Summer Vacation

November 4, 2008

The seasons just changed in Chicago.  Yesterday’s high was only 42 degrees.  I grew up in Michigan, so cold weather and erratic seasons are nothing new to me, but that never seems to take the edge off those first days when you realize that winter is starting.  To make myself feel a little better, I thought I’d talk about my summer vacation: a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean.

Our cruise departed from San Juan. This was my first visit to Puerto Rico, and I was impressed.  The city has an old-world feel to it, very much like a European city.  The main attractions to the engineer are the two primary forts that guarded the city.  Old San Juan was the central repository for the famed Spanish Gold before it was shipped back to the mother country.

Both forts are open to the public. It’s incredibly fun to wander through the stone passages and up to the lookout towers.  The grooves from old cannon wheels are still visible on the battlements and well-placed informational placards describe how an old ship to shore battle might have gone.  I was surprised to learn that artillery positioned near water level actually intended the cannon balls to skip across the water on their way to impact the side of an incoming ship.

Over time, parts of the fort were adapted to more modern warfare.  Both forts have concrete bunkers on their highest positions that were installed to spot German U-boats in World War One.  Today, you can still see radar towers in use by the Coast Guard.

If the forts were the marvel of 16th century engineering, then our next stop aboard the cruise ship might be a symbol for 20th century innovation.  More like a floating city, our cruise ship carried over 4,000 passengers and crewmembers. Among other things, the ship advertised a 2,000-person auditorium, an ice rink, a rock climbing wall, a gym and spa, and even a “main street” promenade complete with general store and soda fountain.  I don’t remember the dimensions off hand, but suffice it to say that it was big, very big.

The ship’s construction drawings must look more like a building than a boat.  I was continuously trying to imagine how the beams and columns would frame out the 15 stories of crew and staterooms.  Unfortunately for the structural engineer, all of the structure is discreetly hidden by carefully planned interior design.

Pulling into the island ports, on the other hand, was anything but subtle.  Our leviathan dominated the city skylines.  It caused a bit of a moral conflict for me.  On the one hand, the tourists on board stimulate the local island economies.  However, the inequity of wealth between the cruisers and the islanders seemed unjust.  In all, we visited 5 different islands.

Write in and let us know what you did on your summer vacation. What natural and man-made wonders did you explore?

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