How One Former Federal Employee Enjoys Retirement

What will you do when you retire? Many people travel to places they have always wanted to visit. Author Steve Oppermann is one of these retirees. He travels around the world, when not conducting human resources seminars for federal agencies.

In part one of this series, I wrote about our adventures in Barcelona, the last stop on our vacation. Consistent with my usual skewed approach to life, part two went back to the beginning of the trip, including our brief stay in Rio de Janeiro.

This third article covers our cruise from Rio to Barcelona and a bit of unanticipated excitement we experienced on the way home to Denver

We boarded the Oceania Insignia in Rio with an absolute minimum of trouble, getting our voyage off to a great start. The Insignia is an elegantly appointed mid-sized ship with a guest capacity of 684 and a crew of 400, a ratio which correctly suggests extremely attentive service. It was built in 1998 as one of the Renaissance ships that plied the turquoise waters of French Polynesia. We had been on two of these ships, in 2000 and 2001, and were pleasantly surprised at how beautifully the Insignia, which was refurbished in 2004, had been maintained.

We were in penthouse suites on the earlier trips, only because John had found us truly spectacular deals (having him and Shirley around is like having our own personal travel agents, but better, since we don’t have to pay them – at least not yet), but those suites are far more expensive now, so we reserved verandah staterooms, the next category down. But shortly before our trip began, Oceania, undoubtedly affected adversely by the worldwide recession, offered upgrades to the penthouse suites for $1,000. When we divided that figure by the 15 nights we would be on-board, it sounded like a pretty good deal, and since the trip was already going to break the bank, what was another $1,000 in debt?

The suite covered 322 square feet and featured a queen-sized “Tranquility Bed.” It offered a spacious living room with a desk and vanity, a 20-inch television with DVD player, a comfortably-sized bathroom (for a cruise ship) with a spa-tub-and-shower combination, and a lap-top computer. A sliding glass door led to a gorgeous teak deck; it was easily large enough to accommodate two chaise lounges and a card table with four chairs.

The penthouse suites also came with a butler, Paolo, who unpacked our luggage (or would have, if Lynda had let him), brought her breakfast each morning, or, more accurately, brunch, since she is a night owl and doesn’t eat before 10 a.m., served high tea for us each afternoon, brought us canapés just before dinner (that’s all we needed – more food!), made our reservations at the specialty restaurants and accommodated our every whim, day or night, sometimes even before we could express it. All in all, the stateroom was so comfortable that it was hard to come up with reasons to leave.

The Grand Dining Room, with ocean views from many of the tables, was the main sit-down restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For those who like the more casual atmosphere of a serve-yourself buffet, there was the Terrace Grill on the 9th deck. John and Shirley preferred to eat breakfast there, particularly since it opened earlier than the dining room, but I’ll take being waited on over standing in line any time, and there was often the chance to share a table in the dining room with other guests, which I always enjoyed.

The Insignia’s specialty restaurants were tastefully appointed and had great ambience. We liked Tuscana, the Italian restaurant, quite well but we really fell in love with the Polo Grill. We have never experienced better food on-board a cruise ship than we did at this restaurant. John, a Baltimore native, is a crab-cake connoisseur, and on at least two occasions he had crab-cakes for an appetizer and also for his entrée. The lobster tail and filet mignon were mouthwatering, and the escargot in garlic butter was to die for, which is probably what my arteries were thinking. And the service was beyond outstanding; we ate there so often that the waiters knew exactly what we were going to order and had it to us in a flash.

A trans-Atlantic cruise is really ideal for those of us who love to be at sea and don’t care if there are long periods between port calls. This was one of those cruises.

Saturday, March 28:  Our first full day on the ship.  As usual, there were no major decisions to be made – i.e., leaving the ship was not a viable option, since we were at sea, so we were very relaxed.  We were still jet-lagged, so all four of us slept in.  The food was good and, of course, plentiful and there were a number of activities, but we mainly read and napped, repeating that cycle a number of times during the day.  The lifeboat drill was uneventful, although we couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory of one some years ago when a woman asked a crew member what the light on the lifejacket was for; John whispered that it was so the sharks could dine by candlelight.Sunday, March 29:  At about 2 p.m. we arrived in Salvador, a city of three million on the northeast coast known for its easygoing population, outdoor parties and street carnivals. It was really hot and humid, even more so than Rio, and all of the passengers were strongly advised not to walk, even in daylight, in the lower part of the city where the ship was docked.  We did take the courtesy bus provided by H Stern, a major jewelry company we had seen before in many Caribbean ports, and it transported us to a “safe” area at the top of the hill, with an interesting old church and a number of sidewalk cafes and t-shirt shops. All of us had been discouraged from wearing jewelry, and we quickly found out why, as a young boy jumped up, grabbed a woman’s gold necklace, and snapped it off her neck before she could react. Salvador has pockets of wealth but, overall, it’s a very poor city. Even though we had to be careful, which is not bad advice in any port, we admired Oceania for trying to bolster the city’s tourism business.

Monday, March 30:  We spent another leisurely day at sea.  I suffered my daily beating in the ping-pong tournament with as much grace as I could muster and Lynda and Shirley took a computer class on working with digital photographs. John took enough time out from his quest for perfect relaxation to check e-mail from home.

Tuesday, March 31:  We arrived in Recife, the largest metropolitan area in Brazil’s north/ northeast region, at about 6 a.m. Within a couple of hours, we were being serenaded by a troupe of Brazilian dancers backed up by a samba band. Two of the guys were wearing colorful headdresses that looked like they weighed a ton. Two very attractive young women and two young men whom several of the female passengers pronounced “cute” danced up a storm for the many passengers who were cheering them on from the decks of our ship, at one point going 20 minutes without a break. I got tired just watching them. .

We were again advised not to wear jewelry and to dress and act conservatively.  John and Shirley went into town by taxi, to a large shopping mall, on a drive that took them past some very pretty beaches. Recife has a vast stretch of white-sand beaches fronting turquoise water, but they noticed that there were very few people in the inviting water. They were baffled until they saw the warning posters; they couldn’t read those signs, which were in Portuguese, but they recognized the drawing of a shark.  Too bad – the city is surrounded by a huge coral reef, so the snorkeling would undoubtedly have been great.  John and I walked into town in the early afternoon.  As had been the case throughout our stay in Brazil, the contrast between the few “haves” and the many “have nots” was stark.  There were many homeless people sleeping in the shade provided by high-rise buildings.

Wednesday, April 1 – Friday, April 3: We left the coast of Brazil behind and were at sea for three days before reaching the Cape Verde Islands.  The temperatures dropped pretty rapidly as we headed for the North Atlantic. Lynda and Shirley again took computer/ photo classes, and I joined a refresher Spanish class with Roy Perez, a cruise director staff member from Cuba whose personality and skill made the class both fun and informative.  John was ostensibly reading a novel on his verandah, but we thought we detected snoring from that general area on multiple occasions.

On the evening of April 2nd, we crossed the equator. There was a major “crossing the line” ceremony at 10 p.m., and “pollywogs” such as the four of us, who had never crossed the equator before, were declared to be “trusty Shellbacks.”

By the third straight day at sea, some of the passengers were growing restless, but not we. I can’t imagine a more relaxing way to spend a day. There was, of course, food and drink at our fingertips throughout the day, and enough activities to keep us as busy as we wanted to be, but mostly what we wanted to do was sit on our verandah, read a book, and watch the ship cut gracefully through the water. Through some miracle, I actually won the ping-pong tournament that day, beating the Australian and British players who had been dominant throughout the cruise. I knew I’d better savor the moment, because it was unlikely to happen again.

Saturday, April 4: That evening we arrived in Porto Grande, Cape Verde Islands. If the Cape Verde Islands, which were discovered by the Portuguese in 1456 for no apparent reason, aren’t in the absolute middle of nowhere, you must at least be able to see it from there. The islands are made of volcanic rock, so trees and other greenery are sparse, to say the least. Cape Verde was once prominent in the slave trade and the islands’ position in the mid-Atlantic shipping lanes made them an ideal location for re-supplying ships. It is still a refueling port and a number of ships were there during our stay.

Sunday, April 5: The Insignia had remained in the Cape Verde Islands overnight. That morning, I ran from the dock into town. I have friends who would only do that if they were being chased by a person with a gun, but I run to keep in shape, and the wind blowing across the ship’s outdoor track was enough of a problem for my hard contact lenses to have forced me to switch to one of the fitness center’s stationary bikes. The residents I encountered on my run were friendly and cheerful, and there was a pretty park not far from where the ship docked.

Monday, April 6: Another typical relaxing day at sea, but it was literally the calm before the storm.

Tuesday, April 7: Early this morning, the ship started rocking and rolling, and it wasn’t to a disco beat. We had encountered a storm at sea, and it was destined to be with us for roughly (no pun intended) 48 hours. One hint was that when I slipped out of the room to hit the fitness center early that morning I saw that the crew had placed “barf bags” at convenient locations all over the ship.  Lynda might have used them had she been able to leave the stateroom, which she wasn’t able to do for more than 24 hours.  She was both motion sick and terrified, wondering out loud if the ship could survive the assault of one massive wave after another.  The size of the swells ranged between 12 and 18 feet, and the winds were blowing at upwards of 40 knots; when I was working out in the fitness center the spray from a particularly high swell reached almost up to the ninth deck.  The four of us and other friends had encountered similar conditions in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, but the Diamond Princess had been about four times the size of this ship. Against my will, a slightly modified version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island kept playing in my head.

The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed,
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Insignia would be lost, the Insignia would be lost.

Those passengers who did make it into the passage ways were bouncing off walls, and John said he almost fell out of bed when we hit a major swell.  Shirley also experienced motion sickness on Tuesday morning, and stayed in bed until lunch for fear of falling down.  Lynda had her wrist bands on the whole time, but had to supplement them with six Dramamine tablets and an Ambien.  Fortunately, the Dramamine made her sleepy, and she was unconscious during some of the more severe pitching and rolling.  Lynda wasn’t, by any means, the only passenger whose complexion took on a greenish-gray appearance, and some members of the crew displayed the same hue. Lynda and Shirley were not eating, so John and I had to do our best to eat for four. We’re fortunate not to get seasick and even if we did, I’m sure we’d still be guided by the principle that pre-paid meals must be consumed. The standard was set a few years ago when one of our traveling companions knew he was getting sick but still managed to join the rest of the guys in having a third lobster tail; Dale never made it out of his cabin again during the cruise, but his legend lives on.Wednesday, April 8: There was no appreciable difference in the sea or wind conditions between Tuesday and Wednesday. The North Atlantic had been so rough on Tuesday that the Captain had to slow the ship way down, and when he couldn’t make up any time on Wednesday he had to abandon our final port call – Agadir, Morocco – on the way to Barcelona.  It was a perfectly understandable decision, but we were disappointed to miss exotic Morocco, particularly since we were supposed to have visited the legendary Kasbah.  I was shocked to learn that John wasn’t familiar with “Rockin’ the Kasbah” by the Clash.  How old is he, anyway?  …

Thursday, April 9: The seas calmed last night, signaling that our two-day ordeal was over. That morning the sun was shining, the sea was calm and the wind was barely stirring. Passengers and crew alike were happy, smiling and relaxed. We felt that we had truly earned our new designation as “trusty Shellbacks,” having survived if not the kind of “perfect storm” that claimed George Clooney and crew, one heck of a wild ride.

Friday, Aril 10: We found out that we would be getting into Barcelona that afternoon instead of Saturday morning. We had been at sea for more than five straight days, which, aside from the 48-hour roller coaster ride, worked fine for us, but some of the people on board were getting cabin fever.  The Insignia docked at about 3 p.m. and as soon as the ship had been cleared by authorities we got off and walked up the justly famed Las Ramblas, starting at the iconic statue of Christopher Columbus. As I noted in the first article, Las Ramblas was completely jammed with people, many of them in town for the Easter weekend. We were glad to be back in one of the world’s liveliest and most interesting cities, even if the weather was cold, windy and wet. We got to eat one last dinner aboard the Insignia and John and I solemnly honored the occasion by having multiple desserts.

Saturday, April 11: We reluctantly disembarked the Insignia on Saturday morning by 9 a.m. Like the embarkation process, the departure of passengers was a fast and smoothly orchestrated process. Our 16 days and 15 nights on-board the ship had seemingly passed in the blink of an eye.

I have not detailed the entertainment aboard the Insignia, but will note here that it was consistently good. Due to the small size of the theater and stage, most were one-person shows back by the ship’s band, which was excellent. On this ship, the most laid-back cruise director on the seven seas, Leslie Jon, and his lovely assistant, Jacqui Besaw, were also song-and-dance folks and did separate shows. Classical pianist Panos Karan, juggler/comedian Randy Cabral, renowned violinist Hanna Starosta, bandleader Sasha Kovalyov and the Diamond String Quartet took turns entertaining us. We are big fans of the Broadway/Las Vegas-style productions that one can see on board such lines as Celebrity, Holland America and Princess, but we were willing to accept smaller-scale entertainment in exchange for the intimacy and luxury of the Insignia.

After three fun-filled days in Barcelona, it was time to go home, and we were ready, having been away for three weeks. While it would be a long day, we would be on British Airways all the way, with an initial flight from Barcelona to London Heathrow, where we would connect to a non-stop flight to Denver. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there was virtually no traffic on the taxi ride from the hotel, since Monday was still considered part of the Easter holiday. We got checked in very quickly and secured exit rows for both flights.

We were comfortably seated in the waiting area when we noticed on the giant electronic screen that our flight was blinking the word “delayed.” Uh-oh.

The longer we watched, the further our flight departure time was pushed back, to the point where we knew we could not make our connecting flight at Heathrow. British Airways said to check with its partner airline, Iberia. I took Spanish in high school and college and can usually get by if everyone speaks very slowly, but at moments of high anxiety my mind gets locked into English, so any advantage I could have gained for us by speaking to the agents in their native language was lost. The bottom line, after a long wait in line, was that the earliest flight we could catch to London was the delayed version of our original one.

By the time we were parked at the gate at Heathrow, there was a real question as to whether we could make our new connection, which involved changing aircraft again at Washington Dulles. The other three made it through security, but my new portable DVD player kept causing the x-ray machine to beep. We sent John and Shirley on to the bus, while Lynda stayed with me. As I watched our few remaining minutes ticking away, a security agent finally had me open the DVD player and turn it on. When “Madagascar” appeared on screen I was finally free to go and we sprinted for the transfer bus. About half-way down the first long corridor we were greeted by British Airways agents who called us by name and directed us to the right exit. It was past the scheduled time for the bus to depart but, miraculously, it was still there! We soon learned that was because John had told the bus driver and the agents that we were on our way and that the bus wasn’t leaving until we got there. John, who is a big guy and a former high school and college athlete, then stood in the doorway of the bus. Exhausted and sweating profusely after running the “Heathrow Marathon,” we sprinted the last few steps to the vehicle. Several people were grumbling about the delayed departure, but no one had been willing to challenge John. It was a wise decision on their part.

Thanks to John’s intransigence on our behalf, we made the connecting British Airways flight. Of course, our exit row seats had long since been reassigned, and we couldn’t get four seats together. The three of them were in the same row and I was right behind them, sitting next to some pretty well-mannered young boys who were returning to Washington, D.C. with their mothers. They were filled with questions, and every time my eyes would start to close I would hear, “Hey mister…” We did make our connecting flight out of Washington Dulles without trauma, but by the time we got home to Denver at midnight, we had been up for something like 36 hours. Another great adventure had ended, and we knew we would sleep well; the only question was whether it would be tomorrow or the day after when we finally woke up. In any event, a few days (weeks?) of jet-lag was a small price to pay for all of the fun that we had, the people we met and the places we saw. With luck, there will be other adventures yet to come.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.