Saturday, November 24, 2012

Geek Cruising

So we’re back from a great trip, and I’m struggling with how I’ll to respond to the “how was it” questions on returning to work. Elaine has already spoken to two of her siblings at length and seems more sure than I. In fact there’s enough surety that she’s composing an email about our trip. I hope she sends it to me!

But I want to get a little of this down so I’ll remember what a great time we had and, more importantly, why it was such a great time.

So the questions. Where did you go? Why there? What did you do? Was it what you thought it would be? Isn’t that a long way? And from my family – what did you eat?

Oosterdam at Circular Quay
We went on a cruise. We sailed on Holland America’s Oosterdam from Sydney up the east coast of Australia to the Barrier Reef, then through the coral sea during a solar eclipse, weekended in New Caledonia, then back to Sydney. No sea sickness, though the catamaran trip to the barrier reef and back certainly came close. We’ve never been on a cruise before, unless you count the overnight ferry ride from Piraeus to Chania we took on our honeymoon, or the subsequent Heraklion to Santorini jaunt that taught me the dangers of mixing ouzo with high seas, which is one reason we’ve avoided cruises this long.

The other reason is our resistance to demography. Isn’t a cruise for the newlywed and nearly dead? Sure, we’re old(er), but not that old. We want to explore on our own! We would rather travel alone than go with the crowd. Explore the byways not the highways. But in the course of resisting the typical sales pitch I was psychically roped into a cruise by an even stronger demographic pull – my geekness.

Jaccaranda Tree outside
Sydney Town Hall
As the byline of my blog attests, I’m a husband, father, physician, geek. But those of you who know me well know that this isn’t always the order of priority. So when I became aware of Insight Cruises ( MacMania cruises via my favorite podcast network ( I longed to cruise China in the company of fellow geeks. That didn’t work out. Neither did South America and Cape Horn. Job, money, life got in the way. But I heard tales from those who went, saying things I wish I could say. Regret is a powerful teacher, and I’m a quick learner. Or at least susceptible to targeted marketing.

So when MacMania 15’s itinerary was announced to be an Australian/New Caledonian/Solar Eclipse cruise I put down our deposit and for a year resisted every reason (and there have been a *lot* of reasons) to cancel. All the old reasons were there, and added to those were family. Without revealing what’s not mine to reveal, I’ll just say there has been serious illness in my family in the past year and many would put family first. Let’s just say many in my family have put family first, and if not for them I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go.

We visited Sydney in all it’s Fall (springtime) glory. We learned what a Jaccaranda tree is, that Ibises are Australia’s pigeon’s, bushy-tailed possums it’s squirrels, and the Melbourne Cup it’s Kentucky Derby. It’s a gorgeous city of neighborhoods that’s utterly walkable, with a great transit system too. We know because we used it a lot going back and forth to the airport to retrieve the bags we left there. The ferry system around the harbor is world class and cheap, even if little else in the city is. But you don’t have to pay to listen to birds you’ll not hear in the states, nor to see plants you’ve never seen before. It’s odd to walk among an utterly recognizable cityscape with an utterly foreign flora and fauna.

Nov 13, 2012 Eclipse Collage
as shot by Tom , our cruise mate
Eclipse stories are legend, and now I know why. Despite knowing exactly what’s coming, it’s startling to actually see it with your own eyes. If you want to see what we saw, view Steve Sheridan’s videos on youtube. The first is the eclipse as seen from our vantage point on deck. Steve was shooting right behind Elaine and I. He is also geek enough to have set up a gopro video camera shooting the onlookers, which is the second video. We’re visible at the 4:29 mark, left side of the field, between and distant to the man in shorts and man in long white pants, me in light blue jeans and navy fleece, Elaine in a purple fleece and blue jeans. Proof we were there. The collage of the eclipse by Tom above was shot by a fellow cruiser and retired Orthopedist from Washington State. Best part of watching it was the recognition that you could see the best part of the total eclipse with your naked eye. We used eclipse glasses for the rest of it. Looked silly, but worked.

If something could compete with the eclipse it’s the Great Barrier Reef. Though the area we snorkeled (Hardy Reef) was clearly heavily trafficked it was still amazing to jump in the water and see a scene from National Geographic or a Jaques Cousteau special. The pontoon we snorkeled from was anchored to the reef, with ropes set up to guide snorkelers and divers. Good thing too. The current was strong, and looking up from the ocean to see nothing but horizon was anxiety provoking, especially given the history of reef snorkeling trips and americans (see this story about Tom and Eileen Longergan). If that weren’t enough to concern me we wore “stinger suits”, silly as they look, because you don’t want to mess with jellyfish in Australia. Of course mine was black. Made me look like a seal.

île des Pins or Louisiana?
Beach, 10 yards to right of the tree
lined street to the left, île des Pins
île des Pins reminded me of Louisiana, if not as hot or humid. Oak looking trees shading a remote road only feet from a pristine beach. Only missing the spanish moss. Easo on Lifou was, frankly, what I’ve seen in my head when I think of cruising. Nice enough, but not my scene. And Noumea, the capital on the big island had all the heat and humidty of Louisiana. And Mississippi. And Texas. You get the idea. All the shops were closed as it was Sunday, but we were able to visit an open Marché long enough to see that their selection of bordeaux was better than our local wine shop. The highlight for me was visiting the memorial to US soldiers who fought on New Caledonia in WWII a few hours after getting an email from my mother reminding me that her uncle (my great uncle) fought there.
Elaine at Easo, Lifo, Loyalty Islands
New Caledonia

The MacMania conference was great, offering a chance to hobnob with fellow geeks from around the world and learn from some of the best. Highlight, learning automator from Sal Saghoian, Automator product manager from Apple. Bonus: Steve Jobs stories and some insider hints you couldn’t get from anyone else. Steve Sheridan’s wife Allison (of Nosilla Podcast fame), Don McAllister (of ScreenCastsOnline) and Leo Laporte made for a great crew. Good drinking buddies too. 
Our room, at dock in Sydney

How was the cruise? The food was good. Not great, but good. Except for Bar H in Sydney our last night in town, which was outstanding (see prior facebook post). Our stateroom was ok.  It’s nice to have stewards answer your every beck and call, though quite frankly we didn’t beck or call much. Biggest gripe? Internet by satellite. It’s expensive and slow. $250 for 1100 minutes of 328bps speed, when it worked. And the ship’s entertainment? Let’s just say our fears about what a cruise would be were confirmed by the one show we went to. 

Geek Lunch
The best part of the trip wasn’t the ports of call, conference, or food. It was the new friends we made in sharing a common experience. Aussies from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Gold Coast patiently explained cultural minutiae. Foster’s beer isn’t sold in Australia. Vegemite is made by Kraft foods. Spread it thin (very thin) on buttered toast.

Would I do it again? Sure!