up I-10 in Fredericksburg next time). Rained the first 200 miles or so, which slowed our progress and made the trip considerably more hazardous and stressful than it otherwise would have been, especially as many Texans do not know how to drive in inclement weather. Stopped for lunch in Junction, a little town at the westernmost edge of Hill Country, and ate lunch at Dairy Queen (the rules for what we will eat and where going out the window on a road trip); fries were nice and hot. 

Above left, the sign for Chuy's on the main street in Van Horn. Above right, Van Horn looks pretty quiet during the day, but those tracks in the midground of this picture get pretty busy at night, when about one train an hour goes noisily blasting by. 

When we passed through Van Horn six years ago, on our way to Las Vegas for the same trade show, we stayed at one of the many local motels but noticed the beautiful El Capitan Hotel, and I was resolved to stay there this time. After getting situated in our room, we headed out to dinner around 7 p.m. and as the sun set walked the half mile or so up main street to it. When we ate there previously Diane, upon the recommendation of our friend Karen Holmes, Diane had gotten the carne asado, which I tried and thought was wonderful. She has been talking about it ever since.and it was the only thing either of us was interested in ordering this time, and we were not disappointed.