Thursday, September 30, 2010

Two years ago... yesterday
was the first time we saw G's face. Referral day was September 29, 2008. Its funny because that day was so filled with emotion, at the time, it seemed like a blur. But now I remember it very clearly.

I went to work that morning not knowing for sure if our call would come that day or not. When I realized it was happening I rushed through my meeting and drove as quickly as possible back to my office to drop some things off. My intention was to go home and wait for the call. I'd only made it to my car when my cell rang, it was my agency. A few moments later I heard the words I'd been waiting years for... "you have a daughter" that's when I started to cry. They told me they'd email the pix and then I called Bobby and drove home. He still says he can't believe that I waited for him to get home before opening the email.

Seeing Georgie's picture for the first time was fantastic but so odd. Ta duh!!! this is your daughter. I know some people don't but I felt an immediate connection to her. If possible I would have jumped on a plane and flown to her that day. I wanted so badly to hold her and care for her. That day would come about 10 weeks later.

9/29/08... one of my all time best days EVER!

Referral pic, Georgiana about 7 mos old:
Georgiana today, 2 yrs, 9 mos:

Monday, September 27, 2010

We had dinner in the dining room each night. It was a really nice way to come together at the end of the day and so enjoyable. We had a super nice waiter and asst waiter who fawned all over G and were so nice to her. The maitre d sang Frank Sinatra songs each night and the waiters would dance on the tables and sing... it was fun! The food was really good too.

They had a kids' menu with the typical kid fare ie chicken nuggets and pizza but I just couldn't stand the thought of feeding G stuff like that with all the super yummy things that were available. I did give her a choice but she always chose an adult meal, usually shrimp. That kid loves shrimp! Our waiters were always pretty surprised at how much food G would eat, usually about half an adult plate plus milk and always cookies for dessert.

G wanted me to take pix of her food one night. She's so funny!
G with our assistant waiter, Webert, (yes, that's spelled right) from Haiti. He was funny and very energetic. We'd sometimes see him at breakfast too and he's always say to Georgie "cookies?? cookies??" and G would laugh and laugh.
G with our head waiter, Babelito from the Phillipines. He was the exact opposite of Webert, calm and very polite. He made G origami animals each evening. G actually tried making her own a few times and she'd call them houses. They were actually pretty good attempts, symmetrically folded. I wish I'd taken a picture.
Our ship held about 2400 passengers so probably like 600-800 families/groups. Interestingly enough, there seemed to be 3 China IA families including ours. One family I never met but the other family I saw a few times. One evening after dinner I got the courage to ask the man if the little girl was his daughter and if she'd been born in China. He seemed slightly leery until I told him I had a daughter from China too. We ended up agreeing to meet for breakfast on our at sea day. What a nice family! Of course conversation turned to what province our kids were from... both Jiangxi... then I asked which SWI and when they replied Zhangshu I thought my mouth was going to fall open. That's where G was as well! Zhangshu is a very small SWI and only completes about 20 adoptions a year, worldwide. The chances that we would find ourselves on the same ship was completely shocking to me. What a small world. In fact, I'd actually talked online with the mom a time or two through our SWI yahoo group. Crazy.
Here's a pic of Jose and Brenda with their beautiful Mary Rose. Just like us, Jose and Brenda have two older sons. We had lots in common.
G and Mary Rose were actually in Zhangshu together for about a monthG was very entertaining to the other passengers. You could pretty much catch her song and dance act at any time day or night. She would walk down the halls of the ship or through the lobby singing her little songs and doing her little dances. This made her quite a celebrity on the ship to say the least.
G in one of the shops. She saw the microphone and got really excited! She sang and sang along with the music that was playing while I checked out the Tanzanite jewelry!On the staircase in the lobby with daddy. The lobby decoration reminded me of something you'd see in Vegas, in a good way.So cute!
The trip home kinda sucked. Several hours of layover and our connection in Dallas was over an hour late but we finally made it home. The only bad thing was having to get up early the next day and pack up Brett and Casey and drive them to school.
Overall, the whole vacation was awesome! I'd give it a 9.5 with the half point deduction for heat/humidity at WDW. I loved it so much, I'm already planning our next vacation!

Friday, September 24, 2010

September is hurricane season in the Caribbean. If you cruise during this period of time, you take a risk of weather trouble. We had little choice about when we could travel. It needed to coordinate with Brett and Casey's school schedule. There you go. I wasn't too worried about getting onto the ship but I was a bit concerned about getting into our ports. I thought that maybe we would be diverted or we'd hit lots of rain. Didn't happen in our first three ports. I wasn't sure how long our luck could hold out.

When we got on the tender it was POURING! Really bad. I thought, uh oh... luck just ran out. Bummer. Not sure if you can zipline and climb Mayan ruins in pouring down rain... but, we forged ahead, ever hopeful.

About 30 mins later, we were off the tender and checking in for the day's activities and bam.... the rain stopped and the sun came out!!!! Yeah for us!!!

I decided to split us up that day. Brett and Casey went on a combo cave tubing/ziplining trip and Bobby, G and I went to Altun Ha to see some of the ruins. As expected, I was much more enthused about the ruins than Bobby but he was a good sport. Which, was actually kind of tough because once it stopped raining OMG was it humid!!! Part of the experience was definitely the drive... 14 miles down a barely single, pothole filled road playing chicken with oncoming buses. Did I mention we were in a small 5 passenger vehicle? Surprisingly enough, our little car usually won the chicken game. I just closed my eyes.

The ruins themselves were pretty neat. We climbed the stairs to the top. They're only about 50 feet high but the steps were reminiscent of the Great Wall in China. I always find it fun to visit places that old. These particular ruins are said to have been first inhabited in 200 BC!

We had an interesting guide who told us all sorts of things about Belize that I found really surprising. For instance, there is a community of about 10,000 Russian Mennonites currently living in Belize. They migrated there in the 50s after making certain agreements with the Belizean government. The Mennonites brought in cash and educated Belize on agricultural methods. They pay taxes but don't have to serve the required military service of other Belizeans and accept no government benefits. They use horses and buggies and dress like the Amish!

Also, on our trip to the ruins we were stopped at a police checkpoint. I asked our guide what they were looking for. Drugs? Weapons? Imagine our confusion when our guide explained to us that they were trying to stop people from illegally importing non-Belizean beer, large bottles of soda (apparantly not available for sale in Belize) and other non-Belizean items like macaroni! We were told there are strong controls on these types of goods. Still doesn't make sense to me... a bunch of police standing in the road, stopping each and every car looking for noodles??

One final observation... on the way back to the ship, we had to pull the car over to the side of the road for about 10 mins while a "parade" went past. The parade consisted of 5 or 6 cars interspersed with about 150 school children (age 5, or so, thru teen) and wearing bright uniforms and carrying a few crudely created pro education/ pro Belize signs. We knew to pull over because walking down the middle of the street at the head of the group was a man motioning with his hands to the oncoming cars. Guide explanation? They just do that sometimes. Really??? Oh, and one of the kids was passing out candy to the pulled over drivers.

Anywho. Just like the other ports, I would like to return to Belize someday when we have more time to explore.

I gave Brett and Casey the water camera and begged them to take at least a few pix. They did!!!

Altun Ha
On top of the world
The main structure. That pink dot on top is ME!
Georgie doing her pose. Too cute!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Isla Roatan
is a small island --33 miles by 4 miles-- located about 30 miles off the coast of Honduras. It is absolutely stunning with the most beautiful clear blue water I've ever seen. Gorgeous soft white sand beach surrounds the jungle interior. It is truly an island paradise for visitors. Unfortunately, its also a very poor island (regularly beaten down by hurricanes) struggling in their attempts to build their economy with tourism being their number one source of income/employment at this time.

Carnival has built their own port/dock area called Mahogany Bay where they own all the stores, restaurants and have a private beach area. Its brand new and very pretty. A cruise ship visitor could easily spend the day there and have a great time! In fact, if we ever return to Roatan by cruise ship, I could imagine doing just that as it would be quite relaxing. But, this time, based on reviews I found on, I booked a private island tour which basically included an air conditioned van, driver and guide to take us wherever we wanted to go! I was happy that we did this to get a true sense of what the island offered.

Because Carnival owns the Mahogany Bay dock/port area visitors who wish to do something other than take a cruise excursion are required to walk off the port area to the main road. Its about a 10 minute walk that includes going over a small hill. If it weren't 95 degrees with what feels like 100% humidity it wouldn't have been that big a deal but wow!!! was it hot. When you reach the bottom of the hill there are large posts on the sides of the road which signify the end of Carnival's property. There we found a crowd of dozens of locals trying to sell their tour services to the day visitors. I was glad I'd pre-booked. We were all sweating profusely and at that point in time getting into the a/c van seemed like it would be the highlight of the day!

The national (I guess) food of Roatan is iguana so, of course, Brett wanted to make sure he ate some! I let our guide know this right away and she said they'd try to find him some. Try to picture us driving around the island seeing the sights and pulling over to a road side stand every once in a while so the driver could roll down his window and yell out to the establishment owner "Do you have any iguana?" Seriously cracked me up every single time he did it. This is just not something that would happen in Rancho Cucamonga!

We went to an iguana "farm" which started out more like a refuge and has become a zoo of sorts. We were told there are about 2700 iguana there. I believe it too as they were everywhere: in piles on the ground, in the trees, climbing the walls, etc. We were given large leaves to feed them. Georgie loved it and wasn't frightened at all which I think most would agree is surprising especially after you see the pix of them surrounding her. The fact that there were so many of them was on one hand neat and on the other kind of creepy but I think we all enjoyed the experience --except perhaps Casey who had just gotten some of his fingers smashed in the van door and was in a lot of pain at the time :-(

Next stop was to play with the spider monkeys. We all just loved the monkeys! They were so cute. I think we could have stayed there all day. Georgie did a really good job handling them gently. They also had macaws you could hold. Super fun!

Our next, and much to short stop, was Tabayana Beach. OMG. This place is beautiful. There was a resort there called Infinity Bay that Bobby and I agreed we would love to return to someday. Sadly, we didn't have time to snorkle there which is a shame as this area is home to a huge coral reef said to be second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Our final stop was at a store called the Cameo Factory where they carve and sell cameos. I'd read about it before hand and seen pix of the finished products online and really wanted to buy one. Before looking into it, I didn't even realize that cameos are made of carved shell and stone. Absolutely amazing. Using small power tools the shell is carved away to show the coloring under the surface and create beautiful designs. A small pendant (think 1" x 1-1/2") takes the artist (and these truly are artists) about 3-4 days to create. The very detailed ones can be quite expensive and even the smaller simpler ones can be spendy. Needless to say, I was the only member of my family excited to go here but, once we arrived, Brett also became a fan... after several hours of searching to no avail for his desired iguana dish... we came across a road side stand with a pot full of iguana right in front of the store!!!

Brett ate, I shopped, Georgie slept in the a/c van = 3 out of 5 happy tourists!

After doing a little damage at the cameo factory we were on our way back to the ship. I have to say that of the 4 ports we visited, Roatan is the one I would most want to return to. For such a small place there was so much to do and --I know I said it before but-- it was GORGEOUS!

View of Carnival's Mahogany Bay from our balcony. The first few shots didn't come out because my camera lens was fogged from the humidity!

Us overlooking the Roatan coastline
At the iguana farm. As you can see Georgie was not intimidated by the reptiles at all. A minute or so later Bobby had to pluck G out of circle of iguana as she had become completely surrounded!
Holding an iguana tail
I love this picture of Brett and G. This is at the iguana farm which, like just about everything in Roatan, is on the ocean.

This picture makes me laugh... just who is afraid of whom here??
The monkeys. Again, we all agreed that playing with the monkeys was a trip highlight. They were so sweet. G's holding 4 month old brothers. The guy who showed us around the monkey place was kind of a dud but whatever. I asked him the monkeys' names and after being told they had none I christened them as Fred and Henry.

They had birds there too including some huge parrots (macaws??) that B and C decided they're rather not hold. They were ok with these smaller ones.
G liked the birds but couldn't take her eyes off the monkeys

This one loved me. He grabbed onto my arm and wouldn't let go. Feeling was totally mutual.
At Tabayana Beach.... paradise found.
Brett with his iguana traditionally served with rice with beans and plantains. I tasted it too. It was shredded and seasoned in a way that made it taste like carnitas. It was actually quite tasty but was filled with small bones. Apparantly, that's the way its served there... iguana is not filleted (sp??) like I would have thought. Instead it is cooked --probably boiled-- then chopped, I'm imagining a machete being involved. I wish I would have taken a picture of the road side stand we purchased this from. Try to envision it: two stools (or perhaps crates) with a 3' x 4' piece of wood on top covered with a few mismatched pots filled with the island delicacies :-) Yes, my son and I ate this food although there was no hand sanitizer in sight... when in rome, er... roatan!

Next post: Belize

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I originally wanted to go to the Mayan ruins at Tulum while visiting Cozumel but decided against it due to the length of the trip required to do so. My understanding is that its a good 2 hr drive to and from the port. Even though I'm dying to visit Tulum--the ruins are right on the ocean and its supposed to be just gorgeous--four hours in a van sounded pretty horrible to even a diehard history seeker like myself. So instead, I booked the whole family for a dolphin swim! Again, we did this independently as it was not only significantly cheaper than going through the cruise line but booking direct also allowed Georgie to participate (through the cruise line you had to be a minimum of 8 yrs old I believe).

As it turned out, it was a really lucky decision to do something less time consuming. Our ship was nearly an hour late in docking and there's no way we would have had time to complete the Tulum trip.

Anyway, once we got off the ship we grabbed a cab and headed to Chankanaab Park about 10 mins away. The park is beautiful and at least on that day EMPTY. The water is a brilliant dark blue in this area--clear and warm. Then we got ready for our dolphin swim. It was FANTASTIC!!! Brett, Casey, Bobby and I all agree that this was the highlight of our trip! We were able to touch the dolphins, give a hug and kisss and then the highlights a dorsal tow and foot push.

For the dorsal tow they had us swim out about 40 feet and you held the dorsal fin of two dolphins and they swam you in. The foot push made us feel like we were part of a Sea World show! Again, one at a time, we swam out about 40 feet and then you had to wait with your legs floating behind you and your arms out to the side. Two dolphins swam up behind, finding the soles of our feet with their noses then pushed! We were instructed to lock our knees and put our arms straight up and the dolphins did the rest popping us up out of the water to about waist or so!!! So, so exciting!!! Because Casey is thin he popped up even more quickly than the rest of us and was out of the water to about his shins/ankles! Truly amazing.

We then had about 10 mins with the manatees to feed them lettuce and pet them. When I booked the excursion, I was told that Georgie would not be able to participate in the manatee swim but I just took her along with me and no one seemed to care. They're very peaceful and gentle creatures... like a giant sea cow. It was explained to us that they are endangered as they have no natural predators but have been overhunted by humans :-(

Anyway, after our dolphin swim we had a little lunch, watched a sea lion show --all in spanish because we were in Mexico-- then took a tour of the archeological exhibits they had there. It was quite interesting (to me anyway). When the tour guide learned that Brett studied spanish with plans of going to Spain next year he decided he would give him some practice by conducting the balance of the tour in spanish and then having Brett translate to the group in english. He was pretty impressed (as was the small tour group) with Brett's ability to do this very, very well. These are not your typical words and Brett was able to explain everything to us clearly. Yeah! I have proof that my educational dollars have not been completely wasted :-)

Casey getting some air on his foot push
Georgie giving and receiving kisses from the dolphins
More kisses
Even more kisses
Yet another kiss
Feeding the manatee
This was in the back near the archeological stuff. The kids thought they were dumb but for some reason these cutouts just cracked me up

The park had all kinds of really cool statuary. We were told they're all reproductions from historical sites throughout mexico.

Coming up next: the beautiful Isla Roatan
Grand Cayman
First excursion day was Grand Cayman! We had an awesome tour guide with a very thick island accent and rasta dreds. We loaded onto a van then boarded a boat. After a 30 minute boat ride out into the ocean we stopped at a natural sandbar known as Stingray City. As the story goes, about 30 yrs ago, the fishing boats would congregate in this area to clean the fish from the day's catch. The stingrays would come around to eat the scraps and over time became friendly. They're now very friendly and come around when they hear the boats. They are fantastic creatures! Their hide (or whatever its called) is very smooth to the touch but their barbed tails are scratchy like sandpaper and pretty uncomfortable when they run across your legs.

G loved them! She petted them and kissed them. It was weird that they'd just kind of slide against your legs as they swam by waiting for food. Feeding them was also a bit of an experience. You had to carefully hold the fish with your thumb tucked into your fist. The ray would come up to you and then suck the fish into its mouth very quickly as if being picked up by a very strong vaccuum hose. It was startling to say the least and I screamed the first time which the guides all thought was hysterical.

We did a tour independent of the cruise line with only about 10 people on our trip. We were fortunate to spend the first few minutes by ourselves but then too quickly were joined by two double decker cruise ship excursion boats carrying literally hundreds of people which was kind of a bummer as the rays all got a little freaked out by the frenzy.

Brett and Casey on the boat ride out to the sandbar. I think they look so handsome here :-)
This was actually one of the smaller rays. The big ones were about 4 feet in diameter!
Georgie loved them! Doesn't the background in this photo look fake? The water is shallow here (only went to about our waists and so very clear. The dark water you see in the background meeting the sky is dark blue because its deeper. It was incredibly beautiful.
Just hanging out, holding a stingray.

Trying to hold a wild ocean animal is not that easy. The guides would catch them and try to hand them off to us. The rays didn't seem to mind.
The Crowells at Stingray City. You can see the cruise ship boat in the background with the people packed in like sardines and a ray coming up from the right to have a little visit.
I think this stingray is the one they've named Frisbee because he has no tail. The guide tried to tell me but I couldn't understand whether he was born without the tail or had somehow lost it. Anyway, I think its funny that the same rays often enough that they're able to give some of them names. In the background is a different tour group done on seadoos. I'd love to do that someday when G is older!
Next stop was a snorkling spot. It was a horrible day for snorkling due to the cloud cover and the rough seas. We only spent about 20 mins here before giving up. This is Brett being silly.
G on her snorkling raft. It was really cool because it had a clear plastic part she could look down through to see the fish. If the sun would have been out and the water more calm it would have been great. As it was she was able to see quite a bit anyway.Casey showing off under water
The second part of the morning was a trip to Hell which is a city?? or perhaps an area?? of the island so named for the odd cooled lava beds (I think) that make it look barren and creepy. Mostly its a gift shop/tourist place. You can see a bit of the lava in the very right of this photo above the devil statues head I think. They really play up the devil theme here. This is a cardboard cutout of the guy who I think owns the gift shop there as I saw him walking around inside. We mailed some postcards from here but as of this writing they have not arrived. I'm not sure how long it should take for a postcard to get to the US from the Caymans. I guess we'll see.
Next stop the Turtle Farm where green sea turtles are raised. As usual G was enthralled by the animals. There were some huge ones there --think 3 feet in diameter-- but they let you hold some of the smaller ones.
G giving one a kiss. She always wants to kiss the animals she just loves them so much.
Brett with a turtle. Most of them didn't mind being held but when they were done they'd let you know by slapping the heck out of your arms by flapping their front legs up and down very quickly. It definitely got their point across and they'd be put down almost immediately.
This is Casey getting slapped silly by the turtle!
G enjoyed holding the turtles. This one was quite happy in her lap for a minute or so.

Brett's favorite show is No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. I think he wants to be Bourdain when he grows up! What this means is that Brett wants to try eating all kinds of weird stuff. The national food of the Caymans is turtle, apparantly, so Brett wanted to give that try. As is turns out, turtle is served there in the snack shop at the farm so Brett got some turtle soup. I tried it, it wasn't so bad I guess. They also had turtle burgers which I would have been up to trying out but we ran out of time.
This is Casey giving it a taste.
Brett continuing his gastronomical tour of the caribbean.

Next stop: Cozumel