by Kort E Patterson, Editor
The 2008 AGA-at-Sea is over, and to the best of my knowledge we didn't lose any of our members overboard or leave any stranded on a desert island. When I got home, it felt strange that my apartment wasn't moving, and the background throb of the engines had been replaced by the hum of computer fans. It may take some time, but I expect a full recovery from this AGA eventually...
The ship had a non-intuitive motion that I'm guessing was an artifact of its stabilization system. There was very little fore-aft pitching, with the apparent motion being largely rolling from side to side. It would roll a bit one way and then pause. It would then roll back the other way and pause. The motion was most obvious at the ends and upper decks of the ship. My cabin was in the bow, and the motion became more apparent the further forward I walked down the corridor. For some reason my perception of motion was greater in the bathroom than in the surrounding cabin. Possibly something to do with the smaller space, brighter lighting, or hard reflective surfaces.
The roughest seas were on the last sea day on the way back to Houston. They were also cross-beam which maximized the rolling of the ship. It was hard not to weave from side to side down the hallways, making encounters with other passengers a bit of a dance. It was a challenge to get to the podium during the members meeting without staggering. In another context such a spectacle might have caused some concern about the mental states of the Intertel officers. In this case it only provided a bit of comic relief. It's hard to be pompous and vainglorious at an Intertel AGA.
My involvement in Intertel has provided me with a variety of first time experiences, and this AGA was no exception. My first AGA (Denver, 1999) was my first experience with commercial airline travel. I've driven back and forth across America several times in a variety of vehicles, but have to admit that spending a couple of hours packed in a crowded metal tube speeding through the thin air at 30,000 ft., has a lot to recommend it compared to spending a week in a car - especially when sharing that car with a couple of unhappy cats or siblings.
This AGA was the first time I've been on a large ship let alone a cruise liner. I also had to get my first passport since this was the first time I've been outside of North America (Canada didn't require a passport when I was there several decades ago).
Travel was something of a sub-theme of this AGA, and for me the unexpected complications started early. Carnival offered a bus transfer to the ship leaving Houston International airport at 1:00 PM. Only one airline (Continental) offered a roughly four hour non-stop flight from Portland to Houston that arrived in time to connect with the Carnival transfer. (The others wanted me to spend 9+ hours being relayed around the country and twiddling my thumbs in scattered airports.)
My previous experience with Continental hadn't been exactly positive - they canceled my flight just as I got to the airport because of mechanical problems with the plane. Fortunately their employees were more competent than their hardware, and a helpful woman behind the counter (don't tell anyone I'm doing this...) set me up with a series of connecting flights on other airlines that got me to the AGA within a few minutes of my original plans. This time Continental's planes worked as well as their employees, and the flights were on-time or better.
The flight out of Portland was scheduled for around 6:00 AM, which meant getting to the airport around 4:00 AM to allow the recommended two hours to get through security. The only time I've found mass transit useful has been getting to and from the airport, and I expected to use it again this time. Checking the schedules a couple days before departure, I discovered that they'd cleverly scheduled the heavily taxpayer subsidized system so that none of the buses and light-rail trains near me would get to the transit center in time to connect with the only train to the airport that would arrive at the airport before my plane left.
Fortunately for me, the alternative plans of a couple of my fellow travelers (Brewster Gillett and Nancy Browne) had fallen through and they'd ended up on the same flight. They had a couple of house guests who were going to drive them to the airport, and I was able to hitch a ride. I left my house before 3:00 AM in order to get to their house by their intended departure time of 3:30 AM. When I got to their house a neighbor's carelessly parked pickup truck was in their parking area, taking up the entire space where at least three cars park when Brewster and Nancy host Intertel and Mensa parties. A quick shuffle resulted in my car ending up in their garage, and we headed for the airport.
We arrived at the airport the recommended two hours early to allow for delays getting through security. When we got there the airport was essentially empty, and not only wasn't there any line at security, there weren't even any security staff present. A few minutes later a couple security staff appeared and we were processed immediately. That left nearly the full two hours to kill before departure. An hour later security was the usual bustling hive of activity, and there was a growing waiting line. All things considered, I guess I'd rather spend the time strolling around the security zone than standing in line waiting to get through security.
I was watching the hurricane forecasts for the period of the AGA, and the storm track was clear once Ike passed through. It looked like hurricanes weren't going to be a concern in spite of our AGA being scheduled during prime hurricane season. The surprise was that Ike wiped out the port a week before we were scheduled to board the ship.
There were rumors of being bused to New Orleans or canceled altogether. It turned out that a new cruise terminal in Houston, intended to compete with Galveston, was nearly finished but they hadn't been able to convince any of the cruise lines to shift their operations. That suddenly changed when hurricane Ike wrecked the Galveston terminal. Our ship was the first to use the new terminal, which had been rushed into operation.
Our bus driver had never been to the new terminal, and we ended up taking an unexpected scenic tour of storm damaged Houston - further complicated by most of the traffic lights being out. We even saw the ship in the distance as we passed by, but as the saying goes, "you can't get there from here". Getting turned around involved driving down residential streets lined with piles of ruined carpeting where the bus just barely fit between the cars parked on both sides. It was starting to look like the ship would leave without us while we were driving around Houston in Carnival's own bus, but we arrived at the terminal just in time.
Embarking was a bit chaotic as the terminal staff scrambled to cope with the start-up glitches and work around unfinished equipment.
I boarded the ship just in time for the required lifeboat drill. I found my cabin, grabbed one of the life preservers out of the closet, and reported to my muster station - a large amphitheater where there would be stage shows later. The staff tried to make the instructions on how to put on our life preservers as entertaining as possible, but mostly we waited to file out to our assigned lifeboat stations. Once everyone was out of the air conditioned comfort and lined up in the hot sun on the open decks, the Federal requirements had been met and the floating party could get underway.
In many ways the environment both on board and at our destination ports was similar to my experience at the Las Vegas AGA. There seemed to be a common consensus among both the crew and the average people on the streets that it's just good business to be nice to the tourists so they continue to come and spend their money. The result was arguably a good example of the power of enlightened self-interest as a regulator of individual behavior. People were nice to me because it was in their self-interest to be nice to people like me. Mutually beneficial voluntary commerce is the most effective means of encouraging peaceful civility that mankind has ever discovered.
I found the crew to be consistently friendly and helpful. It's their job and I don't go out of my way to make it harder. The "natives" in the destination ports were reasonably friendly, but then again, I don't go out of my way to play the demanding imperialist tourist. I got repeatedly separated from my fellow Ilian in the Cozumel Museum, and as I emerged from each room, the staff chuckled and pointed me to where I could find my companion this time. I don't speak Spanish, but a confused expression seems to communicate pretty effectively across language and cultural barriers.
A cynic might observe that maybe I don't look like a good enough prospect to bother with, so they're polite and helpful to me just so I'll move along and let them focus on higher value victims...
Perceptions don't always accurately reflect reality.
It's of course possible to find trouble outside of the main tourist areas of Las Vegas, and I suspect even easier in Mexico. There had been reports in the news during the months before the AGA of escalating violence in Northern Mexico, but the areas where we were headed were still relatively safe. We were only in port long enough to take one of the approved shore excursions or do some shopping in the duty-free stores within walking distance of the ship. Security was pretty laid back in the areas close to the pier. There were occasional police walking or driving by, and a single officer lounging in the museum lobby. Shore excursions that required longer travel encountered heavily armed soldiers and sandbagged checkpoints. The local authorities didn't seem to care much who got off the ship, only who tried to get on board. Security coming back on board was similar to an airport with metal detectors and baggage x-ray machines. I didn't hear of any incidents, or have any problems personally.
If pressed, I might grumble a bit about the mismatch between the bed clothes and the cabin air conditioning. My bed had a sheet and a thick comforter-type blanket. The air conditioning control didn't seem to be a thermostat - it only seemed to control the amount of cold air blowing into the room. I never could get the room cold enough to use the comforter, and finding a setting that was right for just the sheet took some trial and error experimenting. The comforter was just over-kill and a more modest blanket would have been more functional. If it had been more of a problem I could have asked my room steward for a different blanket and I'm confident one would have quickly appeared on my bed.
To be fair, my preferred temperature range does appear to be significantly lower than most if not all of the other passengers. I'd read comments claiming that the ship was too cold, but I couldn't find anywhere that I thought qualified. The ship had a nicely wood paneled library with a large globe that was kept cooler than any other part of the ship in order to protect the books from moisture damage. Women wearing sweaters complained that the library was too cold while I thought it was just barely cool enough in shirt sleeves. So the thick comforter might have been just the right thing for the average passenger.
The Ecstasy might be one of Carnival's smaller ships, but it was still a pretty big floating structure. It was a long hike from one end to the other, and a long elevator ride between top and bottom. There were three main stairway and elevator clusters each with four elevators, and an additional pair of glass elevators in the Grand Atrium. Even with at least fourteen elevators I usually found the stairs to be quicker if I was only going a couple of decks.
Gross Tonnage: 70,367 Length: 855 feet Beam: 103 feet Guest accessible decks: 10 Cruising Speed: 21 knots Guest Capacity: 2,052 Total staff: 920 Suites with balcony: 54 Accommodations inside: 408 Registry: Panama Maximum Guest Capacities Blue Sapphire Lounge: 1,300 Starlight Lounge: 540 Stripes Dance Club: 230 Midship Lounge: 109 Piano Bar: 75 Card Room: 50 Explorers Club Library: 32 Verandah Deck 500 Outdoor Main Pool Area 800+ Additional Amenities Chinatown Lounge Rolls Royce Cafe Wind Song Dining Room Wind Star Dining Room Society Bar Neon Bar Panorama Bar & Grill Metropolis Bar Crystal Palace Casino Video Arcade Mini-golf Course Galleria Shopping Mall
There was a kids program somewhere on the ship. It must have been working exceptionally well since I think I heard there were over 400 children on board, but they were pleasantly lacking in the areas I frequented. The ones I did encounter were generally well behaved - a pleasant change from the semi-feral terrors commonly running wild in restaurants and stores these days. There were also separate facilities for 14-17 year olds.
While I'll admit to suffering from a fairly large margin of error when trying to estimate ages, it seemed to me the mix was fairly representative of the general public. There didn't seem to be an unusual concentration of any one age group except perhaps a higher percentage of the "middle aged".
A major part of the attraction of this cruise to Ilians was the cost, and I suspect the same was true for many of our fellow passengers. The passengers seemed to be just "regular folk" on vacation. Ethnicity was largely camouflaged by the de-facto uniform of shorts and colorful shirts, but I encountered a wide range of skin colors, eye shapes, and body sizes.
I didn't see anyone with an entourage, or pursued by a string of porters overloaded with luggage. Casual dress was the norm, and there was a conspicuous lack of fur wrapped society dames flashing their diamonds, and Wall Street tycoons sporting custom tailored silk suits. Also lacking were any grimy urchins trying to sneak up out of dank steerage levels to spend a few stolen moments in the warm sun. Unlike the ships in 1940's Hollywood movies, there weren't any decks reserved for first class passengers - the commoners had the run of the ship except for engineering spaces, crew quarters, and support operations. They used to give tours of the engine room and bridge, but stopped after 9/11.
Carnival tries pretty hard to keep the atmosphere light and cheerful. The Ecstasy is a "party boat" with a variety of nightclubs, bars, and lounges. There were stage acts and movies, a spa, a gym, swimming pools - one with a circular slide - and several hot tubs. It also had its own casino. The crew made an effort to be relentlessly friendly and cheerful. There were also constant reminders to have fun. Each night the cabin stewards turned down the beds and left the next day's schedule and suggested activities along with a couple of chocolates and a towel folded into an animal shape. There were also plenty of signs, posters, and announcements over the ship's loudspeakers to keep the passengers focused on the business at hand - having fun while hopefully charging things on their "Sail and Sign" cards.
I noticed a marked change in the ebb and flow of the passengers over the duration of the cruise. The relentlessly positive atmosphere no doubt had an effect on the passengers, keeping them focused on having a good time and distracted from the potential frictions of large numbers of strangers in sometimes close quarters in a limited amount of space from which there was no means of escape.
When we first boarded there was markedly less cooperation and consideration. As the cruise progressed, strangers formed orderly lines when waiting, and negotiated efficient passage through sometimes crowded hallways and staircases, each increasingly more interested in their personal objectives than the momentary ego gratification of obstructing others. Greetings in passing and short conversations on encountering strangers in elevators, in lines, along the railings, etc. became more common as the cruise progressed. Disembarking was inevitably chaotic as 2000+ passengers funneled through a small hole in the side of the ship, but there was noticeably less friction than when the same people boarded five days earlier. The dynamic was interesting to watch and pleasant to experience.
The food was plentiful and essentially all you could eat around the clock for five days. There was a large buffet in the stern that offered its largest variety at conventional mealtimes, but even at midnight I could have gotten pizza and self-serve ice cream if I'd been hungry. I didn't spend much time in my cabin, and never had a need to use room service, but I heard positive comments from those who did. The food in the buffet was quite good for buffet food, and had the advantage of being available when I felt hungry.
The best quality, preparation, and presentation was found in the main dining rooms. All passengers were assigned specific tables and early/late seating. We were collectively assigned the early seating in the Wind Star dining room. I was assigned table 116 with seven fellow Ilians. Our waitress was a pretty blond with a Scandinavian accent. The next table's waitress was a small bubbly Romanian girl. Most of the tables has male waiters. The dining room menus were different every night and typically offered at least a half dozen entr'ees and a somewhat larger number of appetizers. I can remember enjoying steak, lobster, Cornish game hen, shrimp, salmon, crab, and more.
The desert menu was also different every night, and it was traumatic on those nights that I just had to give it a pass. Those who preferred sit-down order from a menu service could eat all of their meals in the main dining rooms - only dinners were assigned seating. I found the buffet more convenient for breakfasts and lunches. There were also several specialty cafes and restaurants that I never got around to trying.
I ended up having to skip a couple of meals because I simply couldn't keep up. The food was included in the fare, with milk, juices, and water self-serve in the buffet. Soft drinks and alcohol were extra, charged on your "Sail and Sign" card. The water had a residual taste of the purification process, but it wasn't as strong as the iron and calcium flavoring of the underground Rock River I grew up drinking. Since I have to avoid caffeine, and the only time I imbibe in some white wine these days is when I go to local Intertel and Mensa parties, I drank a lot of water on the ship with no apparent adverse effects. There was always plenty of ice available.
I did enjoy a glass of champaign at dinner one night complements of the Captain, and a couple of screwdrivers at a reception.
The one thing missing from this AGA was a hospitality suite. Food and drink were amply supplied by the ship, but I missed the serendipitous connections that occur in our traditional hospitality suite. There was a meet-and-greet at the start of the cruise, and a couple of informal gatherings in the card room and library, but they only lasted a few hours. We were supplied with a list of the attendees and their cabin numbers, but that was only useful if I knew beforehand who I wanted to talk to. A partial solution was to wander around the ship until I ran into someone with a blue wristband. It was a big ship and sometimes it took a fair amount of wandering, but I managed to enjoy a number of conversations with Ilians I'd never met before, and connect a couple of familiar names I've known for years with the actual people behind the words.
The music was too loud for conversation in most of the nightclubs and shows, which was hardly surprising since we were sailing on a party boat, not attending a scholarly symposium. There were quiet nooks and enclaves scattered around the ship, but none were really suited to serve as a persistent Intertel hospitality suite. The Intertel tables were always the last to leave after dinner. I hope we didn't hold up the next seating too much...
We were the first ship to disembark in the new terminal when we returned to Houston, so we got to run-test the new equipment. They'd just installed the computer terminals in customs a few hours before we arrived, and all of the terminals crashed just as the guy scanned my passport. I categorically deny that there was any connection. I did notice that the terminals were all running Microsoft Windows. The customs guy asked me a bunch of questions and passed me through "manually". I'd only bought $10 worth of souvenirs in Mexico so my customs declaration form was pretty sparse.
The customs computers weren't the only windoze systems to crash that morning. At around the same time the boarding ramp separated from the ship, and an Ilian still on board reported hearing repeated renditions of the windoze (re)boot tones. Disembarking was delayed for around 45 minutes for those still on the ship while they struggled to get the computers to cooperate and reconnect the ramp.
The trip back to Houston Airport was quick and direct - which was a good thing because I only had about five *hours* to spare before my flight. Houston is a huge airport but I ran out of gates to wander through before I ran out of time to kill. I was a bit surprised how far I could casually stroll in five hours. I did run across some fellow Ilians from Ohio, but their flight left hours before mine and I was back to wandering.
The flight home was uneventful. None of my servers had crashed while I was gone but there were over 400 emails waiting - mostly from the Intertel and Oregon Mensa discussion lists. I had a great time, but I'm glad to be back home.