Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

When the conductor is, er, mis-conducted

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–I wrote in a recent column about a personal family trip. But, as part of my musical career, I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit interesting places, countries in a state of social transition and major political and economic changes. Some of these places were most pleasant, and provided a reasonable amount of creature comforts. Others made me homesick almost instantly.

But in every instance, it was a revealing, educational experience. I saw places that most tourists will never visit, and had the opportunity to talk to many people whose voices had been suppressed for decades; some, for their entire lives. The stories were fascinating. At times, I witnessed history taking place, as was the case in countries where the Soviets were about to depart, or had recently left.

Just saying the word “Israel”, for my musical visits there, can bring to memory dozens of unusual and memorable encounters.

These travels have been for conducting live concerts and recording sessions, lecturing, attending specific musical happenings, auditioning musicians, visiting music schools, or judging in international music competitions.

These were experiences that were priceless, and in most cases, very positive. This, however, I can not say for the travels to and from my musical destinations. No one is exempt from horror travel stories.

Once in a while, after telling someone of an upcoming trip, I am told (you have heard this line many times yourselves!), “Oh, how glamorous! Can I come along and carry your suitcases?”  Don’t even think about it.

Take, for instance, a trip that took me to Trapani, in Sicily, in 1999 to be part of an international jury for the city’s annual Chamber Music Competition. Trapani is a fishing town in West Sicily, and East of Palermo. The eight days in Trapani were terrific. Nothing but good things. After all, how can you beat hearing lots of chamber music every day, hobnobbing with brilliant and distinguished musical minds, and eating Italian and Sicilian food?

But, let me tell you of my return trip on Sunday, November 28, 1999. Due to short lead times and details given to me a few weeks before, my trajectory to return home included no less than four flights, all in the same day. It later turned out to be five flights. I awakened from the Trapani hotel at 4:00 a.m., after a late night of the closing ceremonies, and was on my way to the Palermo airport by private taxi an hour later. This car ride takes about an hour. On our way there, we ran into a violent thunderstorm. When we reached the Palermo airport, I discovered that there was no power in the building, due to the storm. They were operating with emergency lights, which were illuminating only a little more than eight modest Hannukah candles.

Even though Alitalia had several flights leaving at 7:00 a.m., there was only one window open to register all the passengers, and what seemed like a thousand people, not forming any discernible cues or lines, were pushing to present their tickets and luggage all at the same time, to a single, distraught employee. Chaos personified, and of course, everything in Sicilian, which is not quite Italian.

You can imagine my frustration those forty minutes after my plane was supposed to depart; I was still cueing in line, with no one around for me to plead my case. I ran to the gate to find it totally empty, only to find out that my plane not only had not departed, but had not yet arrived from Rome.

We finally departed from Rome. Upon landing, I had to call on my limited athletic skills to again run to the next gate. No time for breakfast, but I made it.

Landing in Paris’ Orly airport can be real fun. One is led through interminable shuttles, corridors, and security and passport checkpoints, all through connecting terminals, while being pushed and shoved by a million other harassed passengers. I believe that the terminal where I was must have been a quarter of a mile long. While standing by gate # 2, it was indicated that my gate was to be # 33 for my New York flight. But hurry! Your flight has finished boarding, and they are about to close the doors. Again, I desperately ran to gate 33, only to find out that due to gate changes, my plane was parked at gate # 3, where I was a few breathless minutes before. Run again. When boarding, I was advised by an attendant that due to my inexcusable tardiness, there would be no meal for me, since a final count was already taken. I took my seat for the eight hour flight, sweaty, but relieved. Somehow, I did receive a meal.

Upon landing at JFK in New York, I found out that my suitcases did not make the connection, but I was informed of this after waiting for 40 minutes at baggage claim. Fill out a missing luggage report, and board the airport shuttle to the American Airlines terminal for my flight to San Diego. The shuttle took 45 minutes to take me there (after all, this was the Thanksgiving weekend), and as you might have expected it, my connections luck finally ran out, and I totally missed my flight to San Diego.

Hoping not to lose a night and stay in New Your without my suitcases, I insisted in some form of alternate route home. For this, I was put on a “waiting list”, which is only a notch or two above the handling of cattle. I called home to notify my wife of the situation. There was a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. I was given the last seat available, in the very rear, with practically the engine on my lap.

In Dallas, another marathon walk in a short time, another waiting list, and the tension of uncertainty. I was given a seat for my flight to San Diego, next to a very drunk and troubled woman. After over 24 hours from hotel in Sicily to landing at Lindbergh Field, I arrived late, hungry, exhausted, and happy to be home. My suitcases, after being subjected to a magical mystery tour of their own, arrived three days later. I have given you only the main highlights of that day; there were other incidents and encounters.

Now, we know that this harrowing experience is not typical of every trip; but potentially, any of these mishaps can happen, and many times do. Do you still want to carry my suitcases?

Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.

Boom times in Manta reminiscent of San Diego last century

March 16, 2010 10 comments

Seaside development being graded on coastline of Manta, Ecuador

Last in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

MANTA, Ecuador—There’s a San Diego feel about this city near the equator.  The same tuna companies – Van Camp, Bumblebee—that once made San Diego their homes now have canneries here.  Although it recently closed, a U.S. Air Force base here that monitored possible drug traffickers in nearby Colombia brought single servicemen to this city – and many of them took Ecuadorian wives.   And there is a shoreline that is reminiscent of San Diego County in the early 20th century, with miles and miles of bare promontories overlooking secluded beaches.

Residential area in Manta overlooking the Pacific

Still another reason why Manta may generate nostalgia among long-time San Diegans is that there is a building boom currently taking place, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 apartment, condo and single family homes being built each year to take advantage of an influx of retirees from the United States, Canada and the former Soviet Union, according to Maria Fernanda Carrasco Cordero, one of the busiest real estate agents in Manta.  Old time San Diegans can remember similar days of opportunity in their county.

Nancy and I met Carrasco and her husband, furniture manufacturer Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon, through the Alexander and Helen Poddubnyi of Podd & Associates of Vista, California, who operate air cargo charter offices in San Diego County.  Poddubnyi purchased a condo in Manta and subsequently became a business associate of Carrasco’s.

Although we aren’t ready to retire yet to the Latin American shoreline—although the prospect  is tempting indeed— Nancy and I were interested in learning what life is like for the growing American colony in this port city that was on MS Rotterdam’s itinerary during our cruise from Lima, Peru, back home to San Diego.

Maria Fernanda Carrasco Cordero

Carrasco met us in her car near the gated entrance of the Port of Manta and took us on a whirlwind tour of hillsides currently being graded for condominiums overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  Some of these still unbuilt units already have been sold, and, judging by the number of phone calls Carrasco received during our time with her—more are being sold every day.  In fact, Isofali Kundawala, a retired physician from Richardson, Texas, shared the tour with us—and he told us he had decided to buy in Manta after checking out other potential retirement spots along the Mexican, central American and South American coasts.

Why Manta? We asked him.   He described it as a small town with some large town amenities, including at least seven flights daily to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, from which international airline connections can be made back to the States or to other parts of the world.    He also said he found the prices appealing—not only to purchase real estate, but also for domestic services, taxes, gasoline, and the like.

Residential developments here invoke the names of various seaside paradises around the world including Santorini, Greece;  Portofino in Italy, Fortaleza, Brazil, and La Jolla in California.   The latter is where Poddubnyi purchased her condo, with Carrasco having served as her agent.

Carrasco told us that most people who purchase condos in Manta initially visit the city on multi-city real estate tours, decide that Manta is where they’d like to locate, and then come back to find the specific property they’d like to purchase. 

“Every day there is someone moving here, “ Carrasco said.  “I think it is because people who are on fixed income are able to have a better standard of living here.  You don’t have to have medical insurance because doctors here are inexpensive compared to the States.  We have good weather and a good location.  If someone is renting here, they can get a nice two bedroom place for approximately $600 a month plus $200 utilities.  For $1,500 to $2,000 a month you can live quite luxuriously here.”

Small homes for purchase cost approximately $150,000  for two and three bedrooms in the Manta Beach colony, whereas a large, luxurious home will cost approximately $500,000.  Forty hour a week domestic helpers who can cook and clean are paid $240 per month, with another $60 paid to the government for their nationally mandated health insurance and social security, she said.

Plumbers, gardeners charge between $10 and $20 per visit, and doctors charge between $30 and $50 per office visit.  Overnight stays at the hospital cost approximately $100 per night, but transportation to Guayaquil may be required for more complex hospital services.  “But it is still cheap compared to the United States,” Carrasco said.

In December 2011,  Manta will host the South American Beach Sports competition, an event which Carrasco believes will increase the city’s visibility among real estate investors.

Carrasco and her husband had lived in Madison, Wisconsin,  so they are familiar with the ways of Americans and both speak very good English.

While Carrasco met with some business clients, a driver took Nancy and me to the bamboo furniture factory of her husband, Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon.

Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon

Walking us through the complex, he told us that originally he had a dairy farm on the location, which benefitted from the proximity of companies that extracted oils from fish and from various plants in the area.  But when Ecuador decided to make the U.S. dollar its currency in 2000, prices of the feed went up, and Arteaga was faced with the necessity of purchasing pasture land to feed the cows and hiring more people to watch over them as they grazed.

Bamboom dining room set

Figuring costs closely, Arteaga decided to instead sell the cows to other ranchers.  He converted his farm into a bamboo factory where, after purchasing bamboo from rain forests on the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, he initially manufactured handcrafts and other small items predominantly for the tourist trade.

As his workers’ skill level increased, they began crafting handmade bamboo furniture—chairs, tables, desks, cabinets, and beds.  With his family background in furniture retailing, Arreaga opened a store called “Bamboom” a few blocks from the entrance to the Port.  His wife also maintains her offices there.

Arreaga said the name “Bamboom” is taken from the sound that bamboo wood makes when used for firework displays.  Bam!  Boom!   More importantly, the name suggests the excitement that making such furniture generates – especially now that business in booming, er bam-booming.

Arteaga has been busy making special orders of doors and room furniture for hotel lobbies and for owners of new condos who’d rather purchase a full suite of new bamboo furniture than ship their old furniture.

Bamboom has 19 employees in the factory and six in the showroom.  

Manta Yacht Club

Nancy and I met the couple’s two children who were taking sailing lessons at the Manta Yacht Club.  We enjoyed a fine lunch at the club, enjoying the ever-changing tableau of a former fishing village that is becoming a bustling retirement and tourist community.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Compiling a digital menagerie on Holland America cruise

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Seventh in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM – Not really conscious that I was doing so, I turned this Holland America  cruise ship into a digital Noah’s Ark while voyaging from Lima, Peru, to San Diego, USA.

In port after port, I photographed whatever seemed interesting that crossed in front of my lens.  This included shops, architecture, signs, people in national costume, flags—the usual eye-appealing parade of color that catches the eyes of tourists. To my surprise,  it turned out that in every port—even in one at which I was feeling too ill to get off the ship—I photographed animals. 

Some of the animals were alive, some were representations in art, but  the growing unplanned collection seemed a testament to the fact that no matter where in the world where we go, humans find animals irresistible to watch and to admire.

Our cruise started in Callao, which is the port for Lima, Peru.  In the Plaza des Armas, near the presidential palace, various artists had decorated life-sized sculptures of cows.  I was told that this was  a public art project that eventually through auction will raise money for charitable causes.

Iguana Park in heart of Guayaquil, Ecuador

The next stop was Guayaquil, Ecuador, and from the pier, courtesy shuttle buses took us to a park in the center of town famous for the iguanas that roam there along with the pigeons.   Admired, photographed, oohed and ahhed over, the iguanas are quite used to the Ecuadorians and tourists who come to see them on a regular basis.   They even seem to tolerate the pigeons, which like to share in the iguanas’ bounty.

Tuna fountain in Manta, Ecuador

Manta, Ecuador, is home to tuna canneries –and tuna are celebrated with public art showing them jumping out of a fountain and flying across a main street.

In Puerta Caldera, Costa Rica, I felt too ill to get off the ship—a short bout with  a  gastro-intestinal malady had done me in – but a black bird of a species I couldn’t identify apparently took pity on me, flying right to the Promenade Deck outside the sliding door of my cabin. 

It was if the bird knew, even before I did, that I had this  animal photo streak going, and didn’t want a little thing like a stomach upset to spoil it.

Next it was to Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, where woodcarvers at work inside a giant tourist pyramid made various animals before our eyes, including a frog.

Huatulco shopping district

In Huatulco, the Gabriel the Owl store invited tourists to buy gold at 40 percent off with the promise on an outdoor sign that “we won’t cheat you too bad.”  How reassuring!

In Acapulco, at Fort San Diego, exhibits showing trade goods carried in the times of the Manila galleons included a sculpture of a horse carrying a Spanish soldier.

In Cabo San Lucas, our last port before San Diego, we were fascinated by the large, friendly pelicans that loafed along the waterfront.

The ship also contributed to my photographic zoo.  Two large sea lions dominated the swimming pool on the Lido Deck, carved watermelons in the buffet line looked  like seahorses, and on many nights in our cabins, towel animals created by our stewards tickled our whimsy.

Next: Boom times in Manta, Ecuador
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Cruising through Latin American history

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Francisco Pizarro statue in Lima

Sixth in a Series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM—From the earliest days of the conquest of Latin America to the years of liberation, our cruise ship sped us through some of the most dramatic moments in Spanish colonial history.

For us, a recent voyage aboard MS Rotterdam began in Callao, the port serving nearby Lima, Peru.  Inside the Cathedral on Lima’s Plaza des Armas, one can find the tomb of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who nearly 470 years after his assassination is still a controversial figure in Peru.

Renato Monteverde

As guide Renato Monteverde of narrated the story, Pizarro is hated in Peru for having slain so many Incas during the time of conquest.  A well-known statue of him astride a horse once was located in front of the Cathedral, according to Monteverde, but the church didn’t consider a horseman with a sword consistent with its image as the helper of the people.  So, said Monteverde, the statue was moved by city authorities in front of the presidential palace.   But the president—being a politician who wants to court the support of the people—didn’t want so controversial a figure in front of his building either.  Spain was asked to take the statue back, but according to Monteverde’s version, the former colonial power would do so only if Peru paid for the shipping.  Eventually, the statue was moved to the catacombs by the river, in the hope, according to Monteverde, that it would be someday washed away.

While one might quibble with the historical veracity of Monteverde’s tale, it certainly portrayed in most vivid fashion how some people feel about the Spaniards who brought their weapons and their diseases to the Incan Empire.  At least for some parts of the population, Pizarro is an absolute anathema.

Fernando Lopez Sanchez

Fernando Lopez Sanchez, an historian trained by Lima’s Catholic University who today serves as chief archivist at the Cathedral, offers a more forgiving assessment of the conquistador.  “History tells us the facts that took place; it is up to us to interpret and understand the time in which he lived,” Lopez said.  “He was doing what all the soldiers of the time were doing, which was conquest.”

However, he added, “The intentions of Pizarro and the conquistadors was not just to come in and kill everything in sight; the intention was to try to spread faith to a population.  At first they tried to negotiate with the indigenous people, but once the negotiations failed, it turned into violence.”

It is true that many Incas died, “but what you have to take into account was that most of the deaths were not caused by Spanish arms but by the diseases” they unknowingly brought to South America with them.

Pizarro founded Lima in 1535, and he is buried in the cathedral “because the city would not have been established were it not for Pizarro and it was his dying wish to be buried in the cathedral.”

The conquistador of Mexico, Hernan Cortes, was a second cousin of Pizarro’s.  Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs in 1520 and Pizarro’s conquest of the Incans in 1532 are often equated.  However, said Lopez, “although there are similarities in the Mexican and the Peruvian pasts, the Mexicans today are ultra nationalists, whereas Peruvians are more open to people from different cultures.   Mexicans view their history with more hatred.  They hate Cortes, they say ‘he killed us all.’  What is happening here in Peru is that we try to understand the Spanish instead of just hating them.”

Spanish rule lasted in Peru for nearly 300 years, until 1821, when the Argentine general Jose de San Martin liberated Lima and became known as the Protector of Peru.

The next port of call for MS Rotterdam was Guayaquil, Ecuador, where San Martin in 1822 reportedly had his only meeting ever with the liberator of northern South America, Simon Bolivar.  Nobody knows for certain what the two men said, although it is believed that San Martin acceded to the idea of modern-day Ecuador and Peru becoming part of Gran Colombia, the confederation of South American states that also included modern day Colombia and Venezuela. 

La Rotunda in Guayaquil celebrates meeting of Bolivar and San Martin

The content of the meeting between the two great liberators today is still a source of speculation among historians.  The fact that it was held in Guayaquil is a matter of great pride to the port city, which in its commemoration built La Rotunda, a heroic sized monument  on the Malecon, a wide walkway along the Guayas River.  Those interested in Spanish colonial history can easily combine a visit to La Rotunda with a short walk to the Museo Nahim Isaias, in which a banker of Lebanese descent compiled a storehouse of Spanish colonial art, most of it on Christian religious subjects.

After stopping in Manta, Ecuador;  Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; MS Rotterdam pulled into Huatulco, Mexico, which in association with Veracruz on Mexico’s Atlantic Coast and Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast was an important port in keeping Spain’s colonial empire in Latin America together.  Acapulco was the next port after Huatulco on MS Rotterdam’s itinerary.

Small boat dock in Huatulco

Spain sent European goods and crops across the Atlantic Ocean to Veracruz, where they were sold at market for the silver mined and coined in Mexico.  Afterwards, the European goods were sent to Huatulco and Acapulco.  Those that went to Huatulco were put onto ships for Peru, where the goods were exchanged for Peruvian precious metals, furniture and crops.  European goods that went to Acapulco were put on galleons bound for Manila in the Philippines, where the goods and Mexican silver were exchanged for the silks, spices, and ceramics of the Far East.

Fort San Diego in Acapulco

Fort San Diego in Acapulco is located across the street from the cruise pier, making it a popular destination for tourists.  Shaped like an irregular five-pointed star, Fort San Diego had a commanding view of ocean and land approaches to Acapulco. Its cannons were able to protect the treasures of the galleons from pirates and other enemies of the Spanish crown.

In 1813, however, the Mexican revolutionary Jose Maria Morelos was able to capture the fort in Acapulco, effectively bringing to an end the era when the Pacific Ocean was considered a Spanish lake ruled by the Manila galleons.

From Acapulco, MS Rotterdam proceeded to Cabo San Lucas, which most people know for the famous stone arches that mark the point where the Sea of Cortes and the Pacific Ocean divide.  In Spanish colonial history, this picturesque port spelled danger because it was a favorite hiding place for British pirates ready to plunder the galleons. 

Tendering to Cabo San Lucas

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese sailor in the employ of Spain, passed Cabo San Lucas en route to Alta California.  He claimed modern-day San Diego Bay for Spain in 1542, naming the area San Miguel.  However, Cabrillo’s discovery was all but forgotten for six decades.  After the pirate Thomas Cavendish made short work of the galleon Santa Ana in 1587, Spain realized it had to do more to protect the Manila-Acapulco route, perhaps by establishing forts in areas where the pirates were likely to strike. 

In 1602, Spain authorized Sebastian Vizcaino to explore the coast of Alta California.  Not recognizing the area that Cabrillo had named San Miguel, Vizcaino gave the bay and the city that would spring up in its vicinity its modern name of San Diego.  Homeport to the MS Rotterdam, San Diego was our final port in a brief, but fascinating, excursion into Spanish colonial history.

Next: Animals in Cruise Ports

Humor at sea

March 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Rotterdam Cruise Director Joseph Pokorski

Fifth in a series

By Donald H. Harrison


Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM—The first cruise ship joke I ever heard was about the captain of the famous large ocean liner who had the unusual custom of retreating to his cabin at exactly 12 noon every day, opening his desk drawer, looking at something therein, mumbling to himself, closing and locking the desk drawer, and then returning to the bridge. 

No one, not even his trusted cabin steward, knew what was within the drawer.  Speculation ran from the  profane to the sacred.  Among the guesses: Inside the drawer was a picture of his girlfriend!  No, his wife!  No, his family members! No, it was a prayer he said on behalf of the passengers and crew!  No, it was….  The guesses kept multiplying.

Finally, it was time for the famous ocean liner to be taken out of service.  On the ship’s very last voyage, the trusted cabin steward could contain himself no longer.  One afternoon, after the captain had returned to the bridge, the steward picked the lock of the drawer, opened it, and saw that there was an important  message written on a piece of paper taped to the bottom: “Port-left, starboard-right.”

Towel elephant placed in cabin by steward

On a cruise aboard the MS Rotterdam, comedian Lee Bayless found humor in the exemplary service  cabin stewards provide to passengers.  Whether it is making towel animals for the passengers’ enjoyment, putting candies on the bed at nighttime, or carefully triangulating the beginning of the toilet paper roll, the steward continually resupplies the cabins and their bathrooms with orderliness and whimsy.

 Bayless told passengers he also had been folding the toilet paper back into triangles, making his cabin steward become very concerned for his health.  “Oh, this poor passenger never goes to the toilet!” he assumed the steward must have thought.   He wouldn’t have been surprised if suddenly along with his nighttime chocolates, a discreet glass of prune juice also were put out for him.

On one cruise line, Nancy and I were amused when we found my pajamas and her nightgown laid out on the bed in such a way that they seemed to be holding hands.  A night or so later, an arm of the pajamas was around the waist of the nightgown.  We ran into the cabin the following evening to see how this romance might progress—and sure enough the pajamas and nightgown were in somewhat scandalous positions.   And on the following night?   The pajamas and nightgown were again demurely holding hands.

The apocryphal captain of that famous liner was not the only one who sometimes got disoriented at sea.  By their questions, cruise ship passengers frequently betray their landlubber status, according to the Rotterdam’s cruise director Joseph Pokorski.

For example, there was one passenger whom he quoted as  saying to him: “That is a big mountain range over there.  What is our current elevation?”  He said he responded: “That would be sea level and we like to keep it that way.”

While always answering passengers politely, Pokorski said there are times when he imagines responding with more saucy answers:

Q: “Does the ship generate its own power?”
A.  “No, we have the longest extension cord in the world running back to San Diego.”

Q: “Is this the same moon I see from my home?”
A:  “No this is a special Mexican at-sea moon created for your pleasure.”

Q: “Does the crew sleep on board?”
A.  “No we get a helicopter every morning.”

Q: “ I’m upset my microwave doesn’t work.”
A.  “That could be because it is a room safe.”

Q: “Will the ship be docking in the center of town?
A.  “Yes, they are widening the main street of Cabo as we speak.”

Next: Spanish colonial history comes alive in our cruise ports

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Versatile Adam Shapiro plays many roles during cruise ship gig

March 12, 2010 2 comments

Adam Shapiro, with help of show girls, hosts a Sing That Tune show

Fourth in a series 

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM—In the National Yiddish Theatre in New York, he starred in the title role in the musical based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s  Gimpel Tam (Gimpel the Fool). In a touring national children’s theatre production, he played Mudge, a big, joyful, sloppy dog  based on the Cynthia Rylant’s

Henry and Mudge. 
Now, as a performer on a contract aboard Holland America’s Rotterdam, what is the versatile 28-year-old Adam Shapiro doing today?  Just about everything an entertainer can do a ship!  The 6’1, heavy-set Shapiro is so ubiquitous aboard the Rotterdam, one wonders if Holland America Line’s logo slogan on clothing, cups and other items saying DAM SHIP is in actuality a slightly modified abbreviation for the entertainer’s name: A DAM SHAP  IRO.


Passengers found Shapiro singing and dancing in Broadway revues and other featured productions in the Showroom at Sea (for which he and troupe members rehearsed for two months in Los Angeles before joining the ship).  However, passengers were also  likely to see Shapiro in less formal events including a solo Cabaret show (at right)  in which he sang humorous, self-deprecatory songs (including one about being in love with the man in the mirror); a water volleyball game pitting crew members against passengers; and a cook-off contest (at left)  in which his salsa was judged the absolute worst, but his culinary style the funniest.  

Shapiro also emceed a passenger talent contest in which contestants had to shake a tambourine or strike a cowbell first to be called upon to supply the lyrics of popular songs, and he even could be found, ever cheerful, wearing plastic gloves helping to serve passengers at the Lido buffet when extra manpower was needed.

Shapiro officiates at Friday night Shabbat services

When no guest rabbi or cantor is aboard, Shapiro serves as leader of the Friday night Erev Shabbat services, also dispensing the wine and challah at the oneg Shabbat.  Because the ship was taking precautions against gastro-intestinal sicknesses (GIS), Shapiro wore plastic gloves while serving the wine and bread, and, he noted sadly, “we normally serve gefilte fish, but right now that’s out of the question.”

Of course, the 60 or so passengers who crowded the Shabbat services played a little “Jewish geography” and it was learned that Shapiro grew up in Indianapolis, where his pre-bar mitzvah rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation was Jonathan Stein, who prior to Shapiro’s simcha moved to San Diego to become the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.   Eventually, Stein relocated again, to Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, and when Shapiro, the son and grandson of doctors, set out to New York City to pursue his acting career, Stein represented the familiarity and reassurance of home.

Shapiro tells a story during an interview

One day at sea, I chatted with Shapiro who told me that he caught the acting bug in kindergarten in Indianapolis when he performed in a class production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  After that he was typically the first to sign up for plays at his temple and at school, and his parents obliged his interest by sending him for two summers to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan, where he focused on acting and dance.

Once in youth theatre he played Motel the Tailor in Fiddler on the Roof, but after Interlochen, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, he was selected for the lead role of Tevye.  “There’s a reason why every character actor worth his salt wants to play Tevye,” he said.  “It is because it is one of the best written roles for a man ever.”   Tevye is “so wonderfully multifaceted, and he is the type of character who can change on a dime.  In one scene you are joking and you are happy—deidle, deedel, deidle, dum – and then all of a sudden you’re told that your daughter is going to marry out of the faith, and she’s dead to you…”

He studied acting and dance at Ball State University, at one point writing a term paper on choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose many credits included Fiddler.  “The starting point in his career was the National Yiddish Theatre and in some of the books are photos of National Yiddish Theatre productions and you can just see in them where his inspiration came for staging Fiddler on the Roof  — especially the dream sequence.  Although Shapiro had anticipated acting in numerous college plays, his big break came when he auditioned for a community theatre production in Muncie directed by one of the faculty members, Michael O’Hara.   The professor cast him as the general in the Noel Coward farce, Look After Lulu, and became a mentor. 

“In show business, for you to be a  success, you have to know yourself inside and out,” Shapiro says. “You have to be brutally honest with yourself and you have to figure out what you can offer that would be considered unique,”

So what is his verdict about himself?

He responded that another professor at Ball State called him in, and referring to his heavy-set physique, told him: “If you want to do more traditional theatre roles, chorus roles, or what have you, you can either start working out and lose a lot of weight and really, really increase your dance classes, and become a chorus boy, or you can embrace your body type and gear your performance to the type of roles you are right to play.”

At first, Shapiro took umbrage at the advice the faculty member was giving him. “That’s so unfair,” he remembered thinking.  “I want to do everything.”   However, he reflected, the professor “was absolutely right.  What I decided to do was essentially one up him—I was going to concentrate on the roles I was right to play, but also keep up on my dance training.  So I became the character actor who could do funny bits and the funny songs, but who could also do a tap dance on stage and not miss a step.”

Those two talents proved helpful in New York where he found that other “big men” who tried out for parts could act, and do shtick, but often couldn’t dance.”  

Asked who his “big man” role models are, Shapiro responded that “Jackie Gleason was the grandpappy of all big character actors on television, but I look to Zero Mostel, who was incredible both for his musical theatre work and for his film work.  He was the original Max Bialystok (in The Producers).”  Shapiro added that as a child one of his favorite television shows was I Love Lucy and “I loved William Frawley who played Fred Mertz.   There are those guys who are bigger and clearly unashamed of it, who just walk in and are comfortable in their bodies and let er’ rip.”

Those whom Shapiro refers to as “larger actors” face different problems than other actors trying to break into Broadway.  While other actors worry about becoming too old for parts they’d like to play, heavy people often here “you’re great, we love you, but you are too young.’”  Roles for heavier people, tend to be written for middle age persons or older, he explained.  So while other actors fear getting old, heavy set actors fret that they look too young.

Enterprising and willing to go anywhere to act, Shapiro took a job in Pinocchio playing  Geppetto for a touring national children’s theatre company, and when he came back to New York in 2005 saw an ad for a paid workshop in Jewsical, the Chosen Musical, a collection of shtick and satire written by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird.  He got the part of Mendy Bloom, the president of Temple Ben Shtiller, and “it was the first time I ever was involved with a new project.  It was crazy originating a role with nothing to model myself after, just having to create a character.”

The Mendy character was “sort of a macher, he knew everything about everybody,” Shapiro recalled.  “I started thinking of men I knew in my life that reminded me of that sort – very confident, assertive, slightly-know-it-all.   I actually modeled Mendy after my grandfather; I kept asking myself ‘what would my grandfather do?’  He was the kind of person who always stood very straight, and kept his face very controlled and his speech very controlled.  When people asked him a question, there’d be a head nod, and a silence as if he were thinking whether he agreed with the person or not.  And he had perfect posture—something I don’t have, except when a show is on.”

The staged reading went well in New York City, and Shapiro traveled with a production of Jewsical to South Florida, where it was well received, and then to Denver, where it was not.  “I can’t say that the appeal was universal,” Shapiro reflected.  “You didn’t need to be Jewish but you needed to understand Jewish humor. … People in New York, Florida, the Catskills, Chicago, LA got it, but it was a how that needed its demographic.  Denver did not have that….”

Then came auditions for the  Henry and Mudge touring production “about a boy and his lovable, slobbering dog, Mudge… I told them I could play a big lovable slobbering dog, and they apparently agreed and gave me a six month contract playing Mudge.”  The job also came with a coveted Actor’s Equity card, “so I jumped, no, I sat up and begged and wagged my tail, and spent six months touring the northeast and Midwest doing

Henry and Mudge.
Like many actors, Shapiro has developed his own ‘book’ for auditions—songs he knows well to fit the parts being casted.  “You look at the character breakdown, and you say, ‘they want a wisecracking New York Jewish man, so you’re not going to sing ‘On the Street Where You Live.’   You have to give them what you think they want.  That doesn’t mean trying to be something you’re not, that means going in and showing them yourself in that role.”


There have been disappointments along the way.  Shapiro was called back six times during the audition process for one current Broadway show, but the part went to someone else.  “You try not to get your hopes up, but at the same time when you get six callbacks, your hopes are high, your hopes are up, and when it didn’t happen it was hard, very hard.  My manager was trying to be such a parent—and I needed emotional support to get through that one.   But that’s the business.  It is going to happen.  I am almost glad that it happened to me so early in my career, because now I know how it feels.”

Bouncing back, Shapiro decided to audition for the National Yiddish Theatre – an act some might consider chutzpah because he doesn’t speak Yiddish.  But, even so, the people there liked him enough to arrange for a language coach to teach him the general meaning of his lines, and to help him understand on which words to put the emphasis.  “The assistant director and I would hole up in a room for two hours at a time and he would work with me and make recordings for me.”  Gimpel Tam received favorable reviews in the New York press, and Shapiro still kvells over having his picture in the New York Times along with some kind words from a critic.

Shapiro’s manager told him of the opening on the Rotterdam.  “It was a new Showroom at Sea concept,” Shapiro recalled.  “Instead of the typical four-singer, ten-dancer cast, they wanted a cast of six singers and two dancers, with all the singers having their own specialty styles.  One of those was a ‘musical comedy male’ who must be comfortable doing comedic material – ‘think Nathan Lane, Zero Mostel or Martin Short’ and I said, ‘oh wow, that does kind of sound like me.’” 

Although he auditioned enthusiastically, he harbored some doubts.  Would it be good for his career to be so far from New York for so long.  “So I talked to my agent and he said ‘listen, we are still fighting the battle of your age; people are still saying you are too young, so I think right now this would be an incredible opportunity.  You will be singing for a solid year, so your voice will be in incredible shape when you come back and you will travel places you never thought of going’ which has been so true…”

Next: Cruise ship humor

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World 

Fighting a stubborn virus at sea

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment


Returning passengers receive hand sanitizer as they wait to board

Third in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD M.S. ROTTERDAM—Two men on being introduced to each other automatically shook hands.  “Ooops, sorry about that” said the first one.  “Yes, “ said the second, “force of habit, it seems.”   They walked to a nearby hand sanitizer on board the cruise ship  MS Rotterdam and squirted the liquid on their palms. 

 In official reception lines, the captain, cruise director and other senior officers keep their hands stiffly at their sides to avoid shaking hand after hand.  In buffet lines, attendants wearing plastic gloves serve food to the passengers—rather than allowing the passengers to take it for themselves.  

Hotel manager Robert Versteeg with plaques received by Rotterdam at various ports

“Because of Code Red there were some things we couldn’t do this cruise,” commented the Rotterdam’s Hotel Manager Robert Versteeg.  “For example,  at the black and white ball, ship’s officers normally dance with guests, but this time it wasn’t  hosted by officers,” who feared holding unknown partners’ hands during a dance could make them vulnerable to the virus.  “ If this were a normal cruise, there would have been more activities and parties,” Versteeg said.

Not only is direct contact between human strangers avoided, so too is the use of objects that many people may touch consecutively.  That’s why salt and pepper shakers have been taken off dining room tables.  Gloved waiters instead distribute individual paper packets of the popular spices.   Meanwhile, tables, chairs, banisters, door knobs, public-area telephones, deck chairs and railings are constantly sprayed down with chemicals.  So are the chips in the casino, while decks of cards are continuously replaced, and gamblers are offered plastic gloves if they want them. Sanitation crews spray the inside of tour buses before passengers are permitted to board them.

Such is the routine when “Code Red” is in force aboard the cruise liner M.S. Rotterdam to protect crew and passengers from viruses that penetrate your skin, get into your blood system, and cause gastro-intestinal sicknesses.  

The extra washing, serving and sanitizing has extended the hours of crew members and contract employees aboard the cruise ship well beyond normal, but the alternative is to permit gastro-intestinal viruses to spread among passengers and crew members, potentially sidelining hundreds if not thousands of people aboard the ship with vomiting and diarrhea.

According to Captain Rik Krombeen, the chemicals encase the viruses in a goopy substance, making it difficult for the viruses to be absorbed into the human body through the skin. 

In a formal note to passengers, Krombeen advised: “It is important to understand that the type of GI illness we are seeing on the ship is not life-threatening and does not carry any long-term consequences.  This illness is common worldwide.  In the United States, only the common cold is reported more frequently as a cause of illness.”
When a passenger does come down with these flu-like symptoms, a ship’s doctor visits him or her in the cabin, and quarantines the passenger if he or she has experienced two or more episodes of vomiting or diarrhea.  Quarantine is something like a gilded prison because the passenger can order room service,  look out the window or sliding door to monitor the ship’s course through the open seas, or watch television in addition to the typical response to the sickness, which is sleeping.  Usually the symptoms disappear within 24 to 48 hours.

According to Hotel Manager Versteeg, the quarantine enables shipboard personnel to guard against the effects of a passenger or crew member having a sudden onset of diarrhea or vomiting and being unable to make it to the bathroom.  The germs contained in bodily projectiles can become airborne, making the spread of the disease even easier.

Once quarantined, passengers are asked to fill out a questionnaire listing the foods that they may have been consumed on land.  This information is collated and other passengers are cautioned against consuming similar foods or drinks ashore.  In particular, Cruise Director Joseph Pokorski, on the ship’s public address system,  inveighs against people  accepting free drinks from on-shore tour operators, lest those drinks include ice cubes infected with the virus.   Announcements also point out the inadvisability of eating salads or other foods that may have been washed in water.  The announcements caution against  drinking water that has not been properly distilled and bottled.

While the gastro-intestinal disease has become associated with cruise ships over the last dozen years, Captain Krombeen and Versteeg  both are adamant that the cruise lines are the victims of land-based and airline-based communicable diseases, rather than vice versa.

On a recent cruise in Australian waters, said Versteeg, an epidemiologist traced an outbreak aboard the cruise ship to 20 passengers who had flown on Qantas Airlines.  They had sat within the vicinity of an airline passenger who had vomited on board.  The disease at that point had become airborne, infecting everyone of the 20 passengers without their knowledge before they boarded the cruise ship.

On a February 21-March 8 cruise between Callao, Peru, and San Diego, USA,  on which my wife Nancy and I sailed aboard the Rotterdam, Versteeg said that fewer than 3 percent of the 1,330 passengers were reported down with GIS disease – in contrast to other cruise ships that had touched in South America and had recorded hundreds of cases. The captain, hotel manager and cruise director attribute this statistic to the extra vigilance the Rotterdam crew employed, “almost to the point of being annoying” to head the disease off.

 Most passengers disembarked the ship when it returned to San Diego on March 8, but those who chose to continue on the ship on a South Pacific itinerary were provided tours to the San Diego Zoo or other local attractions.  This procedure assured that there would be minimum interference with a special cleansing crew that came aboard Rotterdam to thoroughly sanitize the ship before the next group of passengers, bound for Tahiti , arrived.
Before departing San Diego, Krombeen said that “Code Red” would remain in effect aboard the Rotterdam until such time as the ship could go two days without any new GIS case arising.

Asked why he believed the Rotterdam had fewer cases than some other cruise ships visiting South America, the Holland America captain responded that  he knew two weeks before arriving in South America that ships on similar  itineraries were reporting numerous GIS incidents.   “We had time to prepare,” he said

Next: Jewish performer makes a cruise ship splash

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World