Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sabine Pass - After the Storm

I arrived in Houston to start trip number 5 for Habitat for Humanity, based in Beaumont Texas. (I find it hard to understand that Katrina/Rita occurred over two years ago and people/families are still living in trailers and the rebuilding is still going on)

When I was deplaning in Houston I saw a gate agent who caught my eye. After a closer look I realized that she worked for me and later I think I fired at Midway some 15 years ago. Though she gets around the airlines, I made no attempt to make contact.

Also, for the first time in almost 30 years of travelling, my second bag containing work shoes and tools did not arrive. Fortunately, it was sent to Beaumont later Sunday night.

After I checked into the hotel I took a ride to our new location, Sabine Pass.

Sabine is 35 miles southeast of Beaumont.
The ride took me through the refineries and the intracoastal waterway.
On the way back I thought the weather was changing, but noticed that a large field was burning. The growing season has ended and it they probably were clearing the the fields. The heat could be felt from the fire as I drove past the field.

I was disappointed to learn that my favorite evening stop, Rocky's, was closed. I stopped a few blocks away at Kings Pub. Miller Lite in a can and bug on the bar made me quickly decide that I will not return.

Monday October 29, 2007

This week I will be working with a church group of twelve, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a couple from Michigan, and until tomorrow, eight from Americorp. (Their assignment will end and they will be driving back to Denver)
We will be working on two homes that will be occupied by people who have always lived in Sabine. Margaret is in her early 70's is full blood Cherokee Indian, and Phylis, mid 30's, both lost there homes in Hurricane Rita.
Margaret's home did not have a mortgage and was on the lot she owns before it was totally destroyed. Her husband died just before Rita from West Nile Virus. Her adult children all live in the area and currently is living in a trailer on her property. She commented, that if not for the volunteers, people here would not have any hope.

(Margaret )

(FEMA TRAILER)(Margarets Future Home)

(Beneath the home)

Phyllis, was renting a home with her 3 children, twins 10 years old and son 17. The entire inside was also destroyed. She was able to purchase the land where her new home will be built and is currently living in a FEMA trailer in Sabine with her three children.

The homes will be similar size to those on Jenard street, but must be built on stilts 12 feet above sea level.

Our first day is always is a bit unorganized. We are waiting to some inspections on Margaret's home, so work on Monday was limited.
I went to dinner with Lois, the previous volunteer coordinator. We had a nice evening catching up since my last visit. She also introduced me to Poblano Grill nearby, that I really enjoyed.

Tuesday October 30,2007

We worked on Phyllis' house today putting up the side plywood. There is no power on the property, so the nailing is done the old fashioned way.

(Back/Phylis house)

Phyliss stopped by this afternoon to say "thanks" and to meet the group. She has lived in Sabine her whole life and wants to remain here. Phylis bought the property from an elderly couple that had their home destroyed and decided to move. The cost of the property was $1500.

(Phylis standing)

Any home that sustained damage by Rita, could be repaired if less than 50% was damaged. If more than 50%, then the house was destroyed and a new home could be built, but only on the stilts. Last year the team from Extreme Makeover built the fire house an school auditorium. (We were able to purchase a DVD copy of the show) The school has grades K-12 with about 250 total students. Because the school is new, many parents have their children sent from Port Arthur to attend.

(New School)

(New Firehouse)

She has been in the trailer for almost two years and is hoping that she will be in by Christmas.Lunch today was at Skeeters. A small building that you would never think to stop in and eat. The food is great and staffed by the local women.


I still wonder why people stay here in Sabine. It is a very small town and not really anything going on. Though it seems that most of the people have their whole family living there. It makes Mayberry seem like the big city.

Wednesday October 31, 2007

The women in our group were sent to Beaumont to complete indoor painting of another home. The guys were left to work in Sabine. Today we did hurricane clips, attic floor and misc carpentry. It was a nice opportunity to work the the crew from Cedar Rapids, all of whom are allot of fun to be around.

(Attic crawlspace floor)

When the day was finished, I made a visit to Miss Bea and her mother on Jenard Street. Both are doing well and the block is almost complete. One more home will be built in January. This will be an ALL Women build, which I understand they do once or twice a year.

There are 75 children occupying the Habitat homes on this block.

Thursday November 1, 2007

Today was wall wrapping, window installation and reinforcing walls for cabinets and bathroom fixtures. The weather has been great. Not one day of rain and temperatures in the 70's & low 80's. Unusually warm for this time of year in southeast Texas.

We are at the Holiday Inn in Beaumont, though I am sure we could have gotten a better rate here.

( Robert (Habitat Lead) & Brock from Iowa & me)

Friday November 2, 2007

The final day of work in Southeast Texas before I leave for home on Saturday.

Today we met at the Habitat warehouse in Beaumont. We loaded some supplies to prepare for the 10 day two house blitz build that will begin on Monday. The area is in Beaumont and run down. The low income housing/apartments located across the street are in the process of being demolished to make way for new housing. The buildings were evacuated after Rita.

(To be destroyed)

Here we installed base plates on one of the two homes and built pink saw horses for the blitz. This kept us busy until 11:30. After lunch the church group that we enjoyed working with this week, packed up and started their road trip back to Cedar Rapids.

(Base Plates)

(Lunch on our new horses)

The couple from Michigan and myself were then sent over to do some trim work on a home that is being built by local church volunteers. This home is a Saturday only build that the have been working on for about 10 weeks.

(Saturday Church build)

Once again I enjoyed meeting future homeowners and hearing their stories. It is also a pleasure to work and get to know other volunteers and hear what brought them here.

Each and every time I am here, I find that most of the future owners remain positive even though they lost all material items including their homes. They see the light at the end of the tunnel and are grateful to have survived.

It would be nice say "we're done". But unfortunately the progress is very slow with many hurdles and red tape. Many will wait even longer to get their lives and homes back to sense of normalcy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

London to Barcelona

Tomorrow, Jim, Alice, Rose & I will be leaving for London at 6:20P and arrive Wednesday morning at 8:30A. We will be spending the day and overnight in London at the Claverley Hotel.

On Thursday we sail from Dover on the Norwegian Dream at 4P.
Below is our itinerary :

Thu 9/27 London (Dover) 4:00PM

Fri - 9/28 Paris (Le Havre) 7:00 AM /7:00 PM
Sat - 9/29 At Sea
Sun -9/30 La Coruna 9:00 AM / 6:00 PM
Mon - 10/1 Leixoes 8:00 AM / 5:00 PM
Tue - 10/2 Lisbon 8:00 AM /5:00 PM
Wed - 10/3 Gibraltar 2:00 PM / 8:00 PM
Thu - 10/4 At Sea
Fri - 10/5 At Sea
Sat - 10/6 Rome (Civitavecchia) 7:00 AM / 6:00 PM
Sun - 10/7 Florence/Pisa (Livorno) 7:00 AM /6:00 PM
Mon - 10/8 Marseille 10:30 AM / 3:00 PM
Tue - 10/9 Barcelona 5:00 AM
Wednesday September 26, 2007

We departed Chicago about an hour late due to the local rain storms. Our arrival into London was around 9A and at the hotel by 11A.

The Claverley Hotel is very nice, but the rooms are rather small. For a short stay it is fine but for anything longer it would be a bit cramped.
Since we had time before checking in, we just wandered around Harrods for a bit and stopped at the coffee shop to get our bearings. After we checked in, we had a pre-arranged tour of Buckingham Palace, The Staterooms. Because of the two wheelchairs, our entry to the Palace was at the main gate. It was different to be able to walk/roll across the main area that we are normally peeking through the fence to get a glimpse off the Queen. The tour lasted about 1 1/2 hours. Though Jim & I had done this tour with Todd & Erin a few years ago, it was still quite interesting. (furniture is still the same)

Dinner was at our favorite first night in London restaurant, Quaglino's. The dining room was very crowded when we arrived, so we had had a few cocktails until our table was ready. Afterwards, we went to the Claridge Hotel for a night cap. Alice & Rose had a full evening and seemed to really enjoy themselves.

Thursday September 27, 2007

This morning we prepared for our journey to Dover to begin our 12 days at sea. Our driver arrived at 11:30a.
The drive to Dover was scenic and lasted approximately two hours. The van that we were transported in was extremely comfortable and was able to accommodate all of our luggage and the two wheelchairs.
Check in was quick, and we were on board by 2P for a light lunch by the pool.
Weather over the past few days has been pleasant but cool. London weather was clear and between 45 and 50 degrees, similar to their winter. The temperature should be rising by the weekend and we sail to the south.
NCL had Freestyle dining, whereas you can dine at a variety of restaurants vs the standard dining room schedule. This is the first time we will experience this type of dining. We have always preferred the more traditional dining schedule. We tend to like the same server/bartender every night just like at home. So, I am being open minded.
Tonight we had dinner at the Four Seasons Restaurant and were not exactly thrilled with the food portions. We will try the Italian restaurant tomorrow.

Friday September 28, 2007

This morning we arrived in Le Havre, France. Today we will spend the entire day on a shore excursion to the beaches of Normandie. Jim & I were here a few years ago, but this will be a first for Alice & Rose.
The bus ride was just over two hours. We walked the trails at Normandie trying to imagine the terrible bloodbath that occurred. The military cemetery is serene and breathtaking. There are over 9000 soldiers buried here. Each grave marked with an Italian marble cross or star if Jewish. All graves are symmetrical, alphabetical and immaculately maintained.
The last part of the tour was at small museum located in the town of Arromanches.
Returning back to the ship, we drove through many small town with very narrow winding streets. I am glad we had an experienced driver to navigate the large tour bus on these roads.
We arrived back at ship just before 6P. The will sail around 8:15P, just before our 9P dinner reservation at the Italian restaurant. Just as we were leaving Le Havre, we stopped at Lucky’s for a before dinner cocktail. Jim & I were here last night and it looks like it will be our regular watering hole.
The bartender, Ed, is from the Philippines. The atmosphere is perfect for relaxing and the musicians that perform are piano bar entertainers.
At dinner I was somewhat relieved that portions were plenty and excellent. Jim & I elected to order all four courses just in case they were small portions. We finished all and topped it off with desert.
The sea has slight rocking motion which should make for a good nights sleep.

Tomorrow will be our first full day at sea. I am looking forward to a relaxing day exploring this ship.

Saturday September 29, 2007.

Today was a very relaxing day at sea. No need to rush around and worry about any tours or watch the clock. Everyone spent the day doing things. Jim did some work, Alice and Rose tried their luck in the casino and I sat on deck and read my book. I welcome days at sea as a chance to catch up and just relax and enjoy the ship.
The passengers on this cruise are mostly Americans. The ages range from a few young couples, senior citizens traveling with friends and us. There seems to only be a few small children. The passenger make-up is pretty much the same as we have seen on previous cruises, though we did expect more foreign travelers as seen in the past.
Dinner this evening was at The Terrace, the sister restaurant to the Four Seasons, where we dined the first night. The food was fine. Jim & I prepared ourselves and ordered double lobster. Smart move. The two tails were quite small and would be compared to jumbo shrimp.
The ocean was a bit rocky tonight during dinner but nothing to wild. Sleeping should once again be a nice gentle sway.

Sunday September 30, 2007

When we woke this morning, the ship was docked in La Coruna. The weather was windy and rainy at 9A. Though we were not on an organized tour, we planned on walking and exploring the town. Fortunately, by the time we were ready to leave the ship, the sun came out and we had beautiful weather in the 70’s.
La Coruna is a beautiful Spanish town. The streets are very clean and the city landscape along the harbor is beautiful. Today is Sunday, so the shops are all closed except for bakeries, pubs and restaurants.
We walked a short distance from the ship to town. Our first stop was a small bakery where we picked up a few pastries that we ate in a nearby park. After our little break we wandered the small winding and hilly streets.
Lunch was in the center of town at a very nice café. Since none of speak Spanish, some pointing and some help from a waiter, we able to order a nice lunch.
We return to the ship around 3P and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon on deck or on our balconies. The weather could not have been more perfect.
We just departed from La Coruna at 6P. We have been advised that on our journey this evening to Portugal the ship will be sailing into some very windy conditions. Sounds like it will be a rocky ride.
Dinner tonight will be French Cuisine at the Bistro.

Monday October 1, 2007

The ride last night was quite rocky. The prediction by our captain was accurate. As soon as we left port the ship was swaying and continued during the night. It was not the gentle sway that we have had over the past few days.

Dinner was excellent at the Bistro. By far the best dinner we have had on the cruise thus far. We will definitely be at this restaurant a few more times over the next week.

We have changed our clocks back today 1 hour. This is the second change since we left London. This morning we arrived in Leixoes, Portugal. Weather is slightly overcast but I am sure it will turn out to be a nice day in town. We are not on an organised tour, so we will explore the town on our own.
The area where the ship is docked is not the center of town We took a 20 minute cab ride to the town of Porto. The streets are lined with quaint stores that sell leather goods, eyeglasses, clothing etc.. There are many outdoor café located on every street.
The weather again today was very pleasant. A cool breeze made for walking the hilly streets comfortable.
After a few hours, we stopped for a light lunch in a very nice corner restaurant before we returned to the ship.
We sailed at 6p and were once again informed the ride will be rough tonight again, but not quite as severe as last night.
Dinner tonight at 9P, Italian.

Tuesday October 2, 2007

The ride last night was just fine. Slightly rocky but manageable to walk around.
This morning we were all up any hour earlier than we needed to be. A bit of misinformation from the girls on when our clocks were turned forward an hour. I was running for coffee, complaining that our room service order never arrived and was informed by Jim that we had an extra hour. So needless to say we were more than ready for our shore excursion.
Today we are in Lisbon. Our tour will take us to Batalha and Fatima.
Our first, after about a two hour bus ride was Batalha. An old church that is the final resting place of Henry the Navigator and houses the tombs of King Jao 1, and their children. We spent about an hour her going through the church and learning how the limestone decorative pillars are replaced when they become worn and weathered.
Our next stop was the village of Fatima, where the Virgin Mary appeared several time before three peasant children on May 13, 1917. Her last apparition was Oct 13, 1917, which will be 90 years soon.
Here we were able to visit the basilica, see the actual place of the apparitions and walk the square that is larger than St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
There is a long stone, almost runway like path leading to where the statue of the Virgin Mary is located. Many, who arrived to pay homage at the site, crawl on their knees all the way to the site. Today, there was a young woman with her young daughter, tagging along, who was doing the long crawl in the misting rain.
Alongside the statue of Mary, is a large alter where mass is said daily.
Shortly after we arrived, communion was being distributed. Rose & Alice were able to be one of the many recipients. Timing could not be better.
During the anniversary, every hotel in this small peasant town is completely booked. People from all over the world make a pilgrimage to this site. Some literally walk for days just to be in Fatima.
We made a quick shop at the gift shop, had a nice lunch at the Fatima Hotel and took the coach back to the ship.
Our arrival at the dock was at 4:55P, five minutes before we sailed. The benefit of being on some shore excursions when running late, they wait.
Dinner was once again at the Bistro, our favorite “Freestyle Dining” restaurant.
Since this was a religious experience day, I will save my opinion of freestyle until a later date.
We arrive in Gibraltar tomorrow at 2 P. I hope that Rose & Alice enjoy this short visit as much as we did on a previous cruise.

Wednesday October 3, 2007

Soon after we went ashore in Gibraltar, it was overcast and rainy. Our plan was to walk 15 minutes the bottom of the Rock and hire a cab for the tour. Fortunately cabs were all line up at the dock. After a bit of negotiating with the driver, we boarded the large comfortable van for a tour a ride up to the top.
Our driver previously drove for the cruise ships. After over 20 years he decided that self employment was preferred.
Gibraltar is less than six square kilometers in total and is inhabited by 30,000 people. It is made up of Gibraltarians, British, Moroccans, Indians and Spanish. It overlooks the Straits of Gibraltar and is linked to Spain by a narrow isthmus.
The airport has a busy road that runs across the runway. When an aircraft is landing or departing, traffic is halted. Very similar to a train crossing.
We stopped at St, Michaels Cave. The pathway had a few stairs that winded through the dimly lit cave.

The colors and height of the rock formations is beautiful. In the cave is a medium sized stage where local concerts are performed.
(During the short time we were in the cave, the weather had changed, no rain and a bright warm sun. The weather stayed that way for the rest of our stay.)
We were the taken farther up to another view. Here, there is a colony of the famous ape, the only ones in Europe to run free in a semi-wild state. They are a sight to see. The monkeys do not bother anyone, but will jump on the roofs of the vans, hang on side view mirrors and stroll around you.
Some are a decent size, while others are families with small babies.
Our final stop was at the top. The view was no less than spectacular.
Our driver dropped us off in the center of town after the 90 minute tour. We spent the next few hours just wandering the through the shopping district and making a few purchases. We did though make a stop at a pub for a beer mid afternoon.

Dinner tonight was at the Terraces. Alice had pork, Jim – duck, Rose – seafood pasta and I had the veal. We always have to finish the meal with some desert so as not to hurt the kitchen staffs feelings.

The next two days we will be at sea. The weather will be warm and mild.

Thursday October 4, 2007

Day at sea. Windy on deck, misty rain.

Our day in two lines:

Wake, Shower, Coffee, Internet, Lunch, Windy Poolside read, Nap, Ship walk around, Shower, Cocktails, Dinner, Johnnie Walker & Red Zin, Casino with Johnnie- To Bed.

Tomorrow will be another full day.

Friday October 5, 2007

Today was just about a duplicate of yesterday. Though for lunch I decided to be a vegetarian and have Bloody Mary’s for lunch on deck.

I was strolling on board late this afternoon and came across a champagne and cake reception hosted by the cruise line. It was for the newlyweds on board. What I found interesting was that there was about 15 couples. Not a single one was under 55 years old. Some had their cans and nice big diamonds on their fingers.
Looks like it was better for some the second time around.

Freestyle Cruising. Because we have to book for dinner every night, I have relabeled the slogan. Alice, has put a short call line to my phrase. FSMA.
I will say that dinners have improved and portions are just fine at the one restaurant we were not going to visit again. Seems like the few kinks were ironed out. I believe we are just stuck in our ways of being told when to eat and have our assigned seats. We also miss the bell and announcement for seating. There is something about hearing Bon Appetite’.
FSMA by the way stands for, Free style my ass.

Dinner tonight was back at the Bistro.

Saturday October 6, 2007

We have returned to Rome.
We did not do a formalized tour of Rome because we have all been here often over the past few years. Instead, we booked bus transportation from the dock to Rome and wandered on our own.
The bus dropped us off right outside the Coliseum, one of my favorite sights. We wandered around the area that was filled with tourists. The structure is truly amazing as is the surrounding area that goes on unchanged over the years.
After our brief visit we wandered over to St. Peter in chains and proceeded to window shop up and down the many cobblestone streets.
Our walk took us to the Spanish Steps, which a major gathering area for tourists of all ages. In the evening it is a gathering and meeting place for young adults from all over the world. (On our last visit here our hotel was located at the top of the steps. Rose commented that she remembers climbing those stairs many times a day. She would walk down to the shopping district at the bottom of the stairs when we returned in the afternoon from sight seeing.)
After a light snack of roasted chestnuts bought from street vendor, we made our way over to the Trevi Fountain.
Coins were once again tossed over our shoulder into the fountain. We have now renewed our membership to return to Rome.
Time for a lunch break at a quaint café’ located near the fountain. We relaxed, had a beer and ordered a few pizzas.
We had to walk off our lunch, so we walked over to the Pantheon and wandered through the adjacent square.
The afternoon would not have been complete without stopping for some Gelato (Italian soft ice cream)
The afternoon was slipping away, but we were able to scurry a few blocks over to the Vatican. Though we did not make it to St. Peters Square, we were able to take pictures from a few blocks away. We have been here a few times before, and wanted to revisit as places in the limited time allotted.
The area around the Vatican is quite congested, so it took us a few minutes to hail a cab. The walk back to our meeting place was too far to walk for us to makes our return bus trip back to the ship.
The temperature was in the 70’s all day. Great walking weather. The rain started just as we boarded the bus.
The bus ride was about two hours to the pier. We had plenty of time to rest before cocktails and dinner at 9P.
We sail all night and arrive in Livorno tomorrow.

Sunday October 7, 2007

The ship arrived in the port of Livorno early this morning. We boarded our bus for a 90 minute ride to Florence.
The streets were quiet when we arrived this Sunday morning. Locals were just moving about and shops were beginning to open.
Motor vehicles are not allowed in the center of town, so we walked about three blocks from the bus staging area.
We spent most of our morning wandering the through the narrow streets, stopping and various shops. Italian leather shops are located everywhere.
The buildings are very old and colorful. Streets are cobblestone that have been here for centuries and are
relatively easy to maneuver.

The temperature in the shade was in the mid 60’s, but once you were in a sunny area it was quite warm.
We stopped for lunch overlooking the square. The afternoon could not have been more perfect. We all would have enjoyed just sitting there for hours observing all the surroundings and people.
After lunch we went to the Leather School, which we have been to on previous visits. Jim bought a replacement briefcase (he purchased his current case here a few years ago) and we all bought small leather goods.
We finished our leather purchases and still had time to linger in around square until or bus ride back to the ship.

Monday October 8, 2007

Marseille, France.
We have a short stay here today. We arrived at 10:30a and will sail by 2:30P
City center is about 4 miles from the dock, so we took the shuttle bus. Marseille is a nice small city, but I am not impressed as compared to other places we have stopped. The city has many shops and restaurants along the water front. Fresh fish is sold right off the docks. We walked through the streets but opted not to stay for lunch.The highlight of this few hour trip was the bus ride. About 2 miles from the dock our bus broke down. The driver was trying to secure an alternate bus. After 30 minutes of waiting, we decided to walk and push Alice & Rose back to the ship. It was an adventure but we made it back to the ship before the other bus arrived.

Tonight is our last night on board. We embark in Barcelona early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday October 9, 2007

Barcelona, Spain.

We arrived this morning at 5:00A in Barcelona, Spain.
Bags were packed and we carted everything off the boat to the pier. We arranged for transportation to take us to The Majestic Hotel in Barcelona.
The ride to the hotel was just under 30 minutes. Fortunately are room was available when we arrived at 9A. We checked in and went to the 10th Floor terrace for coffee before we set out to explore the city.
The view from the top reminded me of Paris with all the roads leading to the center of town.
The walk around town was really quite interesting. The main walking mall down the center of the parkway has vendors selling household birds tropical fish and a variety of souvenir items. On each side of the mall there are numerous small side streets, each with its own flavor. Restaurants, a café or small store occupy the small streets. We spent the next few hours just wandering and enjoying the scenery. The streets and sidewalks are very clean with many a park bench to just sit and people watch.
After our final walking day around 4P, Alive rested, Rose ventured out on her own around the hotel and Jim & I had a few beers at the café across from the hotel.
Prior to dinner we went to the hotel bar. Beautifully decorated, piano player and premium snacks to munch on. We ordered, 2 Manhattans, Screwdriver and my usual. The server poured the drinks right at our table. Perfect service. The bill, 4 drinks, 65 Euro or $93.00. Alice licked the glass and almost ate the cherry stems. Definitely not an all night drinking bar.
Dinner was at 7 Portes, a recommendation from Zagat. Food was good, reasonably priced and a nice atmosphere. We were slightly disappointed at the whole experience because the server was not very understanding when taking our order in English, even though we were given an English menu. The review posted for the restaurant was not really accurate. Regardless, we had a nice final trip dinner.
Barcelona is a beautiful city that we hope to return to for a longer more leisure holiday.

Wednesday October 10, 2007

We departed Barcelona for Chicago at 8:30 this morning with a connection in Munich. A bit of turbulence, but we arrived safe and sound back home by 4:30p