The Vacation That Changed My Life

Alaska
I had run my first marathon a couple of years before. However, I had not sustained that fitness level. My eating habits reflected the depression I was experiencing following the breakup of my thirty year marriage relationship, so I set out to get back in shape. After an intense three months of diet and exercise, I felt good about reaching my goals, and I decided to reward myself.

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

My first thought was to eat a big steak dinner, which I scaled down to a deluxe hamburger to stay within my food budget. I topped my food fantasies with the idea of gorging myself on a homemade banana cream pie. Of course, these gastronomic misadventures were what put me on the weight-loss path to begin with. When I asked myself what I really wanted, it hit me. There were two things I had never done and always wanted to do: 1) visit Alaska, and 2) take a cruise. I could accomplish both at one time! Since I was unattached, I researched singles cruises. As it happened a singles group had openings on a cruise that July which fit with my vacation schedule. Sharing a stateroom with another single was a great way to save money, so I booked it.

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

As people signed up, we introduced ourselves to one another via email. I learned quickly that more women cruise than men. Of the sixteen people in our group, thirteen were women. Although I did not mind the odds, I was a bit nervous thinking I was older than most members of the group. Just to make sure I was putting my best self forward, I bought some new dress clothes. I also had my hair styled including dying out the gray. I was ready.

The first evening on the cruise was a social mixer/cocktail hour. All but one person showed up at the appointed hour. I knew who was missing because we had all exchanged introductory emails. When she finally showed up I approached her and said, “Hi, my name is Mike. You must be Florence.” (Under duress I am now fast forwarding past all the mushy stuff.)

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

We decided to stay in touch after our cruise. Florence lived in Glendale, California. I was in Olympia, Washington. We maintained a long distance relationship for awhile, which was stressful. She took vacations in Washington with me (and filled my freezer with home-cooked meals). I visited her at her home in Las Vegas. I met lots of her Italian family at Thanksgiving. We decided then that we should be together, and by Christmas she and I had a home together in Olympia. The rest, as they say, is history.

All this occurred in 2005. Florence and I were married in 2007. I retired in 2011, and we have been traveling the world together ever since.

I had never before used “Hi, my name is Mike” as a pickup line. Since I am batting 1.000 with that line I do not use it anymore. Thus, my perfect record remains intact. 🙂

living in Mexico

Sicily, I Haven’t Forgotten You

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

I have focused so much on our travels and life abroad in Latin America that I have completely overlooked our recent trip to Sicily. This story is all about family. My father-in-law’s family emigrated from Sicily. We are talking about a BIG, Italian-size family. There are still over a hundred of their relatives living in and around Santa Maria in the north mountain country of Sicily.

Every biblical scene is done in mosaic detail.

Every biblical scene is done in minute mosaic detail.

My wife has visited Sicily on five previous occasions. This time, however, was the first time she visited with a husband. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what the local customs were for greeting a new member of the family. I can now tell you there is a lot of hugging and kissing involved. I finally got the hang of the alternating-cheek air kiss. The hugs vary depending on the family relationship – longer hugs with grandparents than with second or third cousins. The children give big hugs as soon as their parents announce, “He is your cousin.” Then they want to play.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

Leading up to the family reunion is a twelve day private motorcoach tour of Sicily with family from the States. There is so much history here and so many sights to see. Every civilization that ever amounted to anything left its footprint in Sicily, and with good reason. Sicily served as the breadbasket to every empire that spread through the Old World. Geographically, Sicily is situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea. To this day there are more preserved Greek ruins in Sicily than there are in Greece. And the Romans picked up where the Greeks left off. There is also Spanish blood and Anglo blood in the Sicilian pedigree, which is evident when you notice the many Sicilians with light hair color and blue or hazel eyes.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

We arrived by cruise ship in the Port of Catania after stops in Naples, Florence, and Pisa, Italy, Villefranche, France, Valencia, Spain, the Spanish Isle of Ibiza, and Tunis, Tunisia. My in-laws meet us in Catania. They had to rush home to the States for a family funeral the last time they were in Sicily. This may be their last opportunity to see family. Plus, Dad speaks beautiful Sicilian, and that is a huge benefit for the giant reunion that awaits.

My wife’s favorite spot in Sicily is Taormina, perched precariously on top of a small mountain. The Greek Amphitheater overlooking the sea is beyond compare. My favorite spot was the Aeolian Island of Lipari. The crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and the views from the cliff road make this island paradise idyllic.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

You cannot mention Sicily without mentioning the spectacular cathedrals. The 21,000 square feet of mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale overlooking the capital city of Palermo are among the finest in Italy, if not the world. And in Tindiri, there is the Cathedral of the Black Madonna with its amazing folklore to go along with the architecture. There are other churches of note. However, the final stop on the ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) is the one in Santa Maria with the family name carved in stone along with the date, 1598.

I have not even touched on the food. I started out thinking the national dish of Sicily is eggplant because I could not get away from it. I eventually found alternatives. The world can take lessons from Italy on how to make dessert. The gelato is the best to be found anywhere and the cannolis are to die for!

A genuine Italian cannoli - whipped ricotta cheese and honey filling and rolled in crushed pistachios.

A genuine Italian cannoli is filled with whipped ricotta cheese and honey and then rolled in crushed pistachios.



living in Panama

Back Home in Panama

We are on the turbo-prop commuter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, and through the clouds I recognize the Pacific coastline of Panama coming into view. We’ve been traveling for over three weeks, and the now familiar landscape surrounding the city of Davíd below us evokes a visceral sense of contentment that comes with knowing we are almost home.

It seems remarkable to experience this sense of pleasure when I reflect on the fact that we lived in Panama for only three months prior to this trip. I compare living here to falling in love. Panama is like an attractive woman with a personality and charm that is irresistible. When you are with her you are immersed in a sensation of heightened pleasure. Food tastes better. Colors seem brighter. We have all experienced something like that. Likewise, when you are apart you can’t wait to see her again. It’s like that. And so I am comforted to be back in Panama.

From The Big Apple to The Big Easy

I’m cruisin’, Mon!

We flew to New York City October 20th from Tocumen Airport in Panama City to board the Norwegian Star for a repositioning cruise that ended in New Orleans two weeks later, our objective being to complete the International Guide Academy’s Certified Tour Manager Training. The seven days at sea were our classroom days. There were twenty-two of us in the class from five countries. Many had no prior group-leading experience. Ultimately, we learned a great deal and we all passed the course.

We were just a couple days ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which impacted a number of the guests on the cruise who didn’t know for several days if they had intact homes to return to back in The Big Apple. Nevertheless, spirits were high and we lucked out with great weather the entire cruise.

Our cruise ended in New Orleans. This was my first visit to The Big Easy, and it is like no other city I have ever visited. Total strangers walked up to us tourists (the camera hung from the neck is an obvious tell) to ask where we were from and if we needed help finding anything. The beignets were so good in the morning that I went back for more at lunchtime. Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River evoked recollections of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Incredible music wafted from every direction. If ever there were a city I would want to revisit it would be New Orleans.

Florence brings a gift to Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen.

We had one last duty to perform before our departure. It so happens that my wife, Florence, had visited the grave of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen, back in 2005 before we met, and wished for a husband. As this wish was obviously granted, Florence was obligated to return to Marie Laveau’s gravesite with a thank-you offering (because you don’t mess with voodoo). Florence had picked out a ring of beads to honor her pact, which she dutifully placed on the tomb with a blessing of thanks. We were immediately engaged in a conversation with a local visitor to this famous site, after which we turned our attention back to the tomb. The ring had disappeared. It had not fallen to the ground, and no one else had approached the site during this brief encounter. We are at a loss to explain this event other than to say that perhaps The Voodoo Queen recognized the gift as genuine and took it with her to wherever she now resides.

Now we can head for home.