Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Changin' times

I remember back when I started university (circa 1995... yes, it really was 16 years ago....) and I was given my first major writing assignment. I was instructed to find at least four supporting documents (read: BOOKS) for the term paper I was writing. Sounds straight-forward enough, right?

The other stipulation was that I was NOT to use the Internet for research, and I most certainly was not to reference any websites in my paper.

But, oh, how the times have changed!

My husband is taking some classes at the university right now, hoping to work his way up to a Masters degree some time in the next few years. Given that he works full time during the day, he attends one class in the evening and is taking the other one online.

And it's for the online course that he is required to submit a paper in which the subject matter is to be supported by no less than five websites.


Once upon a time, he would have spent hours in the campus libraries, voraciously searching for something, ANYTHING, that could remotely support his writing..... but not anymore! Now he can just sit in the comfort of our living room, laptop on lap, coffee in hand, and complete all his research.

(If I was a lesser person, I'd be a little bitter toward today's students who, I'm sure, are not lugging home 30lbs worth of library books every night...... you know, like I was.......)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Welcoming baby aboard: Adventures in cruising with a 10-month-old

It's 8 p.m. aboard the Carnival Valor, one of Carnival's many luxury cruise ships sailing the Caribbean Sea tonight.

Sports fanatics are enjoying their drinks and scanning the multiple screens in the Bronx Sports Bar. Just around the corner on the Promenade deck, high rollers are tempting fate and hoping to pay for their vacations at the Shogun Club Casino. Further down the hall, a group of teens are interacting and having fun at Club O2, while others get their game on at the Caboose Video Arcade.

And where are we? Nestled in beach chairs atop the Panorama deck, eating popcorn and enjoying another family-approved movie on the outdoor screen of Carnival's Seaside Theatre.

This heavenly snapshot is just one reason why I've always believed that cruising is truly the perfect vacation. And now that I've done it with my 10-month-old daughter in tote, I can go a step further and declare it the perfect family vacation, too.

Detailing what it took to pull off a successful cruising experience with a baby on board, here is our experience.


What to Pack

After spending some time with my sister and her family in Weston, Florida, we were finally ready for our cruise! Departing out of Miami on the Carnival Valor, my mom, husband, daughter, and I chose to share one single stateroom with a balcony.

And the one thing we looked forward to more than anything once arriving in our room?? Unpacking our luggage!

Even though my daughter, Marina, weighs only 18 lbs, she had the most (and heaviest) luggage of our entourage. Luckily, given that the bulk of her items consisted of food, diapers, and baby wipes, the good news was that she used most of it up so that we didn't have to lug it back home. Total sweetness.

Feeding Essentials:

- canned, ready-to-feed formula
- jarred baby food
- unsweetened fruit cups
- baby-friendly snackies
- spoons
- bottles / nipples
- dish soap
- bottle / nipple brushes
- a plethora of bibs / cloths / wipes

Notes about our feeding essentials:

- With no stove in our stateroom, we had no way of sterilizing water for Marina. Because of this, and because I'm not breastfeeding, she was only able to drink ready-to-feed formula on the ship.

- There was a fridge in our room but no microwave. Therefore, at best, the warmest meal Marina ate at any given time was at room temperature. (I'm sure we could have asked our waiter in the dining room to warm up some of her food, but she was content nonetheless, so it seemed unnecessary.)

- At 10 months of age, there were some food items provided on the ship that Marina was able to eat (soup, oatmeal, bananas and other mashed fruit), but I wasn't sure if it would be enough to sustain her... hence all the pre-packaged jarred food that we normally don't feed at home.

 - A small bottle of dish soap and washing brushes definitely came in handy when washing Marina's items in our bathroom sink.

Marina's wet bar of goodies.

(Not pictured: the baby-friendly snackies that my sister bought for her and that TOTALLY SAVED US on numerous occasions during the cruise and our flights home.)

When it came time to eat in the fancy Washington dining room, we either allowed Marina to remain in her car seat with the hope that she would just nap instead (which is what she did on the first night).......
.....or we allowed her to sit in the highchair that was already provided.
Our decision on any given night was really dependent on her temperament. And, lucky for us, our table was located right next to the dining room entrance, which allowed us to make quick exits and walk around with her for a few minutes if she started acting up.

This wasn't something we had to worry about when eating on the Lido deck, however, since there was always so much chatter and music that could be heard in that area that no one noticed if a baby was being fussy anyway. (Jackpot!)

Sleep Time:

The one item that we absolutely should have left behind was the travel crib. I'd heard that Carnival supplies metal cribs for the staterooms, but I just didn't know what to expect. So, rather than bringing our travel crib from Canada, my sister borrowed one for us from a friend in Florida.

Marina slept in it at my sister's house, but it turned out that was all we needed it for since the metal crib on the ship was more than adequate. (As long as you bring blankets from home, then you're all set in terms of making it through the night.)

Note: I was frustrated in that I couldn't find a picture of Carnival's metal cribs prior to going on the cruise, which is why I insisted on bringing the travel crib just in case. So, once on board, I made a mental note to myself that I'd take a photo of said metal crib so that future cruisers would know exactly what to expect.... but, guess what? Yeah, I forgot. Sorry peeps. Just take my word for it when I tell you to leave the travel crib at home.

In terms of sleep, we keep Marina on a schedule at home and were really worried about this trip messing things up for her. More to the point, we were worried about her waking up and crying, thus disturbing our neighbours.

Turns out all this worry was for nothing, because Marina was so exhausted by the end of each busy day that she had no problem falling asleep and continuing to sleep through the night. (Not even the incredibly loud flushing sound of the toilet in our room woke her up. Again, total sweetness.)

When it came time for her naps, we admittedly did something we said we'd never do: we allowed Marina to sleep in our bed. It worked for us because, more often than not, she started out by simply playing on the bed with her toys, and then she started rubbing her eyes and nestling up next to us. We napped along side her, and it was heavenly.
 Marina on our bed, passed out due to shear exhaustion.

Note: The fluorescent green bracelet was something that all children under 18 were required to wear while on board. It was labelled with Marina's "Muster Station" location, which is where she was to be taken in the event of an emergency. (Read: If our ship hit an ice berg or was ambushed by pirates, yo.)

On-board Transportation:

The only other item I was unsure about bringing was Marina's SUV-sized jogging stroller. I'd heard that Carnival will rent you a small umbrella stroller for the week for $25, but herein lied my concerns:

1. We needed a stroller for convenience sake while maneuvering through airports, etc. en route to the ship.

2. Marina can't recline in an umbrella stroller, so I wasn't sure if she would nap in it while visiting our ports of call.

3. Because of Marina's small size, she still requires a car seat with her stroller and while in vehicles, and the car seat we have is meant for the jogging stroller.... so why wouldn't we just bring the stroller along anyway?

I was afraid that our jogging stroller would be too big and cumbersome for the ship, but based on my reasoning above, we had no choice but to bring it.

Notes about our transportation essentials:

- For the most part, the jogging stroller was great. There were certain locations on the ship (read: the shops and photo areas) where it was just too crowded for us to venture into with the stroller, but that would've been the case even if we'd been using a smaller umbrella stroller instead.

- Although our stroller is quite large, even when folded up, we managed to store it in our stateroom's closet when not in use. (I've heard of others storing it in their stateroom's shower as well, which would have been another option.)

 - There was no room in the Washington dining room to park the stroller during meals, so we left it in our stateroom and just carried Marina to dinner instead. When eating on the Lido deck, however, we always managed to find an open area where we could just pull up to the table and have Marina eat while still sitting in her stroller.

- Although it meant sometimes having to wait for several elevators to come and go, we were very respectful of other guests and didn't want to crowd others in the elevators. (We realized that our stroller was large, so we were happy to let others go ahead of us.)

- We absolutely could not have pulled off a successful vacation without the use of our Evenflo Fresh Air Gear baby carrier, which I purchased used off of Kijiji.ca. Marina was so comfy and enjoyed being held close while walking around, that she fell asleep every time we put her in it, even if we were just walking around the ship.

Note: It quickly became obvious that the heat helped her fall asleep relatively quickly on our daily outings so, in retrospect, I'm sure she would have slept in an upright umbrella stroller as well.

- In terms of mobility issues while visiting our ports of call, the stroller was ideal in both Cozumel, Mexico, and Roatan, Honduras. Because we were taxied into Belize and Grand Cayman by a smaller boat, however, it would have been hugely inconvenient to use the stroller in those locales. Again, this is while the baby carrier was a much-needed item on this cruise. 

Keeping Baby Occupied:

Okay, so now that we've gotten all the basic necessities out of the way, it's play time. But what exactly is there for a baby to do on a cruise ship? Well, like with everything else, preparation is key.

We knew in advance that this cruise would be very different from our previous travels where we did such things as whale watching, snorkeling, and kayaking through the rain forest. This time, with a baby in tote, our outings were far tamer. So much so, that our time spent in ports of call consisted mainly of sightseeing on foot and shopping for souvenirs.

On the ship, however, there were several more options:

I purchased this water-resistant blanket from Amazon.com and had it delivered to my sister's Florida address (free US-shipping, baby!) for us to pick up before the cruise. We found some quiet locales on the Lobby deck that allowed Marina to spread out and play with her toys or just enjoy a beverage or two. (Had we chosen to visit some of the beaches at our ports of call, this certainly would have come in handy as well.)

Each of the Carnival ships offer a service for children called Camp Carnival -- sort of a day camp for your kids to keep busy during the cruise. However, if your child is under the age of two, then there is only one occasion when you can take advantage of this site: between 8 and 10 in the morning on at-sea days, and there must be a parent present with the child at all times. (Read: this isn't a baby-sitting service, yo.)*

Nonetheless, Marina still enjoyed it very much. It was quiet (only two or three other infants were present on the occasions that we stopped in), and it allowed her to play with some new toys.

(We brought a carry-on suitcase from home full of her favourite toys and books, which kept her occupied 90% of the time, but it was still nice for her to test out some of Carnival's collections in these new surroundings.)

*As an aside, there are baby-sitting services on board, for $6 an hour, and I'm sure this is something we'll take advantage of on future cruises.

For moments when we retreated back to our air-conditioned stateroom, we could always rely on the Spanish Cartoon Network to keep Marina entertained for a bit while she played with her toys on our bed. Muy bien, amigos!

"That. Is. Fabulous. FABULOUS!"
- random guy walking by Marina in her tub.

Carnival has a policy in that only potty-trained children are allowed in the kiddie pool, simply because it's not chlorinated. So what did we do? We brought our own pool, of course!

Purchasing this inflatable tub online for $19.99+tax+shipping from Babies'R'Us was the greatest investment we could have made, hands down.

On days when we were in port, there was often a rush of guests lining up to debark and explore our new surroundings, so we elected to stay on board a few extra hours and avoid the crowds. And because the majority of guests were exiting the ship, this meant there was a lot more space available around the pools for us to get a prime location for Marina to splash around.

Just as a comparison, this is the poolside view on a day when we were in port and most of the other guests left the ship:

(Notice the empty beach chairs....)

And this is an overhead view of the same area on a day that we were at sea with everyone on board:

(Notice the extreme lack of poolside space......)
So, the lessons here are this:

1. If you're not in any hurry to debark the ship when in port, just sit back and relax poolside to avoid the crowds before exiting yourself. (Marina was able to tire herself out by splashing around in her tub, so that when we did leave the ship later that day, she quietly napped while we were sightseeing.)

2. On days when you're at sea, unless you get out there super early, you're going to miss out on that prime beach chair location.

But don't fret! As always, we had a back-up plan for the at-sea days..............

When it was crowded and noisy around the pool, we simply set up Marina's inflatable tub on our balcony. Absolute heaven.

Some helpful pointers:

- It could get very, very noisy around the pool because of the constant music and entertainment provided. The problem with this was that Marina experienced total sensory overload and could only tolerate it for a short while. (But it was blissfully quiet on our balcony!!)

- The other problem with the poolside locations is that it could be difficult to find a shaded area to set up Marina's tub. We plastered her with sunscreen and did our best to keep her from pulling off her hat, but still. The heat from the direct sunshine could only be tolerated for a short while as well. (But, as you can see, there was plenty of shade on our balcony!!)

- When setting up poolside, we went to one of the bars and borrowed a Corona beer bucket to collect water from the pool and hot tub in order to fill the inflatable tub.

- When setting up on our balcony, we used our ice bucket and just got some warm water from our bathroom sink.

- At the poolside location, when it came time to drain the water from the inflatable tub, we emptied it into one of the many drains around the pool. When on our balcony, though, we just drained it into the gutter.

- When not in use, we simply stored the inflatable tub in our shower, where it fit perfectly and was totally out of the way.

In retrospect, even if Marina had been allowed in the kiddie pool, there's no way it would have been as enjoyable anyway. The reasons are twofold:

1. It was too deep for her, and I would have had to get in as well.

2. Frankly, she's a little timid and would have clung to me because there were so many other kids splashing around.

So, the inflatable tub was absolutely the way to go with our little one.

Marina in her 'jammies, watching Tangled on the outdoor screen. 

I've been on four cruise ships (via Royal Caribbean and Carnival), and the Carnival Valor was by far my favourite, simply for the giant Seaside Theatre and nightly movies. Because, after a long day of playing, sightseeing, swimming, and hanging out at various eateries on the ship, we were all ready to relax on some beach chairs and watch a movie in the great Caribbean outdoors.

(Movies featured during our cruise included: Despicable Me, Megamind, Secretariat, Tron: Legacy, Tangled, Little Fockers, and one of the Harry Potter flicks.)

Sure, Marina's got an attention span of about 5 minutes before she gets bored, but this was still a great outing for all of us. My mom, husband, and I found some comfy beach chairs and enjoyed the films while Marina played with her toys and ate some snackies on the water-resistant blanket. Plus, even when she started fussing, the movie was loud enough that no one noticed.

The only warning I have is that, the higher up you go in terms of what deck you watch the movie from, the windier it gets. (We were on a moving vessel, after all, and that wind was freakishly strong up there. So much so, that my hair still hasn't forgiven me. Ahem.)

After Action Review:

Obviously I can't regale everything that went on during our cruise, but this is the gist of it in terms of cruising with a baby. 

Were there times that Marina acted up and wanted nothing to do with what we were doing? Of course. But, overall, we were really impressed with just how well she did.

The new surroundings were just as interesting to her as they were to us, and she enjoyed people-watching at it's finest. Moreover, we definitely noticed that this trip helped her to overcome some of her shyness, and we were pleasantly surprised with the fact that we were still able to eat in the fancy dining room at least once daily (despite our paranoia about her being too disruptive).

So will we attempt this again in the near future? Absolutely! 

But, of course, she'll be toddling around by then..... which means we're going to strap her into a harness / leash to keep both her and our sanity in check, haha. Seriously. 

Yes, we're going to be THOSE parents. Either that, or we'll just end up bringing more family members along to help keep her entertained. 

That's definitely the best option!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama reigns; it's Osama who's dead

Where were you shortly before midnight E.S.T. on Sunday, May 1, 2011? My husband and I were up watching the NY Mets' marathon baseball game with the Phillies when the sports announcers interrupted their play-by-play with some ground-breaking news: Osama bin Laden had been killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan.

Shortly thereafter, US President Barack Obama took to the airwaves and confirmed the news in his address to world. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook were already abuzz with random facts [May 1, 1945: Germany announces Hitler is dead vs. May 1, 2011: the US announces bin Laden is dead]. And there was mass elation as joyous crowds gathered outside the White House.

My husband casually wondered aloud about how long it would take for someone to inadvertently comment that Obama (not Osama) was the one who'd been killed instead. It seemed likely since their names are so similar and a slip of the tongue in this case would be inevitable.

The first time I heard it happen today came courtesy of Regis Philbin during his dialogue with Kelly Ripa on their talk show, Live with Regis and Kelly. It happened so quickly and was easily forgivable. After all, we all knew what he meant.

Fast forward to earlier this afternoon, however, when I was reading the coverage from a local newspaper. Not once but TWICE did the scribe interchange bin Laden's name with Obama's.

Error #1: "...U.S. officials believe, however, that an adult son of Obama was killed in the raid."   

(Really? President Obama had an adult son? Who is now dead at the hands of US forces? Obviously it was meant to read "an adult son of bin Laden.")

Error #2: "Obama is likely to be succeeded by ...al Qaida's current second-in-command."

(Apparently the scribe is foreseeing long into the future and predicting American voters will select an Islamic extremist to be their next president. Either that, or he meant to say, "bin Laden is likely....". Ahem.)
As a former employee of this newspaper, I can understand how these errors occurred: the news broke shortly after 8pm local time on a Sunday, which is when copy editors would have been finalizing their work to go to print. Naturally there was then a mad scramble to publish ANYTHING coming over the wire, and it obviously wouldn't have been proofread for content overnight.

I suppose I can forgive these errors as well.
Several pages later, in an unrelated subject, one of the letters to the editor made reference to "Jack Mulroney" and "Brian Layton".
Again, by having worked in this newsroom, I'm familiar with their system and know that this particular page would have been prepped late last week. Furthermore, it would have passed through at least four sets of eyes! SOMEONE should have identified the error and made the correction to read "Brian Mulroney" and "Jack Layton" instead.
Phew. So much for Monday being considered a slow news day.

Anyway, for a lighter look at bin Laden's final hours, check out this report courtesy of The Onion