About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


According to Wikipedia -- that dubious resource on the internet -- the origin of "Towel Animals" as a nightly turndown surprise isn't known. It attributes the practice to Carnival Cruise Lines, but my guess is that it dramatically predates that company, though may have originated on one of the brands owned by Carnival (such as Cunard).

Regardless, they're fun little nightly visitors waiting to greet you as you return to your stateroom at the end of a (hopefully) long and enjoyable day.

Below are a few examples of critters we found in our cabin during our recent Holland America cruise. They range from reasonably simple (the whale) to the rather elaborate (gorilla and whatever that top critter is). (Having no idea what this one is supposed to be I made the assumption it's ghost dog Zero from the Disney movie NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Here's a link to that creature, what do you think?:  Zero

Zero the Ghost Dog?






Lobster? Crawdad?

Uncooked Calamari
And if you'd like to know a little more, here's a good article from USA Today:

Cruise lines surprise and delight with towel animals

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Swimming with Stingrays

Grand Cayman

I awake at 6am to get ready for the morning's planned expedition to swim with stingrays in The Cayman Island's central North Bay. Grand Cayman, the capital for the three Cayman Islands, is more or less a large "U", if the right hand side of the U was smeared by Picasso. On drugs. The open top of the U is a shallow bay, with coral and sand bars which make it impossible for anything larger than a good sized yacht to traverse.

The sting rays we are here to visit will add themselves to the variety of sea creatures we've seen up close and personal: turtles, manta rays, tropical fish, dolphin. Whales (humpback, gray and orcas) and sea lions from a safe, respectful distance.

By 6:45 I'm showered and am reading a chapter of Michael Palin's fascinating FULL CIRCLE, accounting his trip circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. My wife's alarm sounds and she gets up, commenting how much she's anticipating a return to our normal schedule. Breakfast, room service, should be here shortly.

I open the stateroom drapes and see the first sliver of land as we approach Georgetown. 

Tendering In
The ship's forward camera shows us moored and stable by seven. The captain commented last evening that he wasn't sure yet whether he would be tethering to a mooring bout or dropping anchor. By the image on screen I can't tell which he's decided upon, but we're here. A tall ship is visible in the camera's view. It's the Star Flyer, a similar but unrelated ship to the Sea Cloud II which we encountered in the Panama Canal. It reminds me how much I love the silhouette of a sailing ship. 

Very photogenic and evocative.

Other than the 'Flyer we're the sole cruise ship in port, and quick scan of the horizon suggests we'll have Georgetown to ourselves at least for the early morning.

A knock at the door and breakfast is delivered promptly on time. Over easy eggs, turkey bacon, coffee and English muffins for me; yogurt, sliced bananas and tea for my wife.

I go up on deck to get a few shots of the port. Three of the Veendam's tenders are already in the water, spinning about and seeming to play like a trio of young seals just back in the water after sitting for too long on the beach. 

We join the others in our group and tender over to Georgetown. Despite the shortness of the trip, the heat is oppressive. No air moves, making the transit to dockside miserable, even if a short one. But we arrive, are collected by our hosts for the day, Kelly Tours, and bundled off on a bus to a small marina on North Bay.

Capt Davin and Daryl
The boat is captained by the very able Davin, and crewed by Daryl, David and photographer Tia. Tia was sporting a Nikon AW1, same model as mine. We bonded immediately. The boat seated 20 quite comfortably,and the ride out was uneventful, serene and beautiful.

We arrived at the sandbar joining a group of eight other boats, with three of us arriving simultaneously. Our captain selected an area just to the east of the other boats, giving us our own area without the need to join the large group congregating in the middle.

Once in the water waves bash at you, trying to dislodge your footing. Dark shapes -- the rays -- approach from the surrounding ocean and race through and around legs, skimming smoothly through the crowd of people gathered at the stern of the boat. The larger, darker shapes, are females. Much smaller, sand colored shapes also race around. These are the males, which are harder to see and more likely to pause at or near your feet, making each step a little hazardous. 

I alternate between shooting video and still shots of the rays. They are beautiful and elegant, seemingly unafraid of humans. One of the boat's crew manages to capture one of the females for closer inspection, holding it so we can touch them (in the safer regions) and learn a but about stingray anatomy. 

We, perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, are assured that kissing one will bring seven years of good luck, though I'd venture to guess that's just a way to have a little fun at the tourists' expense. Nonetheless I kiss the thing (see below), which promptly spits seawater. This elicits a laugh from the crew members, and Tia manages to get it all on camera. 

When a stingray rejects your kiss, there's bound to be trouble.

A male ray

(Fortunately there are no major mishaps, though one elderly woman feeding them small sardine-like fish does get her arm sliced open when an overly aggressive ray tries to find more food. The injury is immediately attended to by the boat's crew and the two Veendam crew members along for the day. The Veendam crew take charge once we return to shore and promptly escort the woman back to the ship to be seen by the ship's doctor. The woman constantly reassures everyone she's all right, and to go on about our tour without her.)

After an hour in the water we're gathered back up and head back for the final leg of our two week adventure. We get back into town and head for the local "Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville" for a last-minute drink before tendering back to the ship. (We've been to a number of them in Key West, Las Vegas and elsewhere. Not deliberately collecting them, just keep running into their restaurants.)

This leads to the only real hiccup of the day, when I ask if the restaurant has a "full bar" the first response is one of confusion. The waitress doesn't understand the term. I refine the request and ask if they have vodka. It seems to me that a martini from Margaritaville in the Cayman Islands might make a fun and irreverent addition to the CHASING MARTINIS collection and book. Since this cruise has already given me fodder enough for an extra chapter, this might be a fitting closing shot.

The waitress assures me they have vodka so I order the martini. 

She returns a few minutes later with bad news: the bartender won't make a martini, telling the waitress they don't have olives. I tell her a lemon twist will be okay. She shakes her head. "We don't make martinis. Do you have another vodka drink you want?"

Margaritaville, no martinis allowed
I reconfirm they have vodka. Yes. Do you have vermouth? She isn't sure, but I tell her it's not necessary. (Stop screaming, this was a delicate situation.) Do you have lemons? Yes. Okay. Can they make a VERY DRY martini , with a lemon twist? No. Why not? The bartender won't make it.

For a moment I consider going "Jack Nicholson wants toast", but it isn't worth the effort. For another half a second I am tempted to order a double vodka with a lemon twist, but decide even the irony of that would be lost on the bartender. I order water. 

Nachos, with "water"
(Open Note to Jimmy Buffett: I'd be curious to know how much revenue you are losing to this sort of lateral thinking. I'm pretty sure you would have laughed it off and made me the drink, yes? Even the Marriott Waikiki was adventurous enough to give it a whirl at their outdoor Tiki Bar.)

Moments later I have a plastic glass of water where a martini should be. I'd even have accepted the drink in a plastic glass. It would have made a fun addition to the portfolio. We return to the ship without a Cayman Islands martini for the book, leaving the entirety of the Caribbean still unrepresented. 

Happily, the earlier-in-the-day spectacle of watching stingrays sliding and gliding through my legs and around the legs of others swiftly regains prominence in my limited attention span, and we retire to our stateroom with an amazing end to the cruise. It finishes the voyage with a suitable exclamation point, and I realize that come Monday, and a return to normalcy, that the more than a thousand shots taken in the last two weeks will need to be catalogued and edited for the many posts you have (hopefully) been reading these last two weeks.

It's Friday night and we arrive in Tampa early Sunday morning. It's been a busy and adventurous trip all around.

Time for some rest.

The author, kissing a Stingray

Monday, January 25, 2016

ROAD TRIP: Antigua, Guatemala


Breakfast in the Rotterdam dining room aboard Holland America's Veendam. We elect to eat there given the later departure of our tour (11am) as well as the overall quality of the food served there.

Palacio del Ayuntamiento
Departure from ship promptly at 11 on one of some six busses headed up over the foothills to the inland UNESCO Heritage city of Antigua, one of the most historic cities in Central America. The scene is chaotic until we're actually aboard our bus. The rest of our party is told to load onto a separate one, and we rendezvous again once we reach Antigua. 

Driver is Alex. Guide is Ferrrrnando, with a deliberate (and tongue in cheek) trilling of the Rs. His commentary on the way is interesting and informative, relating both the ancient MesoAmerican importance of Guatemala, as well as more recent history including the causes and impact of the country's relatively recent civil war. He assures us as we made our way inland, that Guatemalans are moving on and looking towards the future.

It's a beautiful drive, first through the flat lowlands abutting the Pacific then low hills and up into the Sierra Madre proper. Unfortunately the day is hazy with low lying clouds preventing us from seeing the summits of any of the volcanoes surrounding the historic cities of Viejo Ciudad and Antigua. 

Volcan de Agua
(We find out later, a good portion of the haze was what is called "vog". Common on Hawaii's Big Island, vog is short for volcanic fog, a combination of natural cloud cover/fog and the smoke from an active volcano...in this case Volcan de Fuego: Volcano of Fire. It was dense, obscuring the tops of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, though the sharply rising bases of the mountains gave a sense of scale and power.)

As we arrive in town, I am astounded at Alex's skill in maneuvering the full-sized tourist bus through the tight streets and intersections of old town Antigua. He deftly passes signs and other vehicles with at-times only inches to spare. I worry at one point when he comes nose to nose with an aggressive three wheel taxi, but Alex backs off and allows the taxi to pass rather than squashing it like a bug on the bus' front grill.

We disembark at the Jade Museum and store just after 12:30. Fernando tells us we need to be back at the same spot by 4pm for the return to the ship, which gives us roughly three and a half hours to explore the town. With six people in our group we do the customary milling about for a few moments before deciding on a direction. We turn right on Calle Quartero (4th Street) and head west for the Plaza Central.

Two things will immediately catch your attention in your first few minutes in Antigua. One is the architecture, a beautiful and old worldly classicism which evokes the city's history in a real and tactile fashion. 

The second is he constant assault of street merchants who aggressively want to sell you tchotchkes, toys, fake jade, fabrics or jewelry, often in combinations of all the above. It's an unavoidable aspect of your visit, and you become accustomed to the constant need to firmly say no, though that deters only about half of the people who are mostly women and who will continue to offer you their wares, tailing you down the streets as they do so.

But the true character of Antigua is found, as in many Latin American cities, behind the walls of the buildings. Entering shops, restaurants or exhibits you find beautiful courtyards, serene retreats from the maddening din of the street. Here you can pause, wander about and shop, eat or drink coffee in a quiet and friendly environment.
We found such courtyards at the Antigua Gallery of Art, The Museo Choco, and several other spots along our walk.

The Central Plaza is, plainly speaking, a madhouse -- or at least was on the day we visited the town. We were there on a Saturday, which might explain the chaos, and found the park at the middle of the plaza was chock full of tourists, local visitors, the omnipresent street hawkers, and children playing. The only real reason to visit the Plaza is to see some of the astounding and historic architecture of the buildings lining the outer edge, and we found that it is best to spend your time on the side streets instead of in the main square.

Arco de Santa Catalina
Inside the Mercado
One of the necessary viewings in the city is the famous Arco de Santa Catalina which nicely frames the street and surrounding buildings, a bit of history kept in good repair by the five star hotel which now occupies the facilities. A walk up Calle del Arco is a pleasant and representative experience, and if you have limited time in the city it's the one thing I'd most strongly recommend. We shopped at one of the little mercados, buying several items -- table runner, large fabric bag and other things -- at reasonable prices.

Mime's the word
Dodging the street hawkers and a very popular street mime (who attracted a sizable crowd), we ducked into the Bistrot Bourbon for a quick lunch of paninis, beer, and what is my official Guatemalan Martini. Intriguingly enough the martini was a mixture of Stoli vodka with Cinzano vermouth -- a combination I'm certainly going to investigate further upon my return home.

Antigua strikes me as an historic adventure worthy of a visit, but the traveler needs to be aware of the continual assault from the hawkers, some very aggressive, and the crowded nature of weekends in the city. Otherwise it's a place with a lot to offer, and any student of Guatemalan history will certainly want to have a look at one very important center.

Must sees: 
Ruins of La Iglesia Concepcion Convento 
Catedral de San Jose
Walk up Calle del Arco
Lake Atitlan

Guatemala is a beautiful country, and the people warm and inviting. We were unable to get to several areas which merit discovery (Tikal, Lake Atitlan, the Caribbean coast), and are saving them for a future visit. 

As we return to the ship, Guide Fernando conveys the heartfelt belief that Guatemala's message to the world is "Yes, we know we had problems, but we're better now. Please come back, we have a lot to share."

It would seem to be a good idea.

Catedral de San Jose

Saturday, January 23, 2016

THE DAILY ESCAPE: Guatemalan Street Merchants

These ladies are part of a small army of merchants who will follow you through the streets of Antigua, Guatemala in an effort to sell you blankets, tchotchkes and other merchandise.

They can be quite aggressive, but the beauty of this 
UNESCO Heritage city is worth the added distraction.

Friday, January 22, 2016

ROAD TRIP Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta

The morning began quite early for us. 5:30am, adjusted eastward two hours since our departure from San Diego. We showered and got ourselves ready for the day. Breakfast delivered a few minutes before the scheduled 6-6:30 window. Fortunately for room service I had donned my clothes before hearing the porter's soft knock at the door.

Martha's ready to go!
We departed the stateroom promptly at 7:05 and were pretty much the first people checking in with our guide on the dock. Martha, the very energetic and friendly tour guide from Vallarta Adventures, was trying to corral twenty two visitors headed into the Sierra Madre for what was (accurately) billed as an off road "Eco-Safari". Despite the promise of a rather rough ride and a three-quarter hour guided Eco-walk through the rainforest, the majority of patrons were several years our senior. The only younger participants were the tour employees and one of the ship's photographers sent along to document the adventure.

Dockside we were transferred into a small shuttle bus, which carried us a mile or so up the road for a rendezvous with the two Unimog military vehicles which would be our rides for the excursion. We piled in to the open air rear cargo/seating area and set off up the highway, immediately discovering that a) warm jackets were indeed a necessity, and b) any attempt at styling one's hair for the day was a completely wasted effort.

We shortly arrived at the town of Bruceria. 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest along the coast from Puerto Vallarta. Turning inland, we followed a dry riverbed which became consistently less dry the further into the mountains we drove. The makeshift roadway carried us up into the Sierra Madre, dodging the occasional wandering cow, dog or other driver until we arrived at a  locked gate, demarking public land from a private reserve. The riverbed became a very rough "road" from that point onward, but the terrain wasn't much of an obstacle for our driver or the Unimog. In fact, it should be noted that the driver would later slow down more significantly for speed bumps in a town than he did for the rocks in the riverbed's irregular terrain.

Martha takes charge!
Not that I'm complaining. It was a great deal of fun, though a few of the older members of our little Familia (as Martha labeled us) might not have been quite so enthusiastic about it. Pulling oneself up into the Unimog isn't a strain, particularly for travelers with canes. No overt complaints, though a few grumbles from the more fashionable travelers in our midst. 

Arriving at our first stop, the unimogs were backed into a side grotto, and we all disembarked for a moderate walk through the forest. Martha and Adrian, her partner/guide from the other vehicle, took turns explaining this part of the Sierra Madre's biosphere as we came along them, identifying dangerous plants to avoid, beneficial ones and the services they could provide, as well as a few small members of the forests fauna -- a large termite nest and several examples of the native ant species. The larger animals and bird species kept their distance, though we heard periodic vocalization examples of both in the distance.

Clambering back into the Unimogs the two-vehicle convoy set off back down the riverbed again in search of "Sarita's house". Within a few very fast-paced minutes as we raced across the rough terrain, slowing just once to ford a pile of rocks and sand that was daunting even for our military-grade transportation. I quickly labeled it a speed bump, which elicited an ironic laugh from my fellow passengers.

Sarita's house in fact was located in a compound located twenty or so
 feet above the riverbed on a natural hillock, across the way from a forty foot cliff face at a bend in the river. The two vehicles clawed their way up the  steep driveway -- dirt path, really -- and parked off to one side. There were four structures, with the house situated at the rear. A wood shed to fuel the large open air save and frying pan was off to the left, and to the right was a wood structure with a roof and open walls. Sarita was already hard at work at the oven, patting down homemade corn tortillas, flattening them on a press and slapping them down on the pan to heat up. Off to one side were an assortment of beans, avocado and rice for the tacos, as well as a sampling of local peppers to be tried at your own risk. Several of the group tried their hand at molding and flattening a tortilla, to various results. Sarita generously told everyone how well they did, regardless of actual performance.

After a brief and very pleasant visit we were off again, regaining asphalt after a ten minute drive down the remainder of the riverbed, slowly morphing itself into first a dirt road then an actual paved road towards the center of Bruceria, turning onto a larger highway for a smoother trip further up the coast and across the foothills to the picturesque seaside town of Sayurita. Echoing the more traditional city centers with its streets of shops, bars and vendors running down to a colorful and crowded main beach, Sayulita was a welcome stop enabling us to climb out of the Unimogs and wander aimlessly for a time before we again clamber up and head off for lunch at isolated beach over the coastal foothills from town. 


Martha serves lunch
Lunch was served on a beautiful seaside events building, overlooking a nearly empty beach. Heavy on the beans, carbs and tasty meats...and a blood red punch served optionally with or without Tequila. Given that the bottles of Tequila were generously left on the tables, you could choose your own percentage concoction, some creating a much stronger drink than others.

Unfortunately the time came, all too quickly, for the return drive to the ship. Martha delivered the bad news, and for the last time we dragged ourselves, now laden with lunch, up into the vehicles for the forty minute drive back to the port. Heavier, sun-tired and slightly the worse for wear, but much richer for the experience.