Of course, we would have loved to finish the 2023 Grand World Voyage and not disembarked in Mauritius for medical reasons. We would have loved, to have visited the African ports, the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic Islands and cruised Europe. But things happen and sometimes you get unexpected benefits.
We were in Sitka for the herring spawn and the annual spring gathering of whales, sea lions, and eagles in Sitka Sound. We both got a chance to participate in many of Sitka’s spring events (you can navigate to see many of them chronicled in this blog) and I was appointed to the City’s Tourism Taskforce, which wouldn’t have happened if I had not been here. On the task force I am learning about the problems Sitka is having because of the explosive growth of cruise tourism since the end of the pandemic. We used to have under 300,000 visitors a year, not we have more than 500,000 and that affects everything from traffic congestion and pollution to internet bandwidth to capacity to process surges of wastewater. It knocks all sorts of planning out of whack. For instance, the library has kids summer activity kits that they leave out for parents to pick up for the summer library program. Visitors see them and take them home for their grandkids. We need to plan and budget for more kits next year. There are all sorts of ramifications I had not considered until I sat on this taskforce.
We are shutting down Lincoln Street to vehicles on days when we have more than 5,000 visitors and it has changed the nature of downtown. Buskers are performing, street food is flourishing, and many Sitkans find themselves enjoying the festival atmosphere that so many visitors bring with them. I have talked with moms who take their kids to Lincoln Street to listen to the music, eat tamales and watch the visitors. I heard one kid say to one of my health providers, “mommy, this is FUN!”
I find it fun too. I am out on the street most days when visitors are in town watching, listening, and when I see someone looking at a map or a map on a smartphone I offer to help. I get to talk to people, find out what they like and what they don’t like. For instance, several people are bothered by a store selling furs and cured reindeer hides. But this IS Alaska.
Being on the taskforce has also set me to thinking about what makes a community attractive to residents as well as visitors. This spring, when I would have been on the cruise, I was facilitating a discussion on “Building Social Capital” at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall. (Yeah, I know, Unitarians.) What helps build successful communities are places where people can meet randomly and engage. These places need to be “natural” where people go in the normal course of events. They need to be places where people of all stripes gather. They can be parks, bowling alleys, and even front porches. My grandfather’s front porch was such a place. There was always a coffee pot on, and people gathered to chat when I was a kid. The Social Commentator Robert T. Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” blames the loss of these gathering places on television. People stay inside. I would add air conditioning and, today, social media.
Successful communities still have those places. Today they are dog parks, and playgrounds, where people of all classes, ages and political persuasions gather and don’t talk about that stuff but talk about dogs and kids. Sitka has a few other places like that. A restaurant with a big round table where fishermen gather every morning to shoot the breeze. The place lets them hang around and nurse a cuppa while they have their conversation, or the café behind the bookstore, also with a big round table, where people drift in and out, joining the conversation and leaving when they need to. This time of year, we invite visitors who see a full coffee shop, to sit and join us. It’s fun for all of us.
I think this is also the appeal of a long cruise. We build community because the ship has lots of places for such meetings. The open seating dinner table, the game table in the Crows’ Nest, the nooks in the Ocean Bar or Explorers’ Lounge. For me it is the Ocean View Pool and the prom deck meeting people on my circuits around the deck and stopping for a chat. It is the small town that many of us have left behind. The layout and time together build communities, like the Project Linus community. It builds a community where 37 people come forward to donate blood in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is a community I am happy to be part of.
And there is some unfinished business from my last ‘Coda’. The HAL Platinum Protection Program paid out our trip interruption, as promised. So, I was compensated for 73 lost days and Suzi 71. (They paid me for the days I was in the ship’s sick bay, which I didn’t expect.) They covered Suzi’s expenses in Mauritius, to the limit in the policy. We have not yet gotten medical coverage because Medicare needs to reject my claim and Medicare secondary needs to pay what they will pay before the HAL plan kicks in. So far, Medicare has not even entered my claim so that I can see it online. They are backlogged. But with the payout for lost days, which was substantial, we were able to cover all our debts. Most importantly, I am doing much better, walking most days and hope, in the next two weeks, to be cleared for travel. If I am we are booked with kids and grandkids on the QM2 to Europe in late July. I want to show the grandkids where my grandfather was born and where I spent the summer with my grandfather when I was 14.