Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cruise diary I: getting to the boat (last days of 2006)

We change our flight to avoid the coming blizzard. Really don’t want to miss the boat (a wonderful family trip that is a gift from Greg's father)! Rushing to get everything done 24hrs earlier than planned. Tension over "list" and what needs to get done. Table Mesa park-and-ride is full. We drive on to Broomfield park-and-ride. Hope our car won't be buried when we get back! Arrive at airport many, many hours in advance. Hang out near shops. Buy jibbitz, see Crocs boots and "hiking boots." Eat sandwiches. Was pleased to use up most of the perishables in fridge in sandwiches.

Kids enjoy playing on escalators and moving sidewalks. Board flight without incident. Flight takes off just as flakes begin to fall…

Tampa airport area
Baggage claim 12 at Tampa airport. I call La Quinta and they say to go to the door labeled Red One and catch a white van with lettering on the side that says The Blue One. We did. Watched the weather channel to see shots of Denver's blizzard. Walk across the “street” (read: huge, pedestrian-unfriendly, complicated, multi-lane intersection) to the "International Plaza." Rees says, "I hate plazas, I hate everything about them." Discovered the field we thought we were walking through turned into a lake. It was warm. The grass was green. I remember: we're in Florida. Hmmm. Might there be alligators in the water? Sure enough, we stumble across a sign: Warning, alligators may be present. Yes, we're not in Colorado anymore…

Find a food court. Kids are starving. I had eaten the last sandwich while waiting for the shuttle. Rees eats two 6" Subway sandwiches. Kadin eats his own sandwich then half of Greg's teriyaki chicken and sesame green beans.

Sleep well. Wake to have the hotel breakfast (avoiding some of the scary stuff and having a hard boiled egg, a banana, and an orange, which last me pretty well). Then back to the mall for haircuts and some sort of herbal concoction to stave off the cold Greg thinks he's getting. His plan: to work for the day at Starbucks. My plan: to amuse myself and the kids for the day. While waiting for the haircut place to open, we surf the web and find our originally scheduled plane had been canceled due to the storm. Phew! We are warm and happy, only a few miles from the boat that departs tomorrow. I look for info on public buses online. Find one site that says: the only people who take public transport in Tampa are those who have no choice. Hmmm.

Can't find an easy way to the Dali Museum across the bay in St. Petersburg, so instead, take the bus into town. We do okay, and even though the bus comes only once every half an hour, we only need to wait ten or fifteen minutes. I ask a girl who came to wait at the stop how much the bus costs. She snarls at me, almost like she couldn't believe I wasn't abusing her. I ask again, and she answers guardedly. It was clear she didn't want to talk to me or to any stranger.

We get a similarly harsh response from the driver and then we find out that for the kids to get the kid’s rate, they need ID. Kids? ID? And I just took their passports out of my purse this morning… So whatever, I pay the full rate for all of us and buy three day passes so we can take public transit at will. A man on the bus sees that we are here for the day and suggests that once we get into town, we take a trolley to Ybor city and walk around. That sounds like it would be suitably fun for the day. We transfer at the next mall to get the bus downtown.

We pass fast food restaurants and bail bond places and other marginal establishments. There is something called "The People's Church" where a bunch of people get on. Another guy asks some other passengers how to get to the Salvation Army. Then he launches into his story of his DUI conviction and how he had only had one beer. Everyone at the football game was drinking. Yes, he had refused the breathalyzer test, but that was because cops made him nervous and he didn't want to do what they said. He said it was about $700 to get his car back. Other passengers contributed their opinions, for example, that DUI was serious. That that was bad. Another woman, who I think got on at the church, told the guy that the only way for him to kick his addiction was through love of Jesus. Yes, that was the only way.

Downtown Tampa turns out to be a typical downtown: skyscrapers, office workers, luncheon places. I could see there was not going to be much to interest the kids. So we find one of the yellow trolleys and inquire. As luck (not) would have it, this particular trolley (there are 3 trolley lines and 1 streetcar line that are separate from the busses) was the “Hooters Express,” a free service from downtown to Hooters at lunchtime. Hooters in Tampa was just about the last place I wanted to go, but it was free. I perused the trolley brochure on board, and discovered that there were other places to eat near Hooters as it was in a complex called the Channelside development.

Channelside was near the aquarium and the pier our boat would leave from AND the streetcar that went to Ybor City. In the end, it seemed a fine place to go.

When we got to Channelside, it was past lunchtime. I had promised the boys we could eat at McDs or Burger King and amazingly, though we had passed several on the bus, we could find not a one anywhere near downtown Tampa. A good thing, really, but at this moment, for once, I wouldn't have minded.

We settled instead for a large, noisy Bennigan's. The food was not any better than McD's but about twice as expensive. The up side was that we got to sit with a nice view of the harbor and the docks.

After Bennigans, I thought we'd take the streetcar into Ybor City, have an ice cream, then return to the hotel. The kids had had enough and wanted to go back to the hotel right away. I was still thinking it was time to find IT, the cool part of Tampa. But even ice cream would not sway them. Just before we hopped back on the Hooters shuttle (ughh!) Kadin got a blister and stopped being able to walk. I remembered a CVS near the bus stop. We bought bandaids and sunscreen and waited for the bus back.

Some more interesting characters were in the park waiting for the bus. The wait this time was longer. The highlight came when we discovered there are tons of lizards in Florida, running in the grass, the bushes, and up trees. Salvation!

A person who wore a shirt with a restaurant logo—The Office—and JESUS tattooed on his arm was also waiting for the bus. He told me when he thought it would come. A couple walked by in full Penn State regalia and she even had blue and white painted fingernails. It was then I began to realize something was truly up, there didn't just happen to be more than a few Penn State fans in Tampa. The guy at the bus stop told me they were playing Tennessee that weekend in the Outback Bowl in town.

Ride back was relatively uneventful. One bus this time.

Get back to find note from Greg that he is at mall (plaza) with EET LT DST J and E. Wow! They're all here already!

I try to nap to Cartoon Network. Jack comes by. We go swimming. Greg comes back. We plan transportation to the ship the next day. We hear that Fe and Dan got on a plane from Denver to Chicago. It is good, but getting late. Where to eat? I check out the hole in the fence at the back of the hotel. Ruth Chris Steakhouse on the other side of hole looks formal and pricey. Figuring we'll have plenty of good food and fancy meals on the boat, we decide instead on a light meal ordered in from a local Italian place.

Next morning, Saturday, I had read about an open market in Ybor City. I want to try again. It is not far from the pier where the boat departs. I decide to go on my own and meet Greg and the boys at the pier.

Saturday, the buses only come once an hour. I walk from stop to stop, thinking I'd rather be walking than waiting. I hear the Penn State (or maybe Tennessee) marching band playing in a nearby hotel parking lot. I finally get to a bus stop that has a schedule and find that the next bus doesn't come for almost twenty minutes. When the time gets near, I find a stop and wait. As has been typical, a couple people show up just as the bus is supposed to arrive. This guy and his friend (brother?) are very drunk and suntanned/burned. It is only 11am. They ask me what time the bus comes and where it goes in town. I tell them they are lucky as the bus only comes once an hour and they hit it right on. I tell them it doesn't go to gaslight park in this direction because Kennedy is one-way there, but they could get off just across the bridge into town at Ashley. It's almost as if I really know what I am talking about. They are really out of it. I am counting the minutes until the bus comes. They keep talking about how stupid they are. Sad as it is, I have to agree (silently). One shows me his scar from the first Gulf War. He had been in the Marines. They seem so rudderless.

We get on the bus and after a little bit, it again stops near the People's Church, or Church of the People or some such. One of the women who gets on looks weather beaten but also strangely young and beautiful. She says hello to the guys from the bus stop. I gather that they recognize each other from where they were all sleeping at some underpass. "I had to leave when you guys started drinking" I hear her say. One of the guys says something about how, yes, he does recognize her and she had lent him two dollars. She starts talking about Jesus and how she was on the straight and narrow path now. It is all very interesting.

I get off the bus in town to transfer to the streetcar. Not sure it is faster, but it is more scenic and it runs just as often on Saturday. The streetcar is not part of the regular bus system, but much more tourist oriented.

Ybor City has some charm and the architecture is more interesting, but it doesn’t feel alive. It feels like a smaller, less happening version of the French Quarter. I think what bugs me about Tampa is that nothing seems really genuine. Things that are “nice” are sort of done up and revamped and “revitalized,” but there doesn’t seem to be any deep roots, any heart. Ybor city comes close, but it seems a has-been and it too had an attempted “restoration.” The Iguana bar was the one place that looked traditional and genuine. It had a bunch of oversized bikers out front in serious leather.

I meet up with everyone (including Dan and Fe who made it out of Denver!) at the pier and we “check in” in a massive hall, get our boat IDs, have our passports checked, and walk the long gangway to the gigantic cruise ship. We made it and all 17 of us are together. So glad we didn't miss the boat.

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