Friday, April 29, 2011

The Liveaboard

Getting there.

The day began at 6AM when 2 rolls of  Astroturf arrived.  Janet and I wrestled it into our building lobby and I left for the Caribbean.  Janet works out.  No problem.  I get to sleep on the plane.  Little did I suspect that we would not speak for 12 days.

The Jet Blue flew, the nap happened.  I arrived in St Martin, "gateway to the Caribbean".  Three hours later I boarded a smaller plane  and 30 minutes after that the pilots executed a masterful approach to and landing at Nevis' international airport.  Top notch security was in effect throughout the flight.
Landing in Nevis

Nevis (pop ~12K) is small and my hotel was small.  Although there is a bus system, I, alas, did not explore it.  Seeing much in a single day requires a car which I did not have.  My plan involved an exploration of the area around Mount Nevis and as my hostess, Pearl, was in the mood for a walk, she and I chatted and wandered our way through the surrounding hamlets.  Pearl and Richard met in England where she went for college and then stayed for 47 years.  Pearl is a native of Nevis while Richard hails from Dominica, a less developed English speaking island, which lies to the south.  She spoke of a childhood on a very different island.  One without tourism where cane still formed an important leg of the local economy.   Like most of us, she isn't certain that all the changes have been for the better.

In the afternoon, I visited the Nesbitt Plantation where I lunched and watched the sea.  Nevis is a very quiet island.

Saturday, Pearl was going to St Kitts for a church event so I hitched a ride to town with Pearl and her husband,Richard: I visited the Nevis museum where I learned that Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, and finally took a 10:30 ferry to St Kitts where the live-aboard (and a bit of shopping) awaited.

Polly returning from the wreck
St Kitts is a bit more lively.  I new things were improving when the boat was docked a few hundred yards from the ferry terminal.  I wandered in,  met Polly, and knew I was going to enjoy myself.  Being early, I wandered through the Saturday market, eating cook-up from the street vendors, buying souvenirs made in St Kitts (not China), and sharing some beers with a local gent who wouldn't accept no.  (St Kittians are just as friendly as Nevisians.)  A good time was had by all.

The Liveaboard

Returning at 4, the world changed.  Cabin assignments (I lucked out: no roommate), dive deck tour/briefing, unpack, dinner, introductions, itinerary review, rules (no diving after drinking), ....  They had done this before.

Impressions:  lots of diving; varied companions (from NYC white shoe partner to tattooed underwater cameramen); a camera dropped, lost, and recovered; luxury.

The trip was largely peopled by Into the Drink which is a diving oriented travel TV show with a bit of an emphasis on drink.  Not my cup of tea, but one should, perhaps, take the comments of this  TV critic (who hasn't had cable since Dukakis rode the tank) with a grain of salt.   The trip will provide a couple of  episodes in their upcoming season.  The TV crew was an unusual group for this New Yorker:  Texans and NorthWesterners.  Excellent divers who knew their video craft thoroughly and certainly knew how to have fun.  We didn't discuss politics or religion.

Recollections are a stream of facts not well suited for grammatical expression.  More luxury than I am used to: too much food (gained 3 pounds), warm water dive deck shower, bed made and turned back, a chocolate waiting each night on the pillow.  An amazing crew gave seven days of smiles and support.

The diving was macro, i.e. small things., not a lot of big life.  Definitely not up to Roatan, nor, I gather, 'the Pacific'.  There was life but the sites were not thick with life.  Still, saw cool things: turtles, sharks, eagle/sting rays, ..., visited an (almost) unknown wreck on the Saba banks.  Except for Saba's 'Eye of the Needle', a stone column that rises from 250 feet, the scenery itself was pretty ordinary.

Eye of the Needle
We had awesome weather.  The part of the Saba bank we visited frequently has 6 foot seas which is why the wreck is infrequently visited.  When we were there it was like glass.  The wreck was upright,  lying in 130 feet of water with the main deck around 110.  The superstructure rises to about 90 feet and cranes reach to about 70 feet.  It was surrounded by BIG fish.  Sharks and barracuda waiting.  Barracuda hanging between the cranes; sharks (and rays) circling the hull nearer the sand.  Large tarpon and grouper circled the boat.

Friday night dinner
We dove a lot which was good: you learn to dive by diving.  Friday night, the passengers and (some of the) crew had dinner at a restaurant near the boat's (or is it ship's) berth.  Thursday evening, Ian, the captain offered his apologies for the crew's behavior on Friday night and explained to us that Friday was the only day on which the crew was allowed to drink.

A good time was had by all.

Saturday morning the passengers departed by 9AM.

Getting home.

Regular readers recall that my itinerary next takes me to Grand Case, SXM, French West Indies where, in order to economize on airfare, I would spend a few days diving, dining and wandering the beach.  When has a tourist ever economized in France?

Gran Case is two worlds.  One French, complete with cheek kisses and hand shakes, good bread, and payments in Euros; the other tourist, written in English, paid for in dollars, and populated by Americans: drunken twenty somethings, overdosed on hormones, pumping shots, next to, multi-generational family gatherings hosted by doting grand-parents viewing their get.  Thank god for mp3 players and beer.
Dreams for sale
Still, despite my compatriots, Grand Case has a very French elegance and is a welcome change, and the dream is for sale.  However, tout alors, I find that my French has left me.  I prayed: Madame Danon, forgive me for making trouble in French class, please help me in my hour of need. The proprietress of my hotel is similarly challenged.  No doubt she prays to her Monsieur Nonad.  We are reduced to smiles, waves, and the international language of carte de crédit.  I check in and, never one to practice moderation, go off to my afternoon dive in Grand Case.

I meet Sally and Chris, proprietors of Octopus Diving.  Amazingly, Sally is from Croton-on-Hudson where I lived when I first came to IBM in 1977.  Even more amazing, we both lived on Teatown Road adjacent to the Ascoli Estate.  [Now I know what your thinking, even more amazing Sally was my first wife, but no, I lived there about 5 years before Sally was born.]  Chris, her husband, is English, but used to work on Reade Street, in lower Manhattan, 2 blocks from where I live now.  Small world.

Sally and Chris have lots of experience.  They met in England and have worked in diving in the Red Sea and Indonesia.  They have a great operation.  They take a maximum of 6 divers per boat.  They are very attentive and take very good care of the customers.  While I was there, one diver released her weight belt during a dive (not a good thing to do since you tend to pop to the surface like a cork) but the instructor leading the dive was on top of the situation, helping the diver maintain neutral buoyancy while her buddy reattached her belt.  The dive continued and a good time was had by all.

The diving was excellent.  As good as any I experienced on the live-aboard: turtles lunching, sting rays waiting, eagle rays soaring, lobsters hiding.  On my second day, we passed a minke whale blowing on our
Turtle Lunching
way to a dive site.  Apparently, dolphins are not unusual although I didn't see any.  Even more incredible, all this variety occurs in less than 40 feet of water.  We also visited a tugboat wreck (sunk intentionally at 60 feet) which was home to, among other things, a 2 foot long puffer fish.  Needless to say, my camera was in my room.

Despite what you may think, there is more to life than diving.  Food must be eaten, nitrogen must leave your tissues, dreams must be dreamt, and beer must be drunk.  So what is Gran Case like?  Unfortunately, I'm not really sure.  My weekend in SXM lasted from Good Friday to Easter Monday so many, many things were closed.  Food is excellent and expensive.  Bread, coffee, and pastries excellent.

Gran Case is definitely Caribbean.  The electricity went out, the people are friendly, the weather is great, the scenery (?) scenic.  Many shops, bar, and restaurants are tended by French dropouts who couldn't quite bite the bullet and really leave France.  Except for a few locally owned, i.e. black run, restaurants (which are very reasonably priced) almost everyone you interact with is European.

Warning: in my hotel, at least, electric plugs are French and require an adapter to work with US appliances.  After discovering this inconvenient truth, I set out to purchase an adapter.  I inquired hopefully of a local shopkeeper, only to be assured that you could not purchase one in Gran Case, and if you could, you wouldn't be able to purchase it on Easter weekend.  I was crushed; however, the gentleman took pity on me, unplugged his laptop from his adapter and loaned it (adapter not laptop) to me with the caveat that I return it by 1PM.  (Not your everyday interaction where I live.)  Fortunately, it turned out there was 1 Americanized plug in my hotel so I returned the adapter promptly and charged my batteries.

Gran Case summary:  It is not the third world.  It is a very easy place to be for a few days; however, when your needs begin to progress beyond sea, sun, and food, or if your budget is tight, Gran Case might seem a bit constraining.  If you're interested in things like duty free shopping and gambling, they are more readily available on the Dutch side.

Now comes the time when I ask all you OutToPastureEnterprise members why you don't dive.  I can think of one good reason: ear problems.  If you have had sinus surgery or have trouble with descents during air travel, diving is probably not for you.  Actually PADI has a list of health related reasons why diving might not be appropriate, but, if you're a healthy geezer who loved Sea Hunt or wanted to be an astronaut, do it.  Better still, take the kids to St Martin and learn together.  Nothing like a little togetherness when conversation is impossible.

Lessons & Going forward.

  1. The cheapest thing about a live-aboard vacation is the price of the live-aboard.
  2. Using a camera underwater is just like using one on dry land.  You see the really, really good stuff when you don't have it.
  3. Diving more improves your diving (practice makes perfect).
My personal high: wearing one bathing suit for a week, but that's just me.  Loved it all.

Next it's off to some North Carolina wrecks with the Sea Gypsies.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Early Hours

It all began on Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. It was well into post-retirement life, just before I became Chief Entertainment Officer of O2PE. Since 2007, I had been developer, actor, painter, writer, professor, and computer gum-shoe. I needed to be something. The plan for this trip: Be a self-improver, enhance my Spanish skills.

Passing through Roatan, on the way to school, floating through day after beautiful day in paradise, time passed. Diving certification complete, it was time to pay the piper. Time to begin my journey through the valley of the subjunctive. Cognitive dissonance. Reality was not cooperating. I was more interested in enjoying (diving) than improving (studying Spanish).

Fearing two weeks without wind or waves, I asked Gay, the dueña of dive operations, what she would do with a weekend (i.e. the time between two weeks of Spanish classes) in La Ceiba. Her response was instantaneous: get out of town. After a moment's reflection, it came to her: visit Omega Lodge. This initiated a brief but heated discussion between la dueña and Tim, a present but not-so-local diving instructor. (Tim, who summers as a white water instructor in Colorado, had been involved with a competing `adventure´ purveyor; to wit, he had invested a number of white water rafts which, unfortunately, were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.) Tim and Gay agreed to disagree with regard to some details, but were able to come to agreement that Omega Lodge was the best place to `chill out for the weekend´.

Upon searching the Omega Lodge website I found what I wanted: to hike and camp above the el bejuco waterfall.  Now the goal was clear: since the hike required at
least two people and this geezer was alone, collect a group of people who wanted to experience the glory of Honduras' Pico Bonito national park. "No problem," thought I; my fellow students would surely jump at such an exciting opportunity.

The next step was simple: approach all the students, tell each one about the trip, and find out who was interested. In no time I'd have the 4 or 6 people with whom I would share the experience. I was saddened by the thought of turning away late-comers.

Things seemed to be going along quite well. Lot's of students were 90% sure that they wanted to go. I anticipated a group of 6, the maximum permitted. What I didn't yet understand was that 90% sure meant not interested. The first day, Patrizio (age 50+) said yes, everyone else was 90% sure they wanted to go. The second day the maybes stood pat. The third day still no movement. I began to wonder whether the younger generation (for the maybes were all 25 or under) needed a review of probabilities. I was beginning to get nervous when salvation arrived in the form of Berta (60+) who I hadn't met, but who came in wanting to find companions for hiking over the weekend.
She had been thinking more of a day hike than of sleeping above the waterfall, but since she, like the rest of us, had no idea what the hike involved, she was happy to join our group. That made 3 yes-es and 11 90%ers. Average age of yes-es: 59 2/3. Average age of 90%ers: 22 1/2. The next morning, i.e. Friday, my statistics were shot to hell when Alli (age 23) arrived saying she had heard about a hike and was there room. There we were, the gang of 4.

We should have suspected something when they brought out the release forms, but trusting and naive, we signed away and off we went. The hike was hard: we used roots to pull ourselves up the mountain, we slid down on our butts. (This video is not us but shows the sort of hike it was on the way up.) We hiked, swam, slept, ate, drank Tang & Rum (surprisingly good), and survived. We were all smiling (through the foot pain) when it was over. (BTW, Omega Lodge [food good, prices low, adventures unforgettable] is run by transplanted Germans who have built it over the last 19 years. Definitely, worth a journey.)  I didn't have a camera but Ally posted some pictures to Flickr.  Night before, up, down.

The question that interests me is why were the younger students unable to say yes.

  • Did they really not want to? (Youth loves nature.  Hard to imagine.) 
  • Were they put off by `fear of geezers'? (Charming as we are.  Hard to imagine.)
  •  Were they hoping for a better offer? 
My theory is the last alternative. Baba Ram Das said, Be Here, Now.  Youth, which lives in hope of Ms. (or Mr.) Right, has yet to learn. By now, we either know better or don't care.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Welcome to the 21st Century & St Martin

I´ve been planning my next `adventure´ and am totally amazed. After returning from Honduras/Roatan where I studied Spanish, climbed a mountain, and learned to dive while staying in an amazing hotel, I visited Beneath The Sea at which a film maker made me an offer I couldn´t refuse and Thursday I´m off to el Caribe. (Whew ¿run-on sentence?)

Even though the deal was too good to be turned down (70% off), there was a minor problem: the trip was two weeks away (during easter week) and airfares were astronomical. What was a retiree to do? Fortunately (and not surprisingly since this is a story with a happy ending), help arrived from an unexpected source: the internet.

(Alright, I know what you´re thinking: why is this unexpected? Where has this guy been, locked away in a dusty basement, fed through a slot in the door, and denied a keyboard? After all, the computer/internet is the first thing stroked in the morning and the last thing poked at night. And yes, you´re right. It shouldn´t have been unexpected but it was.)

At any rate, I looked at flight prices on-line and decided to save money by going early and staying late - thus avoiding the high easter week airfares. Problem: high airfares at required times. Solution: stay a few extra days. Found: on the internet.

This solution did, of course, mean that I needed someplace to stay during those few days, and although I tried the most economical approach, couchsurfing, there was no couch available for this geezer; so it was, once again, back to the internet. Once again the internet did not disappoiont. I whiled away some hours, cavorting with my keyboard; finally, finding and booking rooms in small hotels on Nevis and St. Martin.

Also found places to visit in Nevis, restaurants and a dive operator in St Martin.

So here I am, trip planned. The cost of my bargain liveaboard is about what Eliot Spitzer spent in a weekend but, what the hell, I´m hoping to have at least as much fun as he did; and, I finally understand why the internet is good for business.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Welcome to the ground floor

This is the first post to the blog.

Put your contributions (e.g. stories, restaurant reviews, hotel recommendations, book suggestions, ...), comments and suggestions here. One day if I am feeling ambitious you'll be able to do that directly on the web site, but at this point, too complicated. Sounds like work (ARGH#$%#@!).

You do this by posting a comment on the blog - I promise to read them and (eventually) incorporate them into the web site.

If you do, read, eat, drink, see, imagine, ... something really incredible, share it here. If you are planning something in which you hope or expect that you will have such an experience (we call this a fantasy) tell us or invite us along because its more fun when you do it together.