Ice Show in Studio B, deck #4

Ultimate Abyss, deck #16 (tube slide decending to deck #6 in 12 seconds)

*Harmony of the Seas*

This is longer than usual because we are going to take a cruise. The Royal Caribbean *Harmony of the Seas* is the largest cruise ship afloat. As many of you know, Margaret really likes to cruise. The *Harmony of the Seas* has been in service for only a few months. Margaret wanted to see what it was like so November 26 - December 3 2016 we sailed out of Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean and back.
Let me say up front, this ship is BIG! Our cabin was very spacious on deck #7 in the bow overlooking the Heli-pad and the sea. There are 17 decks. The Windjammer (a popular buffet cafe) on deck #16 aft was .22 miles from our cabin. That is almost a quarter of a mile. There is no bus or taxi service down the long corridors.  Better take inventory of everything you might need at dinner before risking having to return to the cabin to retrieve it.
Here are a few facts. The ship is 1,188 feet long and 215.5 feet wide. It is 227,000 tons and can cruise at 22 knots. It has 2,747 state rooms and can accommodate 6,780 guests and a crew of 2,100. I will spare you the technical data but if anyone wants to know this let me know and I can send that to you.
The ship is divided into seven neighborhoods which is more than New York City has boroughs. The first neighborhood you arrive in when boarding is the Royal Promenade which runs down the center of the ship on deck #5. This is where a lot of activity takes place and where you will find restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, and information desks. This is also where you find the Bionic Bar, a bar that is completely run by robots. I watched people order drinks and was told that the robot did it properly. The robot takes your order from a digital pad where you also scan your keycard to pay for it. How amusing it is to watch the robots go to work, select a glass, mix and shake the drink in the glass, and then deliver the drink to the customer! The Royal Promenade extends upward to include decks #6 and #7, part of which has cabins overlooking the Promenade.
Go up to deck #8 and you will find the neighborhood of Central Park. This area is open to the sky, filled with plants, flowers, and trees. There are cabin balconies overlooking Central Park.
Another neighborhood is the Boardwalk on deck #6 aft. Here you will find an old fashioned merry-go-round, among other boardwalk activities.  The Boardwalk area extends to where the Aqua Theater and a rock climbing wall are located. The Aqua Theater presents shows with tightrope walking and acrobatic divers that plummet from the two 10 M. (33 ft.) high diving boards as well as a 55 foot tower.
Still aft of the ship up on deck #15 is the pool and sports' deck. It is here where you will find a zip line, 2 FlowRiders, 2 water slides and the Ultimate Abyss (deck #16) which takes you down a tube to Central Park on deck #6 in 12 seconds. The ship has a huge spa and fitness center. Down on deck #4 is the Entertainment Place. This features an ice skating rink, comedy club, and show room.
Here are a few more facts that I found interesting: The ship has more works of art than the Louvre has paintings. There are 20 restaurants with more than 300 meal options. It has 4 bow thrusters, one of which has more horsepower than 7 Ferraris. Central Park has more plants than the entire Chelsea Flower Show in London. Stand the ship on its end and it is twice as high as the Washington monument.
OK, enough of the facts. How was the experience? First, there were people everywhere. The ship has sufficient common space so that finding a deck chair was never a problem.  If you wanted to attend the Aqua Theater, Ice Skating Show, or see the play* Grease*, it needed to be pre-booked. There is no extra charge for these shows but they do need to be pre-booked.  They did use a very efficient way of allocating seats. Our reservations were loaded onto our shipboard keycard so when our keycard was scanned at the door of the event we would be allowed entry. (Just a note for the folks who have not been on a cruise: When you first check in for a cruise you are issued a plastic card the size of a credit card. This is your entry to your stateroom and it can be used to charge any expenses on the ship. At the end of a cruise your account can be settled by using a credit card which was registered when you first checked in or you could elect to pay in cash as well. While your reservation guaranteed a seat at events, it does not specify which seat. Also, people without reservations could form a line outside the door and 15 minutes prior to show time those people in line could have the seats of the "no-shows".
I found the food to be very good but not exceptional. The selections at the Windjammer (a buffet on deck #16 aft) were much the same throughout the cruise. I prefer more daily changes. This was an excellent ship for families with children. There were a lot of things to do for all ages. For our tastes, there were too many children on board. I forget the number but more than a 1,000. The elevators were fast and handy when going 10-12 floors at a time. I was pleasantly surprised when using the gangway at ports. The ship used up to three gangways so people moved along nicely.
Bottom line: It was not a relaxing cruise with too many people, too many PA announcements, too much distance between places, and you rarely saw the same person a second time which could be both good and bad. Margaret and I were glad we went just to experience the *Harmony of the Seas*. So you know, we disembarked Dec 3th at Fort Lauderdale and boarded the Holland America *Eurodam*. The *Eurodam *was like a breath of fresh air, much smaller, peaceful, and with better food. I even had time to read a book. Spare me from the mega-ships. We avoid Carnival cruises because they are too much of a party ship. When Margaret was asked about the *Harmony*, her reply was "The *Harmony of the Seas* was like a Carnival ship on steroids."
I find it a bit difficult to represent the ship with a few pictures, but let's try. Attached are a dozen pictures that will give you an idea of what the ship is like. They are as follows:

Royal Promenade deck #5 viewed from deck #6

Harmony of the Seas docked in Nassau, Bahamas

Royal Promenade deck #5

Alaska's Aurora Borealis

While I have shared some of this information and at least one of these pictures with a few of you, it was not as a "Picture of the Week". I am also sending these pictures in memory of Stuart Westmorland. This was a Joe Van Os Photo Safaris trip with co-leaders Kevin McNeal and Stuart Westmorland. I was sad to hear that Stuart passed away July 18, 2016 after a battle with leukemia. Stuart, only 58,  was an excellent photographer and friend. He will be missed.
There are various places around the world where the Northern Lights can be seen. Probably the places that are the most popular are Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. I was told by some experts in Alaska that the winter of 2015 was especially good for the Northern Lights. There seems to be a 7-year cycle and 2015 was a peak showing. The pictures that I have attached were taken near Fairbanks, Alaska and about 60 miles to the north at Chena Hot Springs. While we did have active skies, the weather was brutal. When I arrived in Fairbanks, the temperature on a sign near the airport showed -22 below zero Fahrenheit that afternoon. Little did I know that this would be a high temperature for the next five days? It got as low as -39 degrees which is not all that unusual for Alaska, but it was mighty cold for this Georgia boy.
So what exactly are the Northern Lights also known as Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. Auroral displays appear in many colors although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie but beautiful glow.
Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.
A - Taken at Mt. Aurora Lodge (Skiland) at Fairbanks, Alaska March 14, 2015 at 11:16 PM
B - Taken at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska March 18, 2015 at 12:37 AM
C - Taken at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska March 17, 2015 at 12:41 AM
D - Cabins at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska March 17, 2015 at 1:30 AM
E - Taken at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska March 17, 2015 at 1:31 AM

Aqua Theater, deck #6 aft

Bionic Bar on deck #5, aft

Boardwalk, deck #6 aft viewed from deck #15

Central Park, deck #6 viewed from deck #14

Amazon River

In May of 2004, Fran and Ron Chilcot of Laguna Beach, CA had organized a 16 day riverboat trip in the Amazon region of Brazil. They had one space so I joined them for a very interesting journey. Ron had chartered the *Victoria Amazonica* captained and owned by Moacir Fortes. Moacir was born and raised in the Amazon region and became an expertise in things pertaining to the fauna, flora, and history of the region. We began our trip in the town of Manaus, Brazil situated on the Rio Negro River. Manaus is only about 11 miles above what is known as the "Meeting of the Waters". This is where the lower Amazon River begins. On one side come the very dark water of the Rio Negro and the other side which joins it is known as the Rio Solimes <
B5es> or Upper Amazon, a very light sandy colored river. We began our trip on the dark water of the Rio Negro following it north and west exploring its many river branches and eventually reaching the borders of Ecuador and Venezuela.
Our trip ended with a few days on the light colored Rio Solimes <> River.
An interesting fact is that the dark water of the Rio Negro and its tributaries does not allow mosquitoes to breed. Its pH ranging of 2.4 - 4.9 prevents *mosquito* larvae from developing.  That was certainly not the case on the Rio Solimes
<> where we found mosquitoes in swarms.
I have chosen two very contrasting images from this trip. The first is palm fronds, a mirror reflection in Lake Jarada Igarap on the Cachoeiras River.  The water was very still early in the morning. This picture is somewhat unusual because it is difficult to distinguish which is real and which part is the reflection. They sort of blend in together and render an oval image.
The second picture was taken in Novo Airo, a small town on the Rio Negro River. Novo Airo began as a Jesuit settlement at the mouth of the Jau River <> in 1668 and was named Santo Elias de Jau. The settlement inhabited by Indians grew into a village and later a small town. It prospered during the rubber boom from 1890 to 1920. In 1938 the name was changed to its present name. Unlike some villages and towns in the Amazon region, Novo Airo can be reached by a road from Manaus as well as by river.
I was walking around the town with my camera when I saw a small boy peep out of an open window in a house. No doubt he was wondering who this strange looking man was outside his house. I am guessing that it was his grandmother who came to his rescue and held him up so he could see better. I captured the decisive moment because the two of them never looked at me
at the same time again. Some things that I like about the picture are the simple shutter without glass in the window. If you look closely you can see the dirty worn area on the bottom of the window framing. No doubt there have been a lot of small hands on that window over the years. The laundry drying on the line adds a nice addition of color to the wooden house.

FlowRider, deck #16

Sports Zone, deck #15

Central Park, deck #6


Before it was legal for US citizens to visit Cuba except on humanitarian missions, Margaret and I booked a two week tour to Cuba with Eldertreks, a Canadian company. US dollars were not widely accepted in Cuba so we took Euros left over from travels to Europe. First, we flew to Cancun, Mexico and spent the night. The next day we went to the Cancun airport and paid
$10 for a Cuban visa. After landing in Havana, passport control stamped our visa and we were on our way. The stamped visa would be our legal exit paper for our flight back to Mexico. Before leaving Havana airport, Euros were exchanged for Cuban pesos. We found the Cuban people to be very friendly towards us. Be warned though, if you do not like black beans and rice, do not go to Cuba.
A - Quinceanera at Plaza de San Francisco in Havana, Cuba. Many cultures have coming of age ceremonies, but one of the most extravagant may be the quinceanera in Cuba when a girl reaches the age of 15. Though slightly different throughout Latin America, the Cuban quinceanera tradition includes six costume changes, a massive party and a ride through the streets of Havana, waving to admiring fans. Parents start saving for quinceanera when a girl is born; some consider the quinceanera more important than a marriage ceremony.
B - Don Alfredo is standing in his house in the Viales Valley of Cuba. Don Alfredo is a tobacco farmer on his family's farm. The government takes all but a small percentage of the tobacco after it is cured. The farmer is paid a fixed rate and can consume or sell the small amount of tobacco he is allowed to keep. Don Alfredo rolls his own cigars and sells the few that he does not smoke.
C - Horse drawn cart travelling along the side of a 4-lane highway in central Cuba.  The background was very cluttered so I kneeled down on the ground and waited until the horse and cart were on a small rise to put blue sky in the background.
D - This is the Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba. The view is from the balcony of Casa Ortiz. Trinidad is my favorite city in Cuba. It has many buildings from the colonial times and a very pleasant central square. You will see local people walking in the plaza as well as riders on horses in the streets.
E - La Terraza de Cojmar restaurant in Cojmar, Cuba which is on the coast about 22 miles from Havana. Hemingway lived near the fishing village of Cojmar where he frequented La Terraza and always sat at the same table looking out towards Cojmar Bay. It became known as Hemingway's table. The restaurant is even mentioned in "The Old Man and the Sea".