Thursday, May 01, 2008

The First Dream - Greetings From Prince Rupert, BC!

Originally mailed September 20, 2005.

Hey y’all! So, how's everyone doing? Good good… Yeah, I know its been awhile, but what can I say, when your work “week” is ten or eleven days and you work something like eight hours during that “week,” you get a little unmotivated. That, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but even an Alaskan cruise can get mundane and routine after your 12th time up. That’s right, I’ve taken twelve Alaskan cruises. That’s about four months of totem poles, ulu knifes, whale sightings (look, a spout!), hot-tubbin’ with glaciers, hand crafted beers (someone please tell me what the hell that means…), hiking, a million pictures of different mountains that somehow all look the same, and store after store of Alaskrap.

So because of all this, and my unwillingness to sit down and write a letter, I’ve waited a couple of months to let y’all know that I’m still alive and doing fine. Actually, pretty good. Its been sort of an Alaskan Wilderness Vacation. As I am writing this letter we are sailing away from Whittier on our way to Juneau. Not only is this our last Alaskan cruise, but tonight and tomorrow promise to be the rockiest sea days we’ve had. The forecast calls for 45-50 knot winds, and 6-8 meter swells. In layman's terms that equates to a whole lotta barfing. But we'll see. Tonight we have Rock This Town, and tomorrow is Country Gold, so everyone will be doing their best not to fall off of the stage, let alone break their ankles dancing. (That night, the swells and the wind were nothing as bad as they said it was going to be, so no barfing)

Oh, and speaking of breaking ankles, we’ve officially had six cast members swap out of our company due to medical or contractual reasons. Six people! Our cast is only thirteen. Lets see… First was Billy, who pretty much quit but was about to get fired. Next was Christy and Victor, who decided sometime around the first day of rehearsals that they didn't want to be here (took them about two weeks into the contract before they decided to let us know…) Then Megan hurt her knees dancing. Next Lisa, who was the singer who came in to replace Christy, had to leave because she was contracted to another ship. Finally Eddie had to leave us last cruise due to knee complications. Plus, we nearly lost Michael Ramey (one of our dancers) a few days ago when he slipped and hurt his ankle. So, instead of being the Jean Ann Ryan company, JAR now stands for Just Another Reblock. Even made a T-shirt commemorating our contract. Funny thing is that after it was made, we lost Eddie. So, like a new computer, our shirts was obsolete the day we got them.

So, what have I been doing lately? Welp, a lot of the same. For example, every time we’re in Juneau we go shoot pool at the Viking. When in Kechikan we go eat some Caribou steak at the Pioneer Café. Whittier? Have a buffalo burger at Bab’s. Still, there were a few interesting occurrences in the past couple of months… Like

Here is Michael, Uri, and enjoying a soak in the hot tub with some “adult” coffee while taking in the Hubbard Glacier. Probably one of the coolest places on the ship is for Crew only. I think the best place for a hot tub is the bow of the ship. We did this a couple more times, but the weather was never as nice as it was this day. Of course there was lots of memorable hikes, but probably the best was when Katie, Mickey, Uri and I hiked to the Glacier in Whittier

This is the waterfall that created the smallish river that separated us from the glacier itself. Most recently I hiked up to Upper Dewey Lake in Skagway. A little more than a 3,000 foot elevation change from trail head to the lake, the earth was very soft from constant rain and over saturation…

But there are lots of things for the crew to do on board, as well. Our crew steward, who also is the JAR dance captain, makes sure that the crew on board are well taken care of, and plans events like bingo, dance lessons, theme nights in the crew bar, and a talent show. I attended this talent show, in which there was lots of music, singing, comedy, magic… and of course, what talent show would be complete without cross dressing…

No, I didn't compete, but I had a front row seat.

But then there are the sights of Alaska that only I can appreciate, and since your reading my letter, you get to appreciate them too… How about this one. When in Haines, be sure to visit

Ever in Ketchikan? Try this restaurant…

Did you know that Skagway is the garden city of Alaska? I didn't either...

Juneau has a lot of stores along one of its main streets, my favorite being…

If you are visiting Whittier, you can see a real live reindeer!

And many restaurants offer reindeer sausage too, so there are many ways to enjoy Santa’s helpers.

Hey, here’s one. When I was in Seward I was pointed to a small stream where the salmon were literally swimming on top of each other…

Oh, here’s an interesting picture. I found this while surfing the net one day.

This is when they were adding the 150 foot section to the ship in 1998.

Speaking of the ship, we’re still hobbling along fine. Maybe you saw us on the news. Yeah, were pretty famous… You see one cruise a while back, we popped another engine (for the record I am not sure whether we have two or three working right now… One never worked out of drydock, and another poops out every now and then) which made us about seven hours late getting back to Seattle. Not only did it make nearly every passenger late for their flight, but CNN came by to tell the world that we were hobbling back to the ocean with only two engines working and a boat load of passengers that may or may not make it back. Well despite what Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper (remember when A C was a skinny dork on the school syndicated news show “Channel One?” I bet he doesn't want you to…) reported, we made it to and fro, missing Sitka as usual.

Missing Sitka has been sort of routine for us here on the M/S Norwegian Dream. You’ll recall back in June when I told you we were taking it out of our itinerary. Unfortunately, some of the passengers didn’t take the news as easily as I did. One couple in particular came back for a second cruise just so they could pass out a petition. They would approach people in the lounges and generally pee on their good time. Not sure if they got all the signatures they needed, but I am sure that somewhere in the fine print of the tickets it says something to the effect of “itinerary subject to change without notice.” In any case, they seemed to be having a good time when not collecting signatures… Oh well.

I still keep pretty busy here amidst all the sea days and repeat ports. Sea days have been the most challenging. Its difficult at first to be sedate and comfortable with the idea of not doing much. Because of this, many folks will gain weight during their various contracts on board. I have pretty much stuck to going to the gym five or six days out of the week… I mean, with all the time and ease of commute there’s really no excuse not to. There’s also a promenade on deck 7, which is nice to jog on when the weather and sea permits. Plus, when it’s a little windy, you make the turn coming around the bow and the wind will kinda pick you up and blow you along your way! Still, Deck 7 can be an adventure for the senses, well… sense. Let me explain.

Deck 7 port side smells. There, I’ve said it. Everyone notices this. But it just doesn't smell, it has altering smells, or moods I think, depending on where you are. Here’s a good example… We were leaving Prince Rupert and it was a nice day, so I decided to go for a jog. I start on Deck 7 Aft, on the port side, only because it’s a straight shot from my cabin. So, I stretch and begin my jog. The carnival of smells starts immediately. First, and all the way aft, was the smell of dead fish. Now this wasn’t NCL’s fault, since the cruise ship terminal (a.k.a. dock) is next to a fishery. So dead fish, no problem… I continue along my route up Deck 7, and mid aft I hit the smell of macaroni. Not a bad smell considering what’s next. There is usually some sort of kitchen smell here, and it varies, but today’s menu was a good one. I continue on. Now I’m midship, and then the smell hits me. Its one that’s usually lingering here, coming out of the ship somewhere close by, is some kind of gas… methane, sulfur… something foul. I’ve gotten good at holding my breath (yes, while jogging) to avoid this smell. Seriously, you don’t want to breathe this stuff in too deep. So I step up my trot to get out of that, and land right in the smell of poop. Yes, poop… You can find this smell all over the ship, mostly in the passenger cabin corridors. Somehow, and many people think intentionally, the passenger bathrooms exhaust all of the air outside to the hallways. My walk from the theatre (all the way forward) to my room (all the way aft) on Deck 5 is usually met at one point with the smell of poop… But I’m talking about my jog on Deck 7, so I won’t digress… moving on…

I’m smelling poop now, so I jog a little faster. Bow of the ship in sight, I’m now towards the front of the ship… hey, this is a new smell. Not really alluring, but unique. The Dream has really out done itself this time, for it’s mixed the smell of Gasoline with the smell of Poop! As I was jogging, I tried to think of a name for this amazing new smell… Gas-o-Poop. Then I hit the bow and come back on the starboard side, which incredibly has no smell except the clean smell of the ocean. Then I turn the horn for lap two… and in case you forgot the order… Dead fish, macaroni, gas, poop, and finally Gas-o-poop. To put this in perspective, I usually run ten laps. Three and a half laps equal a mile. So that’s nearly a mile and a half of stink. Still, the smells don’t stop there… read on…

Lets move into the passenger areas now… Lounges, theatre, restaurants. The average age of our 11th Alaskan cruise was 64. This cruise is supposed to be higher, and the Panama Canal repo cruise even greater. See where this is going? One night I was walking through the theatre, and I was behind an older gentleman. I’ve gotten used to walking at a slower pace… it doesn’t bother me… Unless the dude smells like diaper pee. It fills the room and lingers like turkey after Thanksgiving. And, unlike pee diapers, a turkey sandwich sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Finally, let me tell you a funny story about performing on this cruise ship. The wall of the proscenium arch that faces upstage has a huge vent on each side that blows cool air on the stage and somehow is supposed to cool the house as well. The air comes from outside the ship… somewhere. Now, in our eleven day cruises we stop in Seward, Alaska. It’s a late night port, and we also perform Country Gold at 8:30 and 10 pm. This isn’t an issue for audiences, since unless your on a tour there’s nothing to do after dark. But what’s the issue is the large fishery that’s next door to the ship. Imagine these two huge vents blowing the smell of dead fish all over the stage, the wings, and the dressing rooms. Its truly amazing. Thus concludes my section on the smells of The Dream.

So, we have about two months left in our contract. From here we finish our final Alaskan cruise in Vancouver (not Seattle). Then we start our repositioning cruise down the West Coast and through the Panama Canal and back up to Texas. The cruise itinerary says we are porting in Houston, but I think it’ll probably be Galveston, since Houston isn’t exactly on the water. From here we’re going to resume our Caribbean cruises, hitting all the usual stops like Cozumel, Cancun, and Belize (Unbelizeable!). After four cruises to the Caribbean, we’ll be done and it’ll be back to life as usual. Which sounds kind of funny since life as usual has changed to ship life. In any case, we are less than two months away from concluding our contracts. Some will take a short one week break and go to another ship (NCL has a policy that employees cannot work more than ten months out of the year. Since JARs tend to work six month contracts, they can’t go directly from ship to ship), while others (myself included) will take a longer break. Although this a great job, as well as an awesome opportunity to see the world, its difficult to achieve long term goals while at sea. Still, not a bad way to pay the rent!

I’ve become an expert of sorts of Alaska, or at least of the ports that we visit. Are you planning a trip to Alaska next season? Here are a few pointers…

Probably the most important is figure out what ship you want to be on. I love the Dream despite her inadequacies. However, she is slow because of all her engine problems. Generally the newer the ship, the bigger and faster it is. The Dream was built in 1992, which is getting up there for cruise ships. I don’t have a clue how fast she’s supposed to go, but right now it averages around 16 knots. Faster ship equals less sea days and more time at port. I know it sounds funny to say, but keep it in mind. Next, are you wondering how important it is to have an exterior cabin? Unless you live here (I love mine), I don’t think it means that much. If you figure your going to be out at port or enjoying the ship’s activities, that means that you’ll only be in your room to sleep. So you can save the thousand or so dollars and spend it on all the expensive tours and ten dollar drinks. If you are going to get an exterior cabin, make sure it doesn’t say “obstructed view.” Do ya know what that means? That means that you open your drapes and get a big orange life boat in your face. Plus, it makes the ambient light in the room orange…

Next, think about the itinerary. Prince Rupert sounds awesome, doesn’t it? When I heard the name, I figured there’d be French Canadian castles and stuff. Nope. The only reason we stop there is because of a nautical technicality. Since we are a foreign flagged vessel, we can‘t go to just American ports, otherwise NCL would have to obey American regulations and pay taxes. So, to avoid that, we have to stop in another country. And since NCL likes to save their coupons, we stop in Prince Rupert and not Vancouver. Some cruise lines will literally stop and go, not letting off any passengers. The only thing PR has to offer is Tim Hortons. Ever hear of it? If you have, then you're Canadian, and you probably follow the phrase “Tim Hortons” with a sigh.

I have never seen people so excited about going to a sandwich and coffee place in my life. It starts two nights before, when if you stand still in the middle of the ship, you can hear the thirty or so Canadian crew members vehemently whispering words like “Timbits” and “Turkey Sandwich.” (Timbits is Canadian for doughnut holes.) Then the day we hit PR, it’s like watching a parade in fast forward, or more like a marathon race to beat the line. In any case, besides that, there’s a mall about the size of a Super Wal-Mart, about a dozen souvenir stores (only one of which is Canadian themed, complete with a large Canadian Royal Mountie motion activated bobbing head thing), and a fishery (yes, the one next to the ship).

So, back to the point, the itinerary. Some ports are awesome, while others don’t offer much. In this case, Whittier and Haines. The others have enough to keep you occupied without going on a tour. If you are going to go on a tour, keep in mind that unless you are doing something really special like a helicopter tour, you can usually get the same tour on land for a lot less. Since the ship books all the tours with the folks in the cities your going to visit, doesn’t it make sense to do it yourself and save some money? Most of the time, right where you get off of the ship is a bunch of stands offering city tours, glacier tours, whale watching, and the other usual outdoorsy type Alaska stuff. The only reason to book onboard is for the peace of mind. You see, if you book onboard, and the tour you’re on is late, then the ship will know and not leave without you. If you book on the pier and your bus breaks down, then make sure you have your camera, because you’ll have a great photo opportunity as the ship sails away.

Also, and I think it’s funny that NCL does this, a lot of folks get on board and think that we’re going to Anchorage. What NCL does is say this on the itinerary:

September 5th: Anchorage (Whittier)

Guess which one you’re going to? You wanna go to Anchorage? Find a bus, pal. Basically, the point is not every port is going to be a Juneau or Kechican, so figure out what you want to do.

Then there’s little things. Look up the ship online and see what people think of the food and service. Did you know, for example, that one of the hidden charges is a ten dollar a day service fee? That goes towards your room steward and hotel staff. How about that automatic 15% gratuity on all purchases on board? Some people get upset and fight it, and while you can remove the ten bucks a day, the 15% stays.

Anyway, its certainly not rocket science, but those are a few key things to consider when booking with NCL or any other cruise line.

Hey, by the way, Seattle’s pretty cool too… We’ve been fortunate to call Seattle home base each time we return from Alaska. Have done all the usual stuff like going to Pike Street Market (yes, they do throw fish), and taking the Underground Tour, which is a tour of Seattle before it was rebuilt at the level it is now, so basically underground…

To make a long story short, at one point the streets of Seattle were built above the sidewalks, from as little as 10 feet to as many as 30 feet, due to non tax paying business owners and a history of a “fix it fast, not right” attitude. So in order to cross a street you had to climb up a ladder (later stairs), cross the street, and go back down. When things started falling off of the street and killing people, then Seattle decided to cover up those sidewalks. Now the businesses had two entrances, one above ground and one below. People actually preferred the underground areas because it kept them out of the elements, and so it thrived as a place of business, as speakeasies during prohibition, and as barracks during World War I. So, now you know…

Plus, it seems that Seattle is really ahead of the game when it comes to personal nutrition.

All right, well I gotta get into costume and do a little “Sea Legs At Sea,” our neat little song and dance show. As I conclude this letter, we are leaving Prince Rupert and on our way to Vancouver, and continuing south to the Panama Canal, and back up to Houston to warmer weather and sandy beaches. Hope all is well with all y’all back home, and let me know how your summer went!

Your pal,

Michael Lamendola (sitting on a glacier)


“Gas-o-Poop” is my new band…



Look for another song from our shows following this E mail... in a couple of days.

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