Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thirty-One? More like Thirty-FUN!

Yes, it's true, I am now 31 years old. Being in my 30s is no longer a novelty and I can't really claim to be in my late 20's anymore (20-11, anyone?). To celebrate my birthday, we had dinner at Lone Star Taqueria and then headed to Bonwood for the best economically priced bowling around. Who else has replay camera that let you re-watch all your amazing shots? And their 3 game special is unbeatable ($8 for 3 games + shoes, I think). Most of us only bowled one game though. With 5 people per lane that seemed to take up plenty of time to make me feel like I'd been bowling.

31st Birthday 003
Taco Town! (Not really)

31st Birthday 025

31st Birthday 024

31st Birthday 080
I bowled a 147. I'll take it.

A few days later, I also had some good friends out to my parents' house for Sunday dinner, which was a rare, but very nice occurrence (not my going home for dinner, but bringing friends with me).

In trying to do some self-assessment on this, the anniversay of my birth, I went over the past year and tried to see what all I'd done. The older I get the faster time seems to fly by, so it was nice to look back and see that actually a year does take quite a long time. I don't want to steal any thunder from my annual Christmas Card in a few months, but here's a brief list of thingss I've done in the last 12 months:
  • Successfully defended my dissertation, completed my dissertation manuscript, and graduated with my PhD
  • Found a job that I enjoy that pays me an honest wage
  • Purchased a brand new car
  • Traveled to Boston, Seattle, Yellowstone, the Bahamas, and other parts more local.
  • Been diagnosed with Diabetes, changed my eating and exercise habits, and lost 30 pounds
  • Moved in with some cool guys in a very nice place
In hindsight, that seems like plenty for one year, right? :)

Just for funsies, here's a photo from this year's party and one from last year's birthday party:

31st Birthday 020-1

30th Birthday

Looking ahead to my next year, I'd like to keep up my improved healthy lifestyle, get my car paid off, maybe start looking at purchasing my own place to live (people keep telling me that it's a great time to be buying), do some more traveling, and keep looking for Mrs. J.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cruise Control: Days 6 & 7

Just to tie up the loose ends of our cruise, Saturday morning, we got up at a decent hour, got dressed and went up for breakfast. The debarkation process was very structured, and unless you had an early flight and wanted to carry all your luggage off the boat yourself, you were assigned numbers to keep everyone for trying to leave at once. Our numbers were fairly high, and we wouldn't be leaving town until the next day, so we took our time eating and then leisurely headed down to the 3rd level when our number was called.

Upon leaving the boat, we had to go through what was essentially baggage claim and then customs, which we managed to do without incident. Upon completing that process, Brandon went off to find a van to take us to our hotel.

This was the view upon entering the van:
What are the Odds?

It was all we could do to keep from busting up laughing.

Let me explain: all week long, at a table near ours at dinner time there was a very large black lady, who apparently looked like someone from one of those Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor movies that I've never actually seen. All week, we were trying to get a decent photo of her. Up to this point, the best we'd gotten was this:

Good timing?

So, to find ourselves in the van with her, out of all the thousands of people on the boat, was just too funny. We managed to get this final, better photo of her:

Seriously, What are the Odds?

Anyway, it was funny to us to end up in the same van with her and her husband after noticing them all week.

The van took them to the airport first, and then us to our hotel, which was near the airport. We relaxed by the pool for a bit, then took a walk to a Wendy's a few blocks away for lunch.

At some point in the afternoon, we decided that we ought to try to find a movie or something to do that night, so with the help of the internet (Fandango + Google Maps, FTW), I managed to find a few nearby theaters that looked like they'd be near a place we could find dinner as well. I printed out the movie listings page from Fandango, that also had the address for the theatre on it.

I'd looked at the directions from our hotel to the the theater and it seemed pretty straightforward. Pretty much just 20 blocks or so, straight down the main highway near our hotel. The 8 of us had to split up between two cabs, and as the other group was getting in their cab, I asked if they knew where they were headed. They didn't, so I handed Mel the sheet with the theater listings and pointed to the theater address on it. Unfortunately this sheet also had another theater listing at the top, and when she handed it to the driver, the driver assumed she meant the one at the top of the page. We didn't realize this until 15 minutes later our cab was at one theater and the other cab was at another one. Sad! Given that it had cost us about $20 to get to our respective locations, we ended up deciding to just stay put and see movies where we were.

Brandon, Eric, Julie-Ann, and I found a Qdoba for dinner and then decided which shows to see. Brandon and Eric opted for Inglorious Basterds, and Julie-Ann and I saw (500) Days of Summer (which for me was the 2nd time, but still very enjoyable, and maybe less bitter and more sweet, than the first time I'd seen it. There's a lot in that movie that makes me laugh, and also some sadness and frustration that hits close to home for me. The other group (Cara, Colleen, Mel, and Kellen) saw Julie & Julia much to Kellen's chagrin.

We all ended up back at the hotel fairly late, and hit the sack.

The next morning we got up, walked to a fairly nearby McDonalds for breakfast, took the hotel shuttle to the airport and dragged our way through a long day of airporting. About an hour layover in Cincinnati along the way. Airport food for lunch (Pizza Hut) and dinner (Great Steak & Potato), finally arriving home to Salt Lake in the evening.

Julie-Ann's Tat
Julie-Ann rocking her airbrushed tattoo in the Cincy airport

Kind of a long, tiring day. Definitely good to be home again. Quite a great trip overall, though. I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up!

2 Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cruise Control: Day 5

Our 5th day on the cruise brought us to port in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, and home of the world-famous Atlantis resort. I only mention it because it was all I knew about Nassau prior to my going there. I've seen it featured on ESPN's late night broadcasts of "World's Strongest Man" competitions, and also heard recently that the Miss Universe pageant was hosted there, just the week before we were in Nassau.

Oddly enough, we never actually went over to check out the resort. We ate breakfast and then headed down to the pier to wait for our "Catamaran Sail and Reef Snorkel" excursion to get started. Once we'd been rounded up with the rest of the group, we hiked over through part of town to where the Catamaran was docked and started "sailing" out to the reef. I use quotes because on the way out to the reef we were just going by motor. Which was still fun, just not quite sailing. Anyway, it was a fun ride out, once we got comfortable with the boat and with relaxing on the netted area suspended over the water.

Friends & Atlantis
Atlantis resort in the background

Me on the net
I included this photo only because if you look close you can see the bruise on my right arm where I got stung at Grand Turk.

I'm on a boat, son!
I'm on a boat!

On the catamaran
I'm (also) on a boat!

Upon arriving at the reef we were issued snorkel gear and released into the water to check things out. About that same time, they started feeding the local fish, so that worked pretty good to get a lot of them swimming toward the boat. And there were lots of fish. Fish with fancy colors and a variety of sizes, though mostly relatively small.

My mask didn't fit quite as well as the one I'd had the day before, and the life jackets they gave us to use didn't have a strap that went through my legs, so it was a little more in the way than the ones we'd used previously also. So the snorkeling was a little trickier and I got a mouthful of ocean water a couple times. That said, it was still very fun swimming around out there and watching the fish. Once we were all out swimming, it got pretty tough to find any of the others in our group. I started swimming toward a bald guy several times that I thought was Eric, only to discover that it wasn't him.

I don't remember exactly how much time we spent snorkeling, probably 45 minutes or so. Then we got back on board the catamaran, returned our gear and began the trip back to port. This time, they did get the sails out and we really did sail on our way back. Felt about the same as when the motor was on, but not quite as noisy. They also gave us some snacks (chips) and drinks (punch or water or rum punch for those who wanted it). We enjoyed our relaxed trip back to port.

Have some juice!
Eric with some "punch"

The sails

Sailing back

Cruise Ships in Port
All the cruise ships in port. Our is the 3rd from the left with the big blue thing on top.

Upon leaving the boat, we were all ready for some food, and someone said they'd seen a Burger King during our walk through town to the boat, so we headed out in search of that. It was strangely comforting to know that Burger King is pretty much the same in the Bahamas as it is in America (I know, the Bahamas are right next to America). Except that the bathroom was out of paper towels. Okay, maybe that's the same as American Burger King.

After lunch, we headed over to a big flea market type building in search of cheap souvenirs. This was a big metal warehouse tightly packed with rows of people selling T-shirts, hats, jewelry, handbags, cigars, toys, and other similar stuff. I'm a little disappointed that I didn't take a photo of this place, but I guess at the time it didn't seem that noteworthy.

The funniest part to me is that anything you saw for sale in one place, you could find for sale at least 4 or 5 other times as you walked through. Made for fun negotiating, as you could ask each vendor their price and get a feel for what would be the best price you could get. Every thing was "for you: special price, half off". Who knows what the original price was. :) I ended up buying a necklace, a T-shirt, and a beach towel that looks like the Bahamanian flag. The first vendor I asked about the towel gave me an initial price of $20, which I passed on. Then I saw another one, and decided to ask again. Brandon asked me before I went over there how much I'd be willing to pay and I said, "$10". Then I asked the lady selling it how much it cost and she said "$10". I felt like I probably should have negotiated for a better price, since she started at $10, but since that was already what I felt like I'd be willing to pay, I decided to skip the haggling and just take it.

After we'd finished shopping, we decided to head back to the boat. We were all pretty worn out at this point. After getting cleaned up, we went up to the deck to relax. After a bit of that, I headed down to check out another trivia game which turned out to be a "Name the person in this picture" game, but of people from the black and white era of film. Needless to say I didn't win that one. Around 5 there was a meeting to discuss the debarkation process for that evening and the next morning. Then it was off to our last dinner.

Atlantis Resort
Picture of Atlantis taken from on board the ship

It was a little sad to realize that this would be the last night I'd be enjoying our delicious cruise dinners, with warm chocolate melting cakes. Eric and Brandon managed to order steaks again as they'd done every night (sometimes along with another entree). As it was Colleen's birthday the next morning, we had our wait staff sing her happy birthday and they put a candle in some baked alaska for her to blow out.

Last night of steak
Da bringing Eric his last steak :(

Happy Birthday Olean!
Happy Birthday, Olean!

After dinner, we finished packing our bags and set them out to be picked up by the porters. Then we went up to the deck and watched "The Express" on the big movie screen, then headed down to bed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cruise Control: Day 4

Sorry for the lapse in cruise blogging, I had to take a few days off to celebrate my birthday. Maybe I'll get around to talking about that in a day or two once I've dealt with the photos a bit. Suffice it for now to say I had an enjoyable evening of dining and bowling on Friday, and Sunday a few friends made the trek to Grantsville to enjoy some of my dad's cooking.

Anyhow, back to the lecture at hand...

The 4th day of our cruise was probably the most packed with fun and activities, which is saying a lot considering everything we did throughout the week. A new morning found us at a place called Half Moon Cay, a private island owned by the Carnival cruise line. Because this island was not fancy enough to have a pier for docking the boat and disembarking, you had to get on a small ferry (called a "tender") to get over to the island. As we'd signed up for a "Stingray Adventure" excursion, we were able to leave the boat earlier than the general populace.

Half Moon Cay
Arriving at Half Moon Cay

Most of the folks heading over with us had excursions right away, but ours wasn't for a couple hours, so we went over to check out the beach, and were pretty much the only people over there. And what a beach it was. This sand was unlike anything I've seen before. Like flour from your kitchen flour bowl. Nary a rock to be felt. And the water was a spectacular beautiful blue. Quite the place for sure.

Beach Chairs
Our own private beach

Half Moon Cay
Enjoying the beach

Half Moon Cay
All of us with the ship

After we checked out the beach for a while, we headed back towards where we got off the boat to get a quick ride in a packed truck over to our "Stingray Adventure". Upon arriving, we were given snorkel gear and the headed down to a little hut by the shore where we got a little bit of information about the sting ray situation. They had a fenced in area where they had 9 sting rays. We would get 10-15 minutes to go down and snorkel around in that area (while there was a shallow area, most of it was probably 10-15 feet deep) with the sting rays, and then we'd form a big circle in the shallow area and get to see and feed the sting rays up close.

I'd purchased one of those "underwater camera" things to take some pictures during the experience. Upon returning home, I had some issues getting the film to rewind, so I had to open the camera and expose a few of the frames, but overall, with a little fill-light help from Picasa, they turned out fairly well.

With our snorkel gear

Sting Ray w/ Swimmers
Best underwater shot of people and a sting ray

Making a splash

The sting rays are coated in a filmy substance that makes them feel kind of soft and squishy to touch. While we were standing in the circle, they were swimming around our legs and would often squeeze in between two of us to go from outside the circle to inside, or vice versa.

To feed the sting rays they gave us each a small, dead squid to hold in our hands and then the main lady in charge came around with a sting ray and had it suck the squid out of our fist. Kind of a neat experience, but over very quickly, without really getting an idea of what was going on at the time. Another trick they would do with the sting rays was to pull them up out of the water and then the ray would spit water out of its mouth, often at someone (though not intentionally). They also got one of the rays to show off its stinger, located not at the end of its tail, but midway up. In addition to the sting rays, they also had a sea cucumber, a sea star, and a conch that they passed around for us to check out.

Snorkel Brandon
Brandon in his snorkel gear

Feeding the Sting Ray
Feeding the sting ray - if you look close you can see it taking the squid out of my hand

Feeding the Sting Ray
Others feeding the sting ray

After our adventure, which I really felt was worth the $25 we paid, we hiked halfway back across the island to get our lunch, a barbecue provided by the boat's staff at some facilities they had on the island. Kind of a big mess, especially when it came to getting beverages in the world's tiniest cups, but it was livable.

After lunch, we headed back to the beach for more swimming and sunbathing. The beach had tons of chairs and shade devices for relaxing on/in. We did that for another couple hours before finally heading back to the boat. Definitely the best of the two beaches we hung out during the cruise, not that Grand Turk was terrible by any means. Just a good job by Carnival to have the other beach first.

Half Moon Cay
Julie-Ann enjoying the beach

Half Moon Cay Beach
No longer all to ourselves

Brandon and the Shade Machine
Brandon relaxing in the shade

After riding back to the boat on one of the tender ships, we headed back to our rooms to shower and recuperate a bit. Then we headed up to the deck to relax and enjoy a last look at the island before leaving.

Trivia Celebration
Waiting for Brandon to get out of the shower, with my trivia prizes

Half Moon Cay
The guys with Half Moon Cay behind us

Lazy Afternoon
Hanging out on the deck

As we headed out for the evening, the sun was setting next to a nice rainstorm in the distance,

Sunset & Storm
Sunset & Storm


Enjoying the sunset
Enjoying the sunset

Sunset over the Caribbean
Sunset over the Caribbean

Before dinner, we went to another song and dance show in the theater. Then it was off for another delicious dinner. And also, another dance number from our entertaining wait staff.

After dinner, we hung out on the deck for a while. Rather than a movie on the deck that night, there was a big party with lots of fun line dances (Electric Slide, Cha-Cha Slide, Follow the Leader, the money dance, Chicken Dance/Macarena combined together, Cupid Shuffle, probably a couple others) that we took part in. Sadly we don't have any photos or videos from that, but it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the cruise.

Finally, we called it a night and headed off to bed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cruise Control: Day 3

Our 3rd Day on the ocean brought our first port of call: Grand Turk, part of Turks & Caicos. I really don't know whether that's part of the Bahamas, or part of another country or what. Just know that when we woke up, we were at some land. :)

That morning we stopped by the shore excursions desk to sign up for the excursions we had planned for the next 2 stops (nothing planned for Grand Turk), only to find out that the two we were thinking of doing (parasailing and sailing to an island for snorkeling and stingrays and stuff) were both sold out. I'd been a little uncomfortable waiting so long to try to sign up for something, since my cousin had said that the good ones would sell out. We'd had a big planning meeting trying to work out what everyone wanted to do, and hopefully find some things that would be fun for everyone. Now, in the matter of about 30 seconds, we scrambled and came up with some other options that were still available (stingrays not on their own island, and sailing on a catamaran to a reef with snorkeling) for a reasonable price ($25 and $55 respectively).

Grand Turk
Grand Turk - view from the pier

After getting that worked out, we headed down to get off the boat. This shore stop was the shortest of the 3 we did, and we were only going to be in port until about 2 pm, so it was okay that we didn't have anything big planned, other than hanging out at the beach and swimming in the ocean. Speaking of which, swimming in the ocean would be about 10 times as fun if the water didn't make you want to throw up the minute it got in your mouth. Do people who grow up by the beach get over that aspect of it?

Arrival at Grand Turk
Our ship

Grand Turk
Group shot on the beach

Anyway, the water was nice and refreshing and we had fun swimming around. Floating on your back in the ocean is much easier than in a pool. Guess that whole salt water aspect goes both ways, huh?

While we were swimming around, we swam out to the rope that divided where were bathing from the open ocean (not sure what the point of this was, other than to perhaps let you know you were far enough out and not to swim too far from the beach and die). I tried to rest on the rope, but found that it wasn't nearly buoyant enough to support me, so I moved over a tad to a plastic buoy on the rope. As soon as I put my arm up on the buoy, I felt a sharp pain in my arm, and quickly pulled my arm off of the buoy. I couldn't see anything at first but on closer inspection found a tiny red pinprick of a mark where the pain originated. I'm assuming I was stung by some type of jellyfish, but was surprised at how tiny the mark was. It continued to itch/burn/mildly bother me and eventually it blossomed into a minor bruise along with some red welts. The bruise faded quickly enough, but surpisingly the welts are still faintly visible even now (3 weeks later!), though not at all painful. Good one Mother Nature!

After some swimming time, we wandered around the tourist trap of stores located on the island and eventually I went for a walk down the beach with Eric and Kellen to see what we could see. Which really wasn't much of anything. After that, I decided I was ready to get back on the boat, and Julie-Ann and Brandon also joined me.

Leaving Grand Turk
Brandon and Julie-Ann by the welcome sign

Grand Turk
Grand Turk - view from on deck

We got back on the boat, had a late lunch, showered, and then found a nice shady spot (due to some clever thinking on our part about which way the boat would be going once it left port) for some reading that quickly turned to napping.

I woke up in time to go downstairs and win a medallion playing Win, Lose, or Draw (I was way too competitive for the crazy way that had that set up, but our team ended up winning anyhow), and then another "Piece of Ship" trophy (along with a hat and some cheap wine) for sports trivia in a trivia round that went to sudden death overtime. I gave the runner-up the wine (after getting my photo taken with it).

Trivia Prizes
Me with my sports trivia prizes

After trivia time, we went to the theatre for the nightly show that consisted of, first a guy who sang old Motown hits who was hugely popular with the audience. When he said he had to end his show, I thought people were going to riot. Did I mention a huge portion of our cruise consisted of African-American families? After he had left the stage, we were treated to a redneck-type comedian who bombed unlike anything I've ever seen. He was not funny. Painfully so. Probably didn't help that the crowd wasn't happy about the first performer ending his set.

Anyway, that was an awkward 30 minutes, and then we got to go to dinner. Another delicious meal, I'm sure, followed by more warm chocolate melting cake, which Eric managed to misname every time (Molten lava chocolate cake? Chocolate molten cake?). Probably the highlight of Wednesday's dinner was a dance number put on by the wait staff, to "Jai Ho".

Jai Ho!
Wait staff getting their groove on

After dinner, we wandered up to the deck and hung out and watched part of another movie on the deck (Quantum of Solace). I lasted about 5 minutes before falling asleep, and when I woke up, I headed down to bed.