by Marian Michener -
SGN Contributing Writer
Excitement built last November as my partner and I took the shuttle from the New Orleans airport to our hotel in preparation for the inaugural cruise of the new Lesbian vacation company, Sweet. We picked up that three other women in the bus were there for the same reason. There was a pre-cruise party that night with Cajun food and music.
The next morning, the check-in people gave us an information sheet saying the vessel's previous trip had had an outbreak of flu. Because of that, staff were poised with bottles of disinfectant to spray on our hands as we boarded and when we approached the dining areas.
Walking through the halls, we noticed the ship has fabulous art with an Asian theme. The launching event featured great jambalaya and fried catfish. There was fun dance music and commentary by Nat and Meg on the deck.
We had a chance to notice the group of 1,200 had racial and age diversity, though the preponderance were 20-something white women. The cruise included a few Gay men and straight allies.
A couple of our fellow passengers were already drunk during the lifeboat drill. This set the tone for the fact that we would be running into people who had had too much to drink throughout the week. For me, as a longtime sober dyke, the amount of drinking made me uneasy - especially when Shannon Wentworth, the founder of Sweet, described her vision as a big volunteer event followed by drinking. Fortunately, there were alcohol-free tables available and AA meetings onboard.
Suzanne Westenhoefer followed Wentworth's opening with a funny announcement about a grief session for women deprived of their cell phones entitled, "Other Things You Can Do With Your Hands."
She also did a riff about the difference between butches and femmes on arrival in their rooms. The butch says, "I'm OK, I showered yesterday." The femme notices what limited blowing power the hair dryer has and freaks out at how hard it is going to be to dry her hair. My partner pointed out that, contrary to that stereotype, the butches had put a lot of time into sculpting their hair.
The first night, the ship had to go very fast to get out of the path of tropical storm Ida. Because of that, it rocked back and forth violently. Some events were canceled because of the movement or because presenters got seasick. We weren't always notified in advance, but would find notices posted once we struggled to the place. After that first night, the pace of the ship slowed down.
FROM TOUCANS TO STRAP-ONS
Babes in Toyland were on board and did sessions about sexuality, including having women model strap-ons. We noticed some of the crew looking on with expressions that suggested they found Americans surprising.
There was an interesting LGBT leadership discussion on political strategies. That panel seemed in agreement that we have let the right define the issues, such as Gays in the military and Gay marriage - issues that the LGBT community are not necessarily in agreement about.
We enjoyed a tour of the Kehunlich ruins out of Costa Maya, Mexico. The tour guide was part Mayan and well-versed about Mayan culture. He was also a birder and pointed out a toucan, parrot, and a parakeet. The atmosphere there was peaceful and sacred.
There was a showing of the movie Itty Bitty Titty Committee, which we enjoyed. The film was about Lesbians engaging in political action against a breast enhancement clinic as well as other targets. It includes a love story we found involving. The director, Jamie Babbit, spoke about the fact that her goal had been to show young Lesbians that feminism can be interesting.
We had planned to do a wildlife rafting tour the morning we arrived in Belize City. However, due to a mechanical problem with the boat and compounded by the fact that the replacement boat had less room for the 13 of us who had signed up, our excursion was delayed until the afternoon. A representative of the cruise line offered us the option of joining a tour to the Athun-Ha ruins, a free lunch where the rafts put in, and then the wildlife rafting trip. The proposal sounded good, so 11 of the 13 said yes. The only catch was that the bus threw an axle, so we had to wait an extra half-hour to get to the lunch place. Meanwhile, no one had told the woman cooking rice and beans and chicken and fried plantains there were going to be additional guests, so she almost ran out of food. She managed to serve us light portions, but the plantains were completely gone by the time we got there.
When the wildlife raft arrived, we were delighted with the fact that we got a close look at a group of howler monkeys. We also saw scads of iguanas in mating coloration and some crocodiles. And the birding was excellent - we saw Amazon green kingfishers, a ringed kingfisher, a green heron, an olive-breasted parakeet, a social flycatcher, a vermillion flycatcher, a hawk that the locals refer to as a "road hawk," an egret, a pacific grackle, a yellow-tailed montezuma, a great kiskadee, and much, much more. The colors that flashed by were brilliant and breathtaking. The river was peaceful and lovely. We left the river feeling quite satisfied.
However, when we got to the end of our rafting trip, apparently there had been a miscommunication with the bus driver about where to pick us up, so the bus wasn't there. Sand flies started to bite us, so we decided we needed to keep moving. We walked the mile or so to the highway hoping to find the bus, though three of us were disabled and knew our joints were going to be sore the next day. Even when we made it to the highway, the bus took a while to show up, making us nervous we weren't going to make it back to the ship in time for its departure. If that had happened, we would have had to stay another day in Belize while our ship left the port. We listened to the monkeys howl, which was a thrill, and finally the bus appeared. What started out as a four-hour adventure had turned into a nine-hour adventure. Eleven very tired women slogged their way onto the ship and immediately headed for showers and food.
PLANTAINS IN ROATAN
A shop owner at our next stop of Roatan, Honduras called the sand fly bites, "Our gift to you." We had a nice bus tour of the highlights of Roatan, which, as an island in Honduras, seems untouched by the coup on the mainland. We had enough time to stretch out in the sun, and enjoy a delicious meal of homemade tortilla chips, refried beans, ceviche, and sausage. We finally got the fried plantains we had missed in Belize. A nice surprise was that the "$" sign we had seen on the menu referred to the local currency of lempiras, so our meal cost a twentieth of what we had expected.
Back on the ship, we saw a new movie, And Then Came Lola, which is a takeoff of Run Lola, Run. Both films include both live action and animation. We liked the multiple retellings of the Lesbian triangle from different characters' perspectives. Co-director Ellen Seidler (co-director Megan Siler was unable to appear) talked about making a point of finding out Lesbian actresses to play the roles. Jill Bennet and Cathy DeBuono, partners who also star along with Suzanne Westenhoefer in the web show We Have to Stop Now, met during filming of And Then Came Lola. They also spoke about their experiences making the film.
WORKING TOGETHER IN EVERY PORT
One thing that makes the Sweet tour stand out from others is that they offer volunteer service opportunities in every port. In Cozumel, Mexico, we participated in several projects, and found it a gratifying way to interact with people in other countries without just being a tourist. We had thought we were just going to work on beautification of a community park, but the organizers wound up combining our group with another one that was doing beach cleanup and tree planting, so we did all three. Having 40-some of us working on the projects made them go faster. We named our tree that we planted "Lola."
The appreciation in the faces of the people there was very moving. Plus we shared great tortillas, rice, beans and chicken made by some of the local women. We came away from the beach cleanup sensitized to the idea of avoiding using plastic bottles. We learned that 85% of the trash that washes up on Mexico's beaches comes from other countries and sources. It's sobering to think that so much of the garbage on their beaches is not of their own making.
My partner and I are both disabled and liked the fact that we didn't have to be embarrassed about working our way back to the bus. My partner pointed out that it would have been helpful if our hosts had given us the instructions for the beach clean-up on the bus instead of standing out in the hot sun. Also, it would have been good to have snacks provided since we were working so hard. A refinement would be for the schedule to allow both volunteering and doing one of the tours.
LIVELY PERFORMANCE ENDED CRUISE
Jen Foster, a lively guitar-playing folk singer current living in Nashville, performed that night. Foster's "The Sweet Song" was chosen as Sweet's theme song. I liked the fact that she acknowledged having been through rehab, and gave a shout out to the other sober people there. She said, "This whole ship is going to have to go through rehab after this week."
She sang "Closer to Nowhere," which deals with quitting drinking. "Last Call" captured getting a call from someone who has been drinking. Jill King, originally from Alabama, sang nice backups. Other songs we liked were "Taking Bob Dylan" about splitting up the things after a break up, and "We Go Down to the Home Depot," about a love affair with a tool-freak butch. According to Foster, fans sometimes show up at her concerts wearing tool belts.
Some of the food high points included great pumpkin ginger bisque, gumbo, and spring rolls with plum sauce. Also memorable were jerk chicken, lobster, and grouper. We tasted delicious desserts: vanilla bean soufflé, apple bread pudding, and honey crème brûlée.
On our last day, we went to a press conference, where we learned that 310 women had participated in the volunteer service opportunities - a pretty good percentage. Shannon Wentworth underlined the impressive fact that she had arranged tree-planting to offset the carbon burning of the ship and our flights there.
One thing we had wondered about was that the food and a lot of the service details had been better on a previous Holland America cruise that we had taken than on the Norwegian Cruise Line that we were on, including the fact that Holland America had offered things such as on-board photography classes. Wentworth explained that she had lined up a Holland America ship at first, but they had backed out, leaving her with little time before the cruise was to set sail to find another line. The CEO for RSVP tours was there as well, and said he had been very upset when he heard Holland America had canceled, and he had personally read them the riot act. He is confident that Holland America won't do that again. We would like to see Sweet use Holland America in the future, if possible.
One thing we like about Sweet is that their prices are low, and they allow guests to pay on a monthly basis. This allows people who might not otherwise be able to participate to have a more realistic opportunity to sail into the sunset on a cruise. We realize the economy makes this a hard time to launch a Lesbian vacation company. We want them to succeed, and they are off to a grand start. Their customers are justifiably excited about their inaugural cruise.
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