Marla Archer
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Marla Archer - Biography

Written by Marla Archer
Last Update: July 2010
Marla's Busy 2011 Summer

Travel and dance have been my twin passions for as long as I can remember!  I consider myself blessed to be able to do both as my chosen profession.  I must admit, though, that I had to take a roundabout path to get there.

In an earlier career as an apparel buyer, I traveled throughout Asia sourcing product. I enjoyed seeing the world. Unfortunately, I saw more of the inside of clothing factories than the countryside.  I did my job, but what I really wanted to do was explore!

My love for cruises began 30 years ago. My first marriage was on the Queen Mary in September 1980.  My first honeymoon was spent on an Alaskan cruise. This was not your typical honeymoon cruise. No warm tropic breezes and pina coladas for us.  No matter.  I loved my trip!

However, the cold climate of Alaska was a departure for me.  I much prefer the Tropical climates.  Alaska was just the start of many more cruise vacations for me... Mexico, Eastern Caribbean, Western Caribbean, Southern Caribbean, the Bahamas and HawaiiTravel was in my blood!


How I Got Started as a Travel Agent

2001 - Rick and I Connect on the SSQQ Cruise

As my husband Rick has chronicled in great detail, our relationship has been integrally connected to ocean voyages from the moment we met on the 2001 SSQQ Cruise Trip. 

Rick and I met by chance at a Midnight Dance in the Disco on the first night of the trip.  That night was a magic moment for both of us.  We danced, we talked, we danced some more, and then we went up to the deck to talk until the sun came up.

That romantic evening was just the start. I cannot begin to describe how powerful this moment was.  It was a kind of magic.  We seemed to click on every level.  At the time I felt like I had finally met someone I could trust and care about for the rest of my life.  The more I got to know Rick, the more I was convinced my initial instincts were correct.

For the rest of the trip, we were inseparable.  We have never been apart since.
Sad to say, just days after that wonderful trip was over, the 9-11 Tragedy hit. For the next year, Rick and I wondered what the future would bring.

Once we decided the world would keep spinning, I encouraged Rick to organize a follow-up cruise trip for 2002.

2002 - Rick Starts to Pay Attention Aboard the Rhapsody and I Get a New Job

This picture of Rick and me was taken by Gary Richardson on the 2002 SSQQ Cruise.  As you might gather, it is one of my favorite pictures even though you will have to take my word that really was me on his lap!

This picture tells two stories.  On the one hand, it shows that our romance was just as strong on the 2002 Trip as it had been the year before.  On the other hand, the picture hints that Rick's main focus on this trip was still on me more than on the SSQQ dance group. 

I always laugh when Rick explains that he had no idea his dance studio would ever grow to be as big and wonderful as it turned out to be.  Rick says everyone gives him so much credit for his "Grand Design" when in reality he just made stuff up as he went along. 

That is really the same thing that happened with my cruise business.  People always assume that
Rick and I were running these cruises from the moment we met.  Nonsense.  We both had to grow into our roles.  For example, although Rick knew he was expected to be the host in 2001 and 2002, he really paid little attention to the group.  Rick said he worked 12 months a year just like everyone else and he deserved a vacation just like everyone else.  And since he didn't make a single penny off of these cruises, he intended to sit back and relax just like everyone else.  So mostly he paid attention to me. 

enough, other than teach some Swing classes, Rick didn't actually do much on the 2002 trip. This was the year our friend Gary Richardson became an integral part of our cruise. Truth be told, Gary did more entertaining than we did.  Gary chatted with people all day long in the Windjammer Cafe, Gary danced till dawn in the Shall We Dance Lounge, and Gary took a million pictures in the process... all of which he handed to Rick at the end of the cruise.

Thanks in large part to Gary, t
his trip was definitely the best one to date.  Once Rick realized he wasn't needed all that much, we just sat back and watched everyone have fun.  We were pretty fortunate that Gary stepped up.  Gary was the true MVP of this trip. 

That said, Rick wasn't completely napping.  He at least made an occasional effort to be part of the group.  He told me how pleased he was at how happy everyone seemed to be.  Rick was extremely
impressed that this trip had attracted almost 90 passengers. He couldn't believe the trip had done so well in spite of an economy that was just beginning to get back on its feet after the terrible 9-11 tragedy.

Rick remarked that his students took to these dance cruises like ducks to water. They loved the chance to dance seven nights in a row and they loved the group dynamics. This trip was definitely the best one to date.  Then he added there was just one thing that bothered him. 

Rick said he was frustrated because he couldn't figure out how to make money on these cruises.  This 2002 Trip was now the third SSQQ Cruise that had been organized by an outside travel agency.  Although the company did an excellent job, SSQQ did not make a single penny in the process. This was a sore point with him.

The 1998 Trip had attracted 30 people. The 2001 trip had 101 people. The 2002 trip had 89.  That meant 220 SSQQ cruise passengers had sailed without the studio being rewarded in any way.  I could see Rick was going somewhere with this. 

Rick smiled at me and said he had an idea.  I had a hunch I knew what he was going to say.  Sure enough, he brought up the subject of having me organize the Cruise Trips.

Now that Rick was convinced the connection between these dance cruises and his dance studio was no fluke, he was committed to at least one yearly dance cruise from here on out.  However Rick wanted to find a way to keep the future travel commissions in house. So he asked me if I would consider learning how to be a travel agent.

I was both amused and irked that Rick was so confident of our relationship that he was trying to hire me before he even spoke of marriage. Typical man. Putting my ironic smile aside, I took his suggestion seriously.

It didn't take me long to say 'yes'. Rick was right about one thing - I have always loved to travel. In addition, since I had transitioned into Sales several years earlier, I already had most of the skills needed for me take on the Travel Agent role for the studio cruises. I could sell, I could plan, and I could organize.  This seemed right up my alley. 

So once we returned to shore, I began to study to get my license. Meanwhile Rick approached a dance friend named Adriana about having the company she worked for, Journeys Unlimited, sponsor our next trip with me doing the work.  And that's how I got started.  I officially began my journey as Travel Agent by organizing the 2003 SSQQ Caribbean Cruise in January 2003. 


A Review of My Trips

Jubilee 2003

On my first trip - Jubilee 2003 - 144 people sailed to Cozumel on a 4 day cruise over the 4th of July Holiday.  I was in a pretty good mood.  Rick had proposed to me in May 2003, so I had a ring along with me for the trip. Plus we easily beat the 2001 record of 101. Not a bad start, if I must say so.

Rick had a great idea for this trip - Salsa Rueda.  "Rueda" is Spanish for Circle.  Our guests learned how to dance basic Salsa patterns and switch partners at the same time as a "group" rather than individual couples.

It took Rick three entire workshops to get the people synchronized, but by the final day, it was working.  Everyone was finally on the same page. 

Rueda turned out to be the perfect group activity.  Everybody danced with everybody.  What a marvelous way to get everyone involved!   Although I didn't need much convincing, this was just more proof that dancing and cruises go hand in hand.

Rick was something of a hermit on this trip.  Un
like Rick, I am a Sun Worshipper. I would go anywhere I could to find sun kissed beaches with warm turquoise waters!  Rick, on the other hand, burns easily. He avoids the sunlight whenever possible. I watch in terror when he goes outside during the day fearful that he will ignite in flames.

Rick invited his 12 year old daughter, Samantha, to share our cabin on this trip. Sam has the same "fear" of sunshine as her Dad.  Since both of them preferred to avoid the sun, they hid in the cabin more often than I would have preferred.  Rick and Sam spent most of the cruise playing board games and repeatedly watching the same movie on closed circuit TV.

I think that was the trip I developed my love-hate relationship with Rick's hand-held computer chess game.  Rick calls it "Friend". He takes that stupid game with us on every trip.  One of these days I am going to throw that thing overboard and show him what the sun looks like.

Every trip I learn something new... usually the hard way.  I learned several Travel Agent lessons on this trip.  First is price.  You get what you pay for.  One reason this trip was so popular was a ridiculously low price.  Then we found out "why" the price was so low.  The ship we sailed on was about to be sent to a watery grave.  This was its last voyage!  Lucky us.

Another lesson - no matter how much I like my passengers, the cruise line has RULES and will NOT make exceptions. One of our passengers became very ill the day of the cruise and was unable to sail. Her boyfriend stayed home to be with her. Because they had not purchased insurance, they lost their entire cruise fare. Sorry to say, they held me responsible.  Let me tell you, I heard about that incident for years to come!  Now I always recommend travel insurance.


Mardi Gras 2004

I had set a record in my rookie year.  I assumed this was the easiest job I had ever had.  Wrong.  2004 wasn't nearly as easy.

I organized another cruise for 2004, but no one... repeat NO ONE... was signing up for it. Although I didn't know it at the time, the problem was that everyone preferred a different cruise ship to the one I had picked. Everyone had bad memories of the doomed ship from the year before with its broken air-conditioners and ugly appearance.

However no one had the nerve to tell me that was the reason they weren't signing up. They didn't want to hurt my feelings. Consequently I was operating in the dark until finally someone let the secret out.

Now that I understood the problem, I quickly switched to the preferred ship just in time. I managed to get 40 people to sail to Mardi Gras 2004 with Rick and me. That was, as they say, a learning experience. I had lots of learning experiences in the first few years of organizing trips, believe me.

With the Mardi Gras cruise, I learned that you have to plan each cruise almost a year in advance to take advantage of the best prices and group perks. Because of our late start, there were no perks to be had.

Even so, the group bonded incredibly well and we experienced all the excitement of Mardi Gras together as a group. MG Anseman, a Louisiana native, was our guide for the day. There was drinking and insanity all around us, but thanks to the group sticking together and MG's knowledge, I felt completely safe.  I was able to enjoy Mardi Gras to the fullest.  This cruise has always been one of my favorites!


Where oh Where to Get Married?

Shortly after I booked the 2004 Mardi Gras Cruise, I decided to go ahead and book our summer dance cruise as well on the same ship for late September 2004.

Now obviously late September isn't exactly 'summer'. However, late September is when the prices drop dramatically. Children go back to school and the demand drops, hence the price as well. I targeted this date later in the year as a way to save my passengers some money.

Rick and I were engaged on the Mardi Gras Trip, but we had not set the date.  Rick tells people he asked me to marry him on a trip to Colorado in May 2003.  That's close, but not entirely accurate. Let me set the record straight. 

I don't actually remember being "asked". What Rick did do was suddenly blurt out in the car that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.  For someone who talks all the time, he was a bit befuddled in his approach to say the least.  You don't "tell" someone to marry him!

After a little discussion, Rick eventually figured out the correct way to ask me to marry him. He did much better the second time.  Although he was a bit clumsy in his delivery, at least Rick got it right this time.  All's well that ends well.  Now, where do we get married?  And when?

Rick's big mistake, of course, was not proposing one day earlier when we were both standing at the Wishing Well of the Stanley Hotel.

Guess what I was wishing for? Now that would have been the perfect time to ask me to marry him!  Turns out Rick was thinking the same thing; he just didn't have the nerve to act on it.  If only men could be more perfect...

Thanks to that special 'Wishing Well' moment, we both developed a fondness for the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.

Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Sweeping vistas of forests and lakes.  Huge snow capped peaks line the horizon.  You cannot ask for a more beautiful setting.

Rick and I were certain this would be the perfect place to have our wedding. After all, The Stanley Hotel was the place where Rick should have proposed to me!  

The Stanley, by the way, is famous as the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.  Of course, the thought that this remote palace might also be a haunted house of horror just added to the charm (we have an odd sense of humor).

So in May 2004 we visited the Stanley Hotel to wrap up the details. That is when we discovered the Stanley is a lot prettier on the outside than on the inside.  The place was pretty run down. Plus we had never stayed at a more uncomfortable hotel.

I will say one thing - Stephen King was right about this place giving people the creeps. I swear that
building creaked and groaned all night long. There were some of the strangest noises I have ever heard!  Neither of us got a wink of sleep. After our long night, it was easy to see why the Stanley was the inspiration for The Shining!

The next morning over coffee, we both agreed the Stanley Hotel was probably not the right place for our wedding after all.  Oh, great.  An entire year of planning down the drain.  Discouraged and disappointed, we had to rethink our wedding plans.

That is when I suggested that we get married aboard the Rhapsody as part of our late September 2004 sailing.  Rick liked this idea immediately.


Married aboard The Rhapsody

Our romance had started at sea. A wedding aboard a cruise ship would bring our romance full circle. Both of us liked that idea a lot.

The only problem with the idea was that I didn't have much time. Four months wasn't much time to plan a wedding, especially since I was still working a full-time job and organizing a cruise trip for 125 people as well.

Things were definitely not easy. Scheduling both a wedding aboard a ship in addition to seeing to the needs of my large group sailing on that ship turned out to be a lot more stressful than I would have preferred.

Let me add that our Wedding Ceremony had far more than its fair share of drama. Of course, all the drama was generated by my groom and his side of the family. I still shake my head in disbelief when I think of having to wait for an hour holding my bouquet at the alter as Rick searched the ship for his missing aunt and mother.  That was the longest day of my life.  (Rick wrote the entire story of my "Oops Wedding" in case you are curious.)

Fortunately, once we finally did get married, the 2004 Trip was wonderful. The Rhapsody Staff treated us like visiting Royalty. I have never felt so pampered in my life. We even got to meet the Captain and have dinner with him!  It was a wonderful, wonderful trip indeed.


2005 - Alaska

I called this trip "The Adventure of a Lifetime".  I am proud to say the trip definitely lived up to its billing. Alaska is a very special place.  This cruise was the first of our annual "Adventure Cruises" that I schedule each year in addition to our regular summer jaunt to the Caribbean.

Overall, Alaska 2005 was a great trip, but there was one major headache.  Several passengers whose flight had a stopover in Calgary were treated to a rude surprise - they were forced to claim their luggage and go through Canadian customs before flying on through to Vancouver.

I had been assured by the Royal Caribbean cruise agents and by my own "travel experts" this would not happen... but it did.  The senseless delay of several hours and the stupidity of having to go through customs on a connecting flight was deeply resented by everyone.  

Nor did it help that several SSQQ people including Rick and I had gotten on a direct flight to Vancouver.  We were able to completely bypass this miserable experience.  When the unfortunate passengers heard about the fortunate passengers who got off scot-free, a lot of resentment surfaced. Since they suffered and I didn't, I caught the brunt of their dissatisfaction.

I won't lie about it.  Even though I had no idea this problem would occur, I felt pretty guilty.  I was embarrassed to have confidently announced at our Pre-Trip Meeting how easy the trip would be only to be blind-sided by the miserable Calgary experience.  This was another lesson the hard way.

I now suggest that my passengers arrange for their own air transportation. As you may or may not know, the airlines do not pay commission. I was never going to be set up like this again. I thought I was providing a valuable service for my passengers only to be blind-sided by the cruise line.  From the Alaska Cruise forward I decided everyone would now be responsible for arranging their own air travel unless otherwise specifically requested.  

Obviously there were a lot of things I was being forced to learn from scratch.  Just like Rick how to figure out his dance studio as he went along, I was finding out this Travel Agent stuff was a lot more complicated than I had previously realized. 

Despite my visit to the School of Hard Knocks, the Alaska Trip was very special to the development of my program.  This trip was a big gamble for me.  Adding in the cost of air fare and high-priced shore excursions, this trip was easily three times more expensive than our summer dance cruises.  Would the dance studio be willing to support an expensive trip like this?

Fortunately for my nerves, I got a positive answer quickly.  People were very excited to have this opportunity. One person after another said a trip to Alaska was high on their "Travel To-Do" list, but they had never quite got around to it.  Now that so many of their friends had shown interest, they were ready to enlist.  This was the power of "The Group Experience" at work.  People love to travel in packs and share adventures with friends.

The Alaska Trip was unusual for a very interesting reason. We had a high percentage of "unmarried" couples on board.  I can't say for sure, but this trip must have had quite an effect on them. Although none of these couples were engaged when the trip started, four couples got married within five months after this trip was over and a fifth couple married within the year.  Maybe there really is something to this "Love Boat" angle.



2005 - The Rita Rhapsody Disaster

When our annual summer dance cruise rolled around in 2005, I was busy working three jobs. I was taking care of all the ins and outs the travel agent biz, holding down a full time job as a sales rep and handling several administrative functions at SSQQ.  I have always been able to multitask, but this was ridiculous!  I was paying my daughter's college tuition out of pocket, so working three jobs was the price I had to pay. Nevertheless, I was running on fumes!

The good news was that we had a great cruise in front of us. I had close to 100 passengers signed up and ready to go!  Little did I know that disaster was just around the corner in the name of Hurricane Rita. Consequently, I usually refer to Rhapsody 2005 by another name: Rita Rhapsody. This ominous hurricane completely disrupted our cruise by cutting our trip in half.  We ended up spending only three days at sea.  Everyone was so disappointed.  Me too. 

Thanks to Hurricane Rita, I experienced the most frustrating trial of my new Travel Agent career. As the deadly hurricane approached, not only was I in fear for my own life, a couple of my passengers tried to organize a Mutiny!  One passenger had the nerve to suggest to my entire group that everyone cancel and rebook for another time.  No, she didn't check with me first.

I am going to skip all the gory details... Rick told the complete story elsewhere... but I can tell you this trip was easily the lowest point of my Travel career. Fortunately that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I have organized over 10 trips since then and not one of them has had even the slightest problem in comparison to Rita Rhapsody.  That's a good thing.  I don't believe my nerves could handle a steady dose of Rita Rhapsodies without a nervous breakdown.

That's me and my friend Gary Schweinle on the Rita Rhapsody Trip.  You can see the anguish in my face.  Gary was trying to cheer me up after the worst week of my life trying to hold this trip together.


2006 - Hot Tub Madness 

After the fiasco with Hurricane Rita in 2005, my 2006 Rhapsody Trip was a confidence-building comeback.  The Rhapsody Reloaded trip was by far our most successful summer dance cruise to date.

Everyone was determined to make up for last year's Hurricane-related disappointment, so they set about misbehaving with a vengeance.  There is no question about it.  Starting with the infamous Magic Bus Trip all the way through to toe-sucking, pole dancing, bar hopping and hot tub stuffing, this particular trip easily set the all-time standard for insanity.

However, looking back, I think my husband got a bit carried away writing his story of the trip. Rick likes to take our goofy activities like hot tub stuffing and exaggerate things a bit. For example, Rick wrote an outrageous story about hot tub orgies and other nonsense during our 2006 Rhapsody Trip.

Two years later, the energies of this crazy 2006 Trip would backfire on us. 


2006 - New England

The 2006 New England Cruise had all kinds of problems.  On paper, this seemed like a dream trip to me.  I have always wanted to see the Autumn changing of the leaves in New England.  I had heard the beauty is breathtaking and I wanted to see it first-hand.  In addition, I wanted to learn about the history of Boston and see the places where the Revolution began.  Boston absolutely fascinated me.  However, thanks to circumstances beyond my control, our day in Boston was ruined. We only had enough time to make a single loop using the hop-on/hop off bus.  Not once did we get off the bus to explore a particular place.  Please give me more time. I felt so cheated! 

Then the ship got off to a terrible start.  I suppose the only good news was at least no one held me responsible for the headaches. Thanks to rough waters and not nearly enough "ship tenders" to ferry us ashore, we wasted nearly half our day stuck on the ship at Martha's Vineyard.  Rick and I were going to ride our bikes and investigate the mystery of Chappaquiddick, then have a beer.  Unfortunately poor planning on the ship's part cut our free time ashore in half. I was so frustrated that the ship had taken this adventure away. No beer, no mystery solved, and no time to explore. 

The worst day of all was Acadia National Park up in Maine.  Thanks to further problems on the ship, this time our day was reduced by two-thirds.  We had to completely forgo our planned bike trip. We had just barely enough time to take a bus up to the top of Cadillac Mountain and back down again.  Everyone single person in my group was starving for more time at this beautiful place.  For the third time on this trip, I felt so cheated. 

In retrospect, the New England Trip was one long tease. Based on what I did get to see, this should have been one of the highlight trips of my travel career. Sadly, the frustration of seeing all my plans go up in smoke was just too much to deal with. This is definitely one Trip that deserves a redo. 


2007 - Hawaii

2007 took us to my favorite place in the world, Hawaii. I know, I know, I am not supposed to play favorites, but I can't help it. Hawaii 2007 was my absolute favorite trip of all.

A lot of people agreed with me.  Once again, the price tag didn't stop anyone.  People couldn't wait to go!  Hawaii was a hugely successful vacation with 80 people taking the long trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As it turned out, the long flight was worth the trouble. Hawaii is heaven on earth!

I have no doubt God created Hawaii just for me - no bugs, temperature set at 72 degrees all day long, the most perfect beaches on earth and sparkling clear oceans.  Hawaii has it all - volcanoes, mountains, flowers, rain forests, hidden pools of water for swimming and stunning waterfalls everywhere you look.  Hawaii even gives the Grand Canyon a run for its money.  Few people know this, but the rugged Waimea Canyon on Kauai is the second largest canyon in the country!

Hawaii 2007 was the only trip I have ever taken that was so wonderful I couldn't take it any more!  On our final day of the trip at Kauai, Rick and I were so exhausted that we couldn't even leave the room.  Paradise was calling to us right outside our door, but we just stayed in our room and slept.

My Hawaii trip was incredible.  I cannot wait to go back!  I have picked it to be our first SSQQ Travel destination to be "revisited".  Now that Rick closed his dance studio in April 2010, I have more time now to plan.  It might be time to add one extra cruise trip a year.  We could use the extra trip to go back to some of our previous trips and do them again only better.  I vote for Hawaii first!


Conquest 2007

2007 was notable because we were forced to switch from the RCCL Rhapsody to the Carnival Conquest for our summer cruise.  I wasn't too happy about this.  The Rhapsody will always be home for me.  After all, I got married on this ship!  We were blessed to have the Rhapsody as a summer ship for five different trips. We had so much fun dancing on the Rhapsody's amazing dance floor. We didn't realize it at the time, but that beautiful circular dance floor was probably the best dance floor in the fleet. 

I wasn't the only one with misgivings.  Every single person in our group was upset.  Everyone remembered our miserable experiences with Carnival ships back in 2001 and 2003.  However, we had no choice but to switch to Carnival.  Royal Caribbean decided it wasn't making enough money in the Texas market.  The company decided to move the Rhapsody to another port and not replace it.  Galveston had just become a Carnival monopoly. 

It was either give the Conquest a try or skip the summer cruise altogether.

To my surprise, the Carnival Conquest worked out just fine. Although the dance floors weren't even remotely a match for the Rhapsody, the ship was more spacious and more modern.

What we lost on the dance floors was more than compensated for by the acquisition of a marvelous "clubhouse". This ship was so spacious that we discovered a quiet, mostly unused area on the second floor above our morning and afternoon dining room.

The result was dynamite - now our group had a place to meet all day long.  Consequently no matter what time someone went for a meal, there would usually be a people from our group hanging out in our clubhouse to chat with.  This was an idea situation!

Now that everyone was collected in one spot on a daily basis, newcomers were being integrated into the group swiftly. It was rewarding to see all the friendships developingAs a result, Conquest 2007 became our best "SSQQ Family Trip" to date.


2008 - Our First Cruise to Europe

My summer dance cruises are always big hits. However, in regards to my "Adventure" cruises, I have been careful not to bite off more than I can chew. If you study the progression... New Orleans in 2004, Alaska in 2005, New England in 2006, and Hawaii in 2007... you can see that each trip was slightly more ambitious than the previous one.

By 2008, I finally had enough confidence in the success of my trips to tackle Europe.  Actually I had wanted to go there for some time.  I had a deep desire to visit. I do the summer trips to make the studio happy, but I do the Adventure trips to make me happy!

Frankly, it is a good thing I did wait to develop my program before tackling Europe. Selling this trip was an uphill struggle.  Travel in Europe was not cheap because the Euro was killing the dollar. The exchange rate of the Euro drove prices up and made the overseas airfare to Rome prohibitive.  However, my group came through. We had 50 people sign up for this trip!  I was not only grateful, I was actually kind of shocked.

Greece 2008 was the trip where my friend Iqbal Nagji took the group under his wing and personally guided us through Athens (Greece) and Kusadasi (Turkey).

We were strangers in strange lands, but with Iqbal looking out for us, we were just as happy as we could be. We were blessed to have Iqbal. Thanks to him, we felt completely safe.  I have never seen a stronger display of group spirit in Athens. We were thousands of miles from home, all the signs on the subway were in Greek, plus the streets left us lost and confused, but thanks largely to Iqbal's willingness to take care of us, we never worried.  Iqbal took great care of us.

Greece 2008 was such a great success that I was encouraged to visit Europe again. I decided to schedule a return trip the following year to see the Western Mediterranean.


Conquest 2008 - Our Luck Runs Out

Greece 2008 had been a great trip.  I wish I could say the same thing about our summer cruise the same year. Conquest 2008 was our toughest cruise since Rita Rhapsody in 2005.  Although I should have been thrilled to tie our record for most passengers (144), since this trip was the worst disaster since Rita Rhapsody, I could have cared less.  This trip set a low mark for ugly behavior.

Just so no one misunderstands, the trip itself was fine for our passengers.  They had a great time as usual.  The only people who were affected were Rick and I.  We were the ones who had to handle the headaches behind the scenes.  There were incidents throughout the week caused by gate crashers, alcoholics, and some of the rudest people I have ever seen.  Seven people did all the damage, but what was strange was that every single one of them was brand new to our group.  I could not help but wonder where did this plague of people had come from.   

Looking back, I wonder if we were victims of Rick's tendency to "embellish".  Rick has long enjoyed doing the cruise writeups because he simply writes about whatever he feels like.  Rick has a rich imagination which leads to some rather fanciful stories. One good example was the story he wrote about zombies attacking our group.  It makes him happy to write this stuff, so I stay out of it.  However, anyone who goes on these trips knows that some of Rick's stories are way over the top. They either grin at his outlandish imagination... or just skip the stories and look at the pictures.

Every trip has one or two people who act out a bit, but "7" out-of-control people is an unusually high number.  One thing for sure - they were not a good fit for our group.  I could not help but wonder why all these strangers hit at once.  After all, these people were not related at all.  I can only assume that Rick's tongue in cheek stories backfired.  Rick did some good-natured teasing about adult silliness. However the wrong people saw the wild and crazy hype and believed we were the second coming of Caligula.  Too bad they didn't read between the lines.


2009 - Barcelona

Our Barcelona 2009 Trip was an unbelievable experience. We took 90 passengers on a marvelous trip to Spain, Italy, and France. The list of highlights was endless.

Rick and I absolutely fell in love with Barcelona. Where do I start?  The fabulous Gaudi architecture, the wonderful Ramblas walkway, the Magic Fountain, the food, the red wine, the Flamenco dancing, the Picasso museum... I could go on and on.

Everywhere we went, there were beautiful sculptures and fascinating architecture. As we rode the hop on/hop off bus around Barcelona, I decided this had to be the most beautiful city in the world.  What a stunning place. 

Barcelona was just the beginning of an incredible trip. Each day in Italy was a highlight.  First there was the beautiful Isle of Capri.  Then came the stunning Roman Forum.  Next up was The Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Then came Michelangelo's David and Botticelli's Primavera in Florence.

Then we moved on to France.  We got a closeup look at the the lives of the Rich and Famous in fabulous Monte Carlo.  We visited the ancient town of Eze that was carved right out the mountains.  From the ship we saw the stunning cliffside mansions along the French Riviera. 

On our final day, we experienced the charm of small French villages and the beautiful French countryside in Marseilles... I could go on and on.

Considering Rick said this was his favorite trip to date, I can't figure out why he hasn't finished his story of the trip yet. Especially since he no longer has a studio to run!  Oh well. I dare not fuss at him. With my luck, he will write a story where I get eaten by a sea monster. 


Conquest 2009 - The Magic Returns

2009 Conquest was a much better trip than the Conquest Trip of the previous year.  At least this time no one tried to shoot people with champagne corks or steal chairs from blind girls or scream at waiters to bring them more free drinks.

Not a single problem either.  This trip was one long smooth ride.  Everyone was happy and having a great time.  The dancing was good and the Family Spirit was back.  Excellent. That's all I care about. 

Although our passenger numbers in 2009 were significantly down from the previous year's trip, the energy and the warmth was much higher. 

I would rather have a small group that is happy than a huge group that is out of control anytime.  There is nothing wrong with adults being silly, but there are limits.  I believe this was the trip that our group began to find its true identity.  We were closer to being a Family than ever before.


Oslo 2010

In 2010, we visited Europe for the third year in a row. The Oslo 2010 Cruise took us to four areas we had never visited before - Norway, Northern France, Ireland, and Scotland.  England was the hole in the doughnut as we sailed all around it.  Don't worry, we will get to England one of these days. 

Oslo 2010 had some drama.  We had fits coming and going due to airline problems caused by the immense ash clouds from the nearby volcano eruptions in Iceland.  Then once we were on board the ship, we found ourselves in the middle of a serious Norovirus outbreak.  At least a dozen of our passengers got sick including me.  Not fun! 

Anyone who travels has to be realistic.  98% of the time things go well, but no trip is immune from problems.  Fortunately the virus and the volcano did not prevent this from being a great trip. Like our Barcelona Trip the previous year, there were lots of highlights.  Our first stop was in Paris... what a tease... I could spend a month there and we only got one day! 

Next up was a trip to Omaha Beach, site of the heaviest fighting of D-Day.  Many people spent the entire morning fighting back tears.  This was a moving experience indeed.

Ireland was beautiful. We took a bus trip through the countryside. Known as Wild Wicklow, this area could not possibly have been more lovely.  During our trip, we visited an ancient monastery complete with a two mile nature walk around a lake and dense forests.  Cosmic!

Edinburgh, Scotland, gave us a look at the best castle I have ever seen plus another nature walk through a sublime park at its base.  On the following day, a trip through the Scottish countryside revealed no Loch Ness monster, but there were plenty of smiles at the jokes we shared while looking for it.

Oslo was pretty neat.  Rick and I walked miles and miles each day. Our favorite was Frogner Park with the remarkable Wiegeland Statues.

I could tell Rick was a lot happier. We were back in his element - The Cold!! I don't think the weather ever got above 60 degrees and it misted the entire time. We wore ski parkas every day we were in Oslo.  Brrr.


That's Rick playing with "Friend" in the lifeboat drill.  That stupid computer chess game has been a source of constant irritation for me on every single trip we have ever taken.

For example, we will be on a train streaking across the Italian countryside to Rome or on a bus taking us through France on the way to Paris.  My eyes are riveted to all the wonderful sights, but Rick sits beside me playing computer chess the entire time. He is completely oblivious to the world around him. I think, 'Why even come on these trips if you aren't going to pay attention?'  It takes every ounce of discipline on my part not to throw that game overboard.  Of course I am just teasing... or am I?

However, Oslo was different.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I noticed that Rick didn't play with "Friend" nearly as much on this trip. Instead when we took a bus trip through the stunning Irish countryside, Rick's eyes were glued to the window.  Even better, Rick socialized so much more on this trip than he did back in the early days of our cruises.  No more hiding in the cabin all the time.  Good for him!

Rick had never traveled in his life before we met.  I think that Travel has been good for him.  I believe my quirky husband has actually begun to come out of his shell and experience the world a little.  Now if he can just learn to read maps...


Bahamas 2010

Of course I am so proud of my Bahamas 2010 Trip. With a group of 190 Passengers, this total broke my previous record by over 40 people. Of course, "bigger" hasn't always been "better". I learned that the hard way in 2008. 

Fortunately, I had a good feeling about this group right from the start.  After all, 110 of the passengers were repeat SSQQ cruisers.  Sure enough, this cruise came off without a hitch.  It was the most perfect summer cruise we have ever had. 

The highlight of the trip was our visit to Atlantis, the lavish water park at Nassau in the Bahamas.  By the way, Rick and I both went down that slide in the picture.  It was so steep our butts left the slide on the way down!  Was I scared?  Nah.

Key West was popular too.  A visit to Sloppy Joe's Bar, Ernest Hemingway's old drinking hangout, was lots of fun.  I would say half our group made it over there.

This cruise turned out to be the perfect 'end of summer' vacation.  Smiles everywhere and thousands upon thousands of pictures and great memories.


Virgin Islands 2011

So where do we go from here?  Now that Rick has closed his dance studio, we are free to turn all of our attention to future vacations.  In addition to cruises, at some point I hope to branch out and schedule short trips to places like Mardi Gras and San Antonio as well as long trips to Paris and London.  For the time being, our next adventure will be the our Virgin Islands 2011 trip.  The initial interest is so powerful that I have a strong hunch this will probably become our largest trip ever.

One nice thing is I have enough credibility at this point to deserve people's trust.  Since the very beginning, I have always sold the lowest price I could find without any markup whatsoever.  The problem for me is that thanks to discounts and sneaky advertising, no one has any idea what the true price of a trip should be.  In the early days, I had people questioning the fairness of my prices right and left.  However, that seems to be a thing of the past.  These days most people accept my word on price without much argument. 

I am proud that my customers know I am good for my word.  They trust me to find the lowest price and they know I will deliver on whatever I promise.  Even better, on the few occasions they can get a better price elsewhere, they would rather be part of our group than be on the outside looking in just to save a few bucks.

I hope you have enjoyed my story about how I developed my travel program.  By the way, you can read about every one of our trips in far more detail.  For starters, try reading Rick's brief Recap of all our trips on our Travel Home Page. 

In addition, each of our trips is covered in great detail.  Go to the SSQQ Home Travel Page and look for the links.  Not only will you see great pictures of the people and the places, you can read my husband's goofy stories too.  When you take a step back and look at all the places we have been and the fun we have had, I think you will be impressed!  And guess what?  There's lots more to come!


Marla's Personal Story

I was born in Long Beach, California. I spent the first 35 years of my life in the southern part of the state.  Many of those years I lived just a block away from the ocean in Huntington Beach. I went to California State University at Long Beach as a Sociology major. I took extra years to graduate because I worked full time my last couple of years in addition to school.

I began working part time on the sales floor at May Company in Southern California while in High School. I slowly worked my way up to Assistant Manager and then Department Manager during my college years.  After college, I was promoted to an Assistant Buyer and then to Divisional Sales Manager.

I was first married in September of 1980. I gave birth to my daughter Marissa in January 1983. In addition, I was a stepmom to my husband's two children. It's a good thing that God gives us abundant energy when we are young. Raising a family plus having a demanding career is no walk in the park.

Once I got married, it was now really important that I be closer to home. I preferred not to spend several hours on the road in LA traffic. So I switched jobs.  I was hired as a Men's Sportswear Buyer for Oshman's Sporting Goods in November 1985. This began the start of a very lucrative career. In particular, I thoroughly enjoyed the design aspect of the job.

, the constant travel was demanding. I was constantly on the go. New York. Chicago. AtlantaLas Vegas.  Plus there was my two week trek to Asia twice a year. In retrospect, I guess I wasn't at home as much as I needed to be. I think my continued absence left the door open.  Unfortunately, about halfway through my ten year marriage, my husband went through that door and strayed.

That led to the toughest part of my life.  Finally, I couldn't take it anymore.  I divorced him in the Spring of 1990.  Shortly after, Oshman's had a corporate consolidation.  Now I was at a crossroad. It was either face unemployment in California or move to Houston where the main headquarters were located.

I had my daughter to take care of, so I chose employment.   Texas here we come. 

At the time, I wasn't happy about leaving my home state, but you do what you have to do.
So I packed up my 8 year old daughter Marissa and we headed to Houston.  We arrived here on April Fool's Day in 1991.  I always find that amusing.

The move to Houston turned out okay. Honestly, I was ready for a change.  Having divorced less than a year prior, I didn't mind putting distance between me and some bad memories.  Now it was Marissa and me facing the world alone together.

I stayed with Oshman's for 6 more years. Then I decided to venture out.  I became a Sales Representative for both a National gift company and an important sportswear line.

Working two jobs meant busy years.  I have always challenged myself with multiple responsibilities.  Besides, the combined income from both jobs was pretty fantastic!  It helped pay for a beautiful home in Kingwood, lots of expensive trips, a BMW for me, a new Toyota Rav for Marissa, and 4 years of college tuition for my daughter.

I took being a Mom seriously.  As you can see, my daughter turned out beautifully!  Did I mention she graduated from Texas State with a 4.0?  Marissa is just as smart as she is pretty.  Marissa has made me so proud of her. I could not have asked for a better daughter! 

n 1995 I began dating a man I had met at work.  Although we went steady for six years, we never actually came close to getting married.  Looking back, I suppose it was a part-time relationship that I believed was more serious than maybe it was.  My boyfriend gave me a lot of space, which was a good thing most of the time.  I could go about my two jobs and take care of Marissa during the week, then spend my weekends with him.

Our social life revolved around three things - music, rugby, and trips. We took trips to Costa Rica, Cozumel, Cancun, skiing in Santa Fe and Taos, countless Jazz Fest weekends, and frequent weekend getaways to San Antonio.

Did I mention that I love to travel?



I have loved to dance my entire life. For example, I participated in Jazz dance teams while I was in High School.

One day in 2000 I decided I wanted to learn how to Swing Dance. Swing Dancing was huge in America back then. I had always envied couples that could partner dance, so I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to take classes with me. I was disappointed that he wasn't interested, but I wasn't going to let that stop me.

I remembered SSQQ from a couple of Salsa classes he and I had taken together back in 1998. So I signed up by myself and began taking Swing dance lessons at SSQQ in November and December 2000. However I skipped the first months of 2001 due to work demands.  I returned to SSQQ in March 2001. This was when I first met Rick.  He was my Advanced Swing Instructor on Sundays.

Little did I suspect at the time that Rick would become my life partner.  Nor did I have even the slightest idea that he had a crush on me.  He was my teacher for six months leading up to the August 2001 cruise.  Not once did I sense his interest.  Either he was fibbing about his interest in me or he hides his thoughts very well!

The Stroke of Midnight

Rick always teases me that I didn't pay a bit of attention to him as a potential boyfriend. Actually, that's the truth.  From the time I first met him in March 2001 till we connected on the August 2001 Cruise, a dating relationship never crossed my mind.  Rick was always business-like around me plus his attention darted from person to person.  Like I said, I didn't have a clue he was interested in me. Besides, since I had a boyfriend, I wasn't really looking anyway.

It wasn't till our fateful first night on the 2001 Cruise that I learned the truth. Rick explained that he had been watching me from afar for a long time.  He had a feeling that my six-year relationship was in trouble.  He was right about that; I just didn't realize it was that obvious to anyone else but me.

Rick always says we fell in love on August 18th, 2001 -- the first night of the SSQQ Cruise. Well, if I am going to be absolutely accurate, it was August 19th because we connected at Midnight in the Disco.  But he's right about that falling in love part.

The day Rick and I returned to Houston after the cruise, it was time to drive my daughter Marissa to start college at Texas State University.  The day I came back, I ended my six year relationship.  Now I was ready to turn my full attention to my new romance.

Practically from the start, Rick asked me to sell my house and move in with him.  Although my house in Kingwood was more attractive than his house in the Heights, he had a good point that his house was much closer to the dance studio.

I resisted his invitation as long as I couldI wasn't ready to move in!  Too soon. Too soon. And certainly not without an offer of marriage!!!!!!!!!!!  However Rick was impatient, so about a year after we met, one day he kidnapped my dog Peanut.

Stealing my dog was a very clever ploy. Peanut much preferred Rick's house to mine because it had a big yard, a doggie door and two border collies to play with. Peanut had been pretty lonely at my house with Marissa up at college and me on the road every day.

Once I saw how happy Peanut was at Rick's house, I finally gave in and agreed to move in with him.  It would have helped if a ring had been offered in the process, but I decided to cross my fingers and hope for the best.  But it was still a dirty trick stealing my dog.  I have one suggestion for other women - From now on, watch out for any man who tries to seduce your dog!  He's probably up to no good.

I moved into Rick's house shortly after we took the 2002 Rhapsody Cruise.

This was the trip when Rick first suggested I become a Travel agent for his dance cruises.  Organizing cruises was my only involvement in the business side of SSQQ until January 2003.  That is when I started to help out with registration a few nights at the start of each dance semester on a part-time basis. 

Rick and I were married in September of 2004.  I had been working full-time as the Sales Rep and part-time as a registrar and the cruise organizer for an entire year.  I was really worn out.  Since Rick's business was doing very well, I assumed it might be time to finally let down my guard and relax a little. 

Wrong.  Just one month after the wedding Rick's two most important employees abruptly quit without any warning. 

Suddenly Rick was in a real jam. Who was going to do the payroll?  Who was going to deposit the checks?  Who was going to pay the bills?  Who was going to handle the financial reports?  Who was going to teach the abandoned dance classes? 

I immediately offered to help. I picked up the administration end of the business and went from part-time registration responsibilities to full-time.  There was a three-month period there where we really had to scramble

I honestly had not expected to be involved in Rick's business quite so fast after our wedding. However, there was a silver lining.  Working two full-time jobs helped me pay my daughter's education expenses much faster.   

If I had been tired before, now I was working on fumes.  This was a pretty difficult time for meI was still holding down a full time job outside the studio in addition to all these new duties at SSQQ plus two cruises a year.  I was burning the candle at both ends.  However, I have never shied away from hard work.

I was now making enough money from SSQQ to consider quitting my sales jobMarissa would be finished with college in June 2005.  Three months later in September of 2005, I went to work for SSQQ full-time.  Between the Cruise business and the Administration duties, I was coming close to matching the income from my sales job, but I still needed more money.  

Rick had a suggestion.  Why not teach young couples how to dance at their Weddings?Rick told me he was always getting requests for help in this area, but simply didn't have the time to deal with it himself.  Now that his wedding instructor had quit, perhaps I could fill the vacuum. 

Wedding Dance Instruction

I liked Rick's idea, but I didn't know a thing about how to teach people to Formal Dance. However I was willing to learn. If I was going to get serious about participating in a full time manner at SSQQ, I had best acquire some dance skills.

Ballroom dancing was blossoming due to the success of TV's Dancing with the Stars. With the increased interest, SSQQ needed another Ballroom instructor.  So I decided to go through a yearlong teacher's training program with Philip Stephens over at the Dance Place. I learned both roles - lead and follow - in 9 different ballroom dances.

I taught my first Ballroom class for SSQQ in September of 2005.  Soon I added Swing Dancing to that list as well.  Thanks to the added income, out went the Sales Rep job and in came my new career as a Ballroom Dance Instructor.

In addition to my Ballroom and Swing classes, I also began my work with couples on their First Dances.  To my pleasant surprise, I really enjoyed doing this. I like to contribute to the success of such an important event, so I took it pretty seriously.  And I stayed busy, believe me.  Since 2005, I have had the privilege to work with over 500 couples including a lot of their families and friends.  (Please visit Wedding Lessons if you would like to read more about my work preparing couples for their First Dance.)

Of course, one of my favorite wedding couples was my wonderful son-in-law Glenn and my beautiful daughter Marissa.  Not only did I teach them to Foxtrot, I danced a combination Waltz that transitioned to Jitterbug with Marissa at the 2008 Wedding as well.  I invite you to read their Wedding story!


Slow Dance and Romance at Sea!

I would like to share one of my favorite pictures. Those people are dancing West Coast Swing.  Steve Gabino took this picture on our 2009 Conquest Trip.  Every evening our group converged after dinner for Ballroom dancing to the sounds of Magic and Music, a Filipino duo who did a great job. 

Sometimes we danced East Coast Swing, sometimes we danced Waltz.  Cha-Cha was a very popular dance.  We danced several Sinatra Foxtrots.  One of my favorite moments on the trip was dancing a Rumba to "It's Now or Never" with Rick. 

So can you tell what is unusual about this picture?  I will make it easy for you.  Every person in the picture is from SSQQ! 

On a ship with 3,000 passengers, why would there only be SSQQ dancers?  Because none of the other passengers knew how to Ballroom dance!  What you don't see in the picture are all the people on the level above watching down with envy as we dance the night away. With all this admiration, no wonder our guests feel like dance superstars on these trips! 

So the next question to ask is why out of 3,000 people, only a few know how to dance to Ballroom music.  For years, Rick has pointed out what a shame it is that the Cruise Ships offer all these dance opportunities, but very few of their guests actually know how to dance. 

People who hang around SSQQ all the time forget that the general population is clueless when it comes to partner dancing.  When asked, most people say they would like to learn how, but where are they going to find the time?  In the real world, people have kids and jobs and many commitments. 
 When you are a soccer Mom or an oil and gas exec traveling all the time, it's pretty tough to find the time for weekly dance lessons.  Moreover, there is no SSQQ in every small Texas town or big city suburb.  And even if there is a local dance studio, their lessons may be very expensive.

In addition, it always takes people by surprise to discover that Ballroom dancing is alive and well on Cruise ships. Yes, it is mostly Western and Salsa here in Houston, but out at sea, you will hear more Swing and Ballroom music played than any other type of dance music. 

For several years now, some of our guests will come on board and express displeasure over the emphasis on Ballroom dancing.  They complain to me they had no idea they needed lessons in Sinatra Foxtrot for their cruise.  I roll my eyes.  I remind them I warned them in my group emails, but no one ever pays attention.  Once they are on board, it's too late.  Nobody can learn all these dances overnight. 

Personally speaking, I love the fact that Formal Dancing is alive and well at sea.  I think it is wonderful to dance in the arms of a man to romantic music!

So I intend to give classes in Foxtrot, Rumba, Waltz, Cha Cha, and Swing throughout the year to prepare my passengers for the wonderful world of dance that exists out at sea. 

You might be curious to know that Rick and I have signed up as Ballroom instructors on a cruise to Egypt in December 2010.  I will let you know how it turns out.  Wish us luck!


Romance at Sea

"Hi, I'm Julie McCoy, Cruise Director of the Pacific Princess.  Welcome aboard!"

As you can see, I had a lot of fun posing as Julie from the Love Boat at our 2009 SSQQ Halloween Party. 

Back in the Seventies when I used to watch the Love Boat, I would roll my eyes at some of the preposterous story lines. After all, in the real world, no one meets the love of their life out at sea.  Of course, those were the days before I met my husband on a cruise.  Now that I am older and wiser, I am no longer quite so cynical. 

There is no doubt in my mind that people are looking for Romance on every cruise whether they realize it or not.  On every trip we take, I see all kinds of sparks fly. 

Of course some of the stories are of the 'what happens on the cruise stays on the cruise' variety.  However, you might be surprised to know that quite a few romances make it back to shore just like my own relationship with Rick. 

I know of at least three other marriages that started on an SSQQ cruise just like mine did.  There's probably more.  Cupid can find you anywhere, especially at sea.

There is so much more to Romance at Sea than just the exciting "Boy Meets Girl" stories.  What I find interesting is watching couples who are in the early stages of their relationship take a cruise together. This happens all the time.

Many couples who really don't know each other that well take a cruise as a way to find out more.  It doesn't always work out. I have seen couples break up the moment they return to shore.  Fortunately, more often than not, these couples find what they are looking for.  They realize the person they are with is exactly who they want to be with for a long time.  Don't tell anyone I am watching, but I get a thrill when it happens.

Another aspect of love that I enjoy are the people that already care about each other who fall in love some more!

We get busy in our lives. Kids, in-laws, jobs, traffic, bills, housework, cooking, washing the car, mowing the lawn.  Even if there is someone special in your life, on a day to day basis we sometimes take each other for granted.  You know exactly what I mean.

Once they are alone together, I see couples rediscover each other. That is special.

When I started in my role as Travel Agent, I had no idea I would be so drawn to the stories of the people who take my trips.  However, I have come to realize that a Trip at Sea carries the same meaning to a lot of people as it does to me - a chance to connect on a much deeper level with the people I already care about.

I can only speak for myself, but I know how much Travel has enriched my marriage. I wouldn't trade all those memories and shared experiences for anything.  Throughout the year, Rick and I talk about Barcelona and Hawaii. Or Oslo and Paris.  These trips have shaped our lives. 

In addition, when I look at my circle of friends, it is the same way.  "Travel" and "Dance" are the ties that bind us together.  Rick and I have had wonderful fun going out to dinner with couples that we have grown close to on our trips over these past years. 

For that matter, when I meet my girlfriends for margaritas, at some point the conversation invariably drifts to what happened on the last trip or what might happen on the next trip.  We laugh ourselves silly over all the crazy things people do.  And of course the gossip is more delicious than you can even imagine.

Now that Rick has closed his dance studio, it is time for the next chapter to begin.  The sea has become a major part of my life.  I met my husband at sea.  I got married at sea.  I make my living at sea.  Someday I may even teach dance classes at sea for much of the year.

One thing that has become clear to me is that the time has come not just for me, but for all people of my generation to see the world.  We have worked our entire lives to get to this spot.  Now that our kids are grown and our jobs are winding down, we have the money and the time to expand our horizons.

Let me add there is little gained by postponing our pleasure any longer.  We better see the world now while we are still fortunate to have our energy and our health. 
I have watched how Rick and SSQQ brought people together on land for all those years.  Now the torch has come to me.  I am thrilled for the chance to carry on that same tradition here at sea.  I feel lucky to have been given the responsibility to serve this group.  I intend to ensure the SSQQ Community continues to live on through Travel. I will do the best job I possibly can.

Marla Archer, August 2010
Marla's Busy 2011 Summer

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