I’m sitting on the top deck of the Ariana while the sun shines on the rippled but peaceful Danube River below. Controlled by numerous dams and locks, the medieval wildness of the Danube has been tamed centuries ago. We began our trip in Passau, Germany; we’ll reach the delta of the Black Sea before turning around to head back.

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The view from our cabin while traveling through Germany to our first destination in Austria

Called the King of Rivers by Napoleon, the Danube is really the Prince. The King title belongs to the Volga, the great River in Russia that drains into the Caspian Sea and is 500 miles longer than the Danube. And even though the Danube is the second longest in Europe, it is only the 25th longest in the world. The Danube begins in Germany’s Black Forest and ends on the Romanian and Ukrainian shores, in the delta region of the Black Sea, 1777 miles away.

While sailing, I’m reading “The Danube, a Cultural History, by Andrew Beattie.” He relates the stories of empires that have risen and fallen along the Danube, from Macedonians, to Romans, to the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, to the Nazis, and most recently, the countries that have shrugged off the yoke of Communist Socialism.

I wondered how such a river affecting so many countries could be governed. The book covers this in its last chapter. In 1946 a council of European foreign ministers announced the creation of the International Danube Commission, with headquarters in Budapest, Hungary. At first, only the Eastern bloc countries, along with Yugoslavia, formed this new body; then Austria joined in 1960. Germany did not join until after the  fall of communism. With the break-up of the Balkans in the 1990s, the commission rose to ten countries, with Slovakia succeeding Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Croatia succeeding Yugoslavia, and Moldova and Ukraine succeeding the USSR. There is probably no other river in the world whose navigable length is of such international complexity!

During this trip, we will see a panoply of flags displayed on the boats that ply this river. Just as during our world sailing circumnavigation on Pacific Bliss, it doesn’t matter much what one’s nationality is. In this river, we are all Mariners.

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You’ve probably heard of “slow travel” but not of “slow cruising.” Previously, I thought of slow travel as being the type of travel we did when we traveled inland on trains, planes and caravans through Australia. And slow cruising was sailing our catamaran Pacific Bliss. During our recent Mexican Riviera Cruise, however, my husband Gunter and I created our own version of slow cruising, but on a Cruise Ship, no less.

For my birthday last January, Gunter wanted to take me away on a trip. But he knew I’d be working on my book, so he asked me how we could accomplish both goals. “Let’s just do something that doesn’t involve flying, changing time zones, or packing for different climates,” I suggested.

Gunter chose a Mexican Riviera Cruise on the Veendam. We’d cruised on around South America two years ago on board this smaller-size Holland-America ship (See that blog at https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/bigbucketcruise/). “This cruise has three sea days for you to write, lounging on our veranda deck while the ocean passes by,” he cajoled. “And only one of the three ports-of-call—Mazlatlan—will be a port where we have not visited together before. Should be easy and relaxing, only seven days.

Perfect!

We found that taking a vacation along with 1300 passengers need not be stressful. During the process, we developed a few guidelines for slow cruising:

  • Don’t sign up for shore excursions. Do your own thing, so that you can leave and return to the ship when you want. Avoid standing in long lines and crowding into packed elevators by departing after the tour groups have gone.
  • Do take advantage of the pool and Jacuzzi deck when it’s quiet—with most of the passengers off touring. Enjoy those hamburgers and drinks brought right to your lounge chair on deck.
  • Don’t dress for those pictures and formal nights each time they are offered. You can always go upstairs for casual dining.
  • Only mad dogs and Englishmen tour in the heat of the day. After your trip to shore, do come back to the ship to enjoy a well-deserved siesta in your air-conditioned room.
  • Get off the grid for as many days as you can. You’ll avoid roaming charges on your cell phone and you’ll escape the pressures of waiting in lines at internet cafes or paying per- minute fees on board for satellite connections.

Slow cruising can be an easy, pressure-free way to take a relaxing break. Remember, adversity is inevitable; stress is optional!

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Part VI of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 25: The Veendam arrives in a moderate gale.

Ushuaia from the Sea

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Magellan, and the easternmost part of the Pacific Ocean. Although the city of Ushuaia is in Argentina, most of the main island actually belongs to Chile. At 55° latitude, it holds the distinction of being “the southernmost city in the world.”

Ushuaia, the Southernmost Town in the World

The indigenous people were the Yahgan and Alacalufes (canoe Indians). Surprisingly, despite the inclement weather, they wore little or no clothing. Constant fires kept them warm, hence the region’s name: Tierra del Fuego, land of fire.

I’d always wanted to go to Ushuaia. Stories about the ceaseless wind, the snow-capped Andes, and the magical light had fascinated me.

Even though Günter and I are still not feeling well, and have cancelled our tour here, a catamaran cruise through the Beagle Channel and a ride through the National Park, we bundle up to walk into the town. The wind blasts us so hard it almost knocks us over as we head down the gangplank and onto the pier. We make it to the town’s main drag and then Günter, who now has bronchitis, turns back.

Gunter on the pier near the ship, bundled for the walk

Lois, Bundled for the walk into town.

All the streets climb up the hill from the port, as in San Francisco.  The cross-streets filled with restaurants, bars, tourist and winter apparel shops protect me from the wind.

As I walk along the streets, I begin to fall in love with this southernmost town in the world. Yes, Ushuaia is remote, desolate, and moody as the sun appears and disappears behind the numerous clouds.  Yet the town turns out to be quite charming and picturesque. The colorful buildings are a mixture of architectural designs, from colonial European to ski resort styles with steep roofs. (Ski season here will begin in six weeks.) On the corner is the yellow, multi-storied Horn Hotel. On the facing block is a cozy, blue-shuttered bed-and-breakfast with white fretwork and a garden of struggling blue lupines. Towering over the town is the massive A-framed Albatross Hotel. And behind it all lie the snow-capped Andes. Ushuaia is frontier town with lots of character and a cosmopolitan center of 70,000, all rolled into one.

After exploring the town, I meander over to the sailboat anchorage to take some photos. I cannot imagine the courageous and hardy spirit it takes to sail here! Only 100 years ago, the only people crazy enough to come here were convicts in chains. Prison inmates built the town’s railway, hospital, and port. That prison is now a museum that I pass on the way back to the ship.

Delayed by the port authorities, The Veendam leaves too late to view Glacier Alley, but we do experience a few hours of daylight while winding through Darwin’s famous Beagle Channel.

The Beagle Channel at Sunset Viewed from our Veranda.

The Straits

Part II of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

A whip of wind and rain greets us as we leave the ship, docked in Montevideo. Our van driver and guide is waiting at the pier; we rush into the welcome protection of the van, not sure whether we want to brave the elements at all. How different we will be from the usual tourists Montevideo receives from Argentina: they come here in the summer in droves to head for the sandy beaches on Uruguay’s Atlantic coastline. World class resorts on Punta del Este lure the continent’s rich and famous. Across the wide, choppy waters of the Rio de la Plata, Buenos Aires’s shoreline is only a polluted, brackish backwater.

I did not know much about Uruguay before visiting this country. It is one of the smallest in South America, a tiny buffer between Argentina and Brazil, with just over 3 million people. Most of them are of Spanish or Italian origin. In the north, the rolling hills are similar to the Argentine pampas and the gaucho is celebrated like the cowboys in the old American West. But most of the people live in or near Montevideo, the capital. Uruguay is considered the “most European” of the South American countries.

We were scheduled for a wine tour in the hills overlooking the city, but with all the rain, the hill would be impassable and the vineyards would be flooded. We planned a city walking tour, but even that is cut short by the weather.  But we have a creative guide. He offers to treat us to four different kinds of frappe, (a liquor, like schnapps) in a downtown bar. They warm us up in a hurry! Soon, the miserable weather is forgotten.

During a break in the rain, I climb the steps to the parliament building, only to find it pouring again. No visitors are allowed inside. We do manage to stop at a few wonderful metal sculptures of oxcart trains, depicting the way the early immigrants traveled to “tame” their west.

Before ending the tour, we stop at a wine bar and enjoy a wine tasting there. Not bad! We purchase a few bottles of wine from Uruguay for our hotel room—a late harvest chardonnay-viognier for Günter and a Tannet red wine for me. By the time we return to the ms Veendam, we are wet inside and out!

I am left with an impression of Uruguayans as a strong, reliant people who are very proud of their country. During this rainy day, I have heard that they have the best beaches, the best food, the best meat, the best wine, the best health service, the best education (free, including public University), and the least corrupt government in all of South America.

Oh, and I cannot forget their pride in futbol (what Americans call soccer)!  The national team won the first World Cup in 1930 as hosts, defeating Argentina 4–2 in the final. In 1950 they won their second title, upsetting hosts Brazil 2–1 in the final match, with an attendance higher than any futbol match ever.

As sailors, we’d always wanted to go around Cape Horn. But by the time we purchased a catamaran to sail around the world, our decision had been made. We would be warm-weather sailors on our own yacht. Sailing around the Horn would be a reward we would give ourselves after we completed our circumnavigation. And someone else would be Captain and Navigator.  Now that time has come. We are calling our cruise on the Veendam our Big Bucket Cruise. Because not only will we cross many destinations off our “Bucket List,” but Günter had always called the passage to the next port on Pacific Bliss, “moving The Bucket.” And this is one Big Bucket compared to 24×43’ Pacific Bliss!  The ms Veendam is 101×720’ with a 24.6’ draft and weighs over 55,000 tons. Built in 1996, she has a crew of 560 and room for 1258 guests. Her max speed is 21 knots.

The names of all the cargo ships of the Holland America line ended in “dijk,” (pronounced dike). But passenger ships were named after dams on rivers, e.g., Amsterdam for the Amster River dam, Maasdam for the Maas River, and Ryndam for the dam on the great river, Rhine. We will sail on a small-to-medium size cruise ship, the Veendam, named after a smaller dam and river.

Buenos Aires, a Capital City with an Edge

Before we board, however, we have scheduled three full days of sightseeing in Buenos Aires, called the “Paris of South America.” We are impressed during our city tour the first day, in a private van with our sailor friends, Joe and Michele. I conclude that Buenos Aires has less sophistication than Paris, but more vibrant colors, a wild, Latin energy, and an undefined edginess that I want to explore further.

In the microcentro, the political and historic center, rust-and-amber cobblestones contrast with shiny steel high-rises. The president comes to work each day to the Casa Rosada, The Pink House, probably along the same Avenida de Mayo that has seen numerous revolutions and bombings. The Plaza here is still the center of a tumultuous political scene, with graffiti and posters and white marks on the concrete where the “women in white,” the mothers of the desaparecidos, (the disappeared ones) still march every Thursday.

The next neighborhood, Puerto Madero, along the riverfront, has rows of restaurants and nightclubs. Farther south, the neighborhoods of La Boca, Monserrat and San Telmo are where the first immigrants arrived from Europe and where the tango originated. (We learn that the tango was originally a lower, working class dance shunned by the elite.)

I am struck by the city’s most European (and exclusive) neighborhood, Recoleta, with its French architecture, tree-lined avenues, and sidewalk cafés. While Günter and Joe sip on cappuccinos and listen to stories about the area’s history told by our guide, Michele and I take a stroll through a charming artisans’ market set up there on Saturdays.

Afterwards, our group spends a couple of hours walking through the city cemetery in Recoleta. Hours? Yes, the cemetery covers four city blocks and Evita is buried there. It is a national treasure where past presidents, war heroes and the elite can continue to show off their wealth.  (It’s important to live in Recoleta during one’s life but even more important to lie there after death.) The graves and mausoleums are adorned by the works of national and international sculptors. The stories our guide tells of the plots, murder and mayhem that occurred in this country defy even the most-active imagination!

Even after touring the other neighborhoods, though, we are always happy to return to our Hotel Mine in pleasant Palermo Sojo. On Friday night, the cafés are filled with yuppies stopping for tapas and drinks after work. Michele set up a marvelous wine tasting here, with a formal dinner afterwards. On Saturday night, we walk around the area, and finally settle on a sidewalk café that is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by promoting local beers.

On Sunday, all the stores in our neighborhood are closed—even the convenience stores and supermarket. The four of us take a taxi to the 270-stand Sunday antiques and flea market that begins in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, Buenos Aire’s oldest neighborhood.

“Watch your money,” warns the driver as he lets us off.

We are at an intersection where almost every sign says something about the tango. I step inside the doorway of a store advertising tango shoes. A pretty woman with long, black hair is trying on a red pair of strappy shoes with heels so high that they resemble Jimmy Choo’s.

How can one dance in these?

We pass more shops and then turn onto the blockaded street jammed with souvenirs: hairpieces, scarves, wooden statues, clothing, woolen hats, bags, jewelry, and containers made of gourds for serving make tea. We walk about eight blocks, all the way to the end, then turn around to walk back to the intersection. I fill Günter’s backpack full of souvenirs for friends and relies, along with my little purse, glasses, everything I have so that my hands are free for shopping. This will be my major shopping in Argentina, I rationalize, because during many port stops, we’ll be taking scenic tours.

The midday sun is burning bright and we have forgotten to bring water. We decide to stop at a sidewalk café to order soft drinks. Günter is seated next to a miniature Eiffel Tower. Tourists keep stopping to take photos. The four of us look at his black backpack wedged between his chair and the statue, wondering whether it is in the way, but the tourists don’t seem to mind. Michele leaves to look at some colorful, woven shoes on a table nearby. She motions for me to come. I leave our table for a minute or so and then return. Soon she returns, and we stand to leave. Günter’s backpack is gone! We notify the waitress and the restaurant’s owner, but of course, the thief is long gone. Everyone is carrying a nondescript black backpack, it seems. A few blocks down, we encounter a couple of policemen. They do not speak English, but we manage to convey what happened.

“Documents?” one of them asks.

Günter shakes his head no. “In hotel safe.”

The policeman nods and smiles his approval. It appears that only stealing someone’s identity would be a crime worth reporting.

Later, back at our hotel, we assess the damage. It could have been much worse, even though everything we both had with us, except for the camera I was carrying, was in that pack—including my camera bag, batteries, and memory cards, Günter’s camera and accessories, my prescription reading glasses, my notes, pens, notebook, purse and contents. Of course, we lost all of our carefully selected souvenirs—as well as a special blouse made entirely of ribbons that I had splurged on. The good news: we had taken no passports, billfolds, credit cards, drivers’ licenses, etc.

Lesson learned: Firmly attach all personal items to your person at all times. 

We board the ship on Monday, ready for our next adventure, but more cautious than ever.

On the ship, one passenger tells another story. This couple had been robbed in Buenos Aires in a more brazen manner: Two men came up to them, brushing off a spray of guano (bird droppings) from their shoulders, as if to help. But soon afterwards, our shipmate realized that his billfold had been stolen right from his pocket! Then, in the same day, another spray of guano mysteriously fell on them. Wiser now, they realized what these men intended, and pushed away.  “Evidently one man sprays the stuff, then brushes it off, while the other steals the billfolds,” she says.

Günter and I realize that we have been fortunate. During our entire eight-year circumnavigation, encompassing 62 countries, we had never been robbed. But then, we’ve never been in edgy Argentina!