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Mother and child reunion is only an ocean away

February 23, 2003|Charles Reuben | Special to The Times

My 86-year-old mother developed a keen interest in cruise ships after Dad died and she married a Shriner named Harry. When Harry died, Mom still wanted to cruise, so at 44, I became her new traveling companion.

My only cruise experience had been a whirlwind three-day tour of Catalina Island, San Diego and Ensenada, Mexico, which didn't exactly qualify me as an expert. I was ready for a longer, more exotic adventure, so Mom and I booked a seven-day Carnival cruise on the mega-ship Elation, visiting ports in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas along the Mexican Riviera.

Seven days at sea is a real commitment, especially in close quarters, but if it made Mom happy to have me along for the ride, I was more than happy to be her cabin mate. And she was pleased to have me around too: I was well groomed, I dressed neatly and I did not eat with my mouth open.

Besides, she paid for the ticket -- $800 per person for our inside cabin -- and the tips, so all I really had to do was keep her out of trouble and have a good time, enjoying tropical ports and Vegas-style entertainment.

We arrived at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro at noon on a Sunday, checked our bags and got on board, along with 2,000 other eager passengers. We settled into our 185-square-foot cabin, complete with twin beds, TV, bathroom and safe. At 4 p.m. the ship sounded its horn and pulled away from the dock.

I would have to describe myself as an introvert, but somehow it just seemed right to join a conga line and dance the macarena. I was soon racing down the water slide and sunning myself on a deck chair. I entered the hairy chest contest and the knobby knees contest, winning a first for the best chest but nada for the knees.

Mom won't wear a bathing suit in public or go down a water slide, but she can cut a rug on the ballroom floor, and I'm not bad either. It felt good when people came up to me and said, "I saw you and your mom dance."

Not only were we seen, but we were photographed. At night our pictures appeared on the walls of the photo gallery, ranging from $8 for a glossy 5 by 7 to $20 for an 8 by 10.

After dinner we went to the Mikado Lounge, a spacious, high-tech auditorium that seats 1,300, to enjoy a show called "Rhythm" featuring the effervescent Elation Girls.

The best part of the show was "My Angel Is a Vargas Girl," a tribute to the work of pinup calendar artist Alberto Vargas. Miss July danced to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "You're a Grand Old Flag," and Miss December did the "Jingle Bell Rock." Mom and I sang along and clapped our hands.

We were dazzled with pyrotechnics and lasers and impressed that the Elation Girls could dance, much less keep their balance, on a revolving stage while the ship was bobbing up and down.

It's almost as tricky as finding the free alcoholic beverages.

Cocktails in the news

The Elation publishes its own daily newspaper, and you must study it carefully if you want to be invited to a party where the drinks are gratis.

The main such event is called "The Captain's Table," but it comes at a price: You must wear formal clothes, shake hands with the captain, meet the senior officers, learn about the ship and dance. The reward is that you can scarf down fancy hors d'oeuvres and mixed drinks like they're going out of style. Or at least until Mom nudges you hard with her elbow and whispers, "Slow down, Chucky! You've had five already!"

Mom and I disembarked in Puerto Vallarta and visited a dockside flea market where a bald-headed vendor sized us up and invited us into his booth to check out "the finest chozzerai in all the land." We immediately picked up on the Yiddish word for "junk."

A half-hour later we left his booth schlepping colorful turtles with bobbing heads, a hat that later shrank and, for my girlfriend, a gauzy dress that badly needed restitching.

Upon returning to the ship, I signed up for an "expert hiking tour" shore excursion, which set me back $30.

Mom was delighted to stay on board the ship with her mystery novel while our guide, Miguel, took me and a young woman named Alyssa by cab to a ranch 30 minutes outside town.

We walked to a village with cobblestone streets, windowless adobe houses, a little church and a lively tortilleria.

We hiked along a river filled with splashing bronze-skinned boys and a herd of cattle. Little children hung from the trees crying "hola!"

We climbed high into the jungle and descended into a valley lined with hot springs, finally resting in a clearing beneath a huge tree. When we got back to the ranch, we settled down at the bar. Hanging on the wall was a photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the cast from the 1987 movie "Predator," who, it seems, had once sought refreshment there.

Miguel pulled out a bottle of 90-proof tequila and three shot glasses. "First, you raise your glass high and say 'arriba!' " he said. "Then you bring it down low and say 'abajo!' Then you take it to the meridian and say 'al centro!' Finally you toss it down the hatch and say 'para dentro!' "

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