Friday, December 17, 2010

This week: Las Vegas, Nevada (and a few other places)

What if I told you….?

Morning was sunny in Las Vegas, but chilly as it was December. I was headed to the CVS next door before the rest of my group was up for the day. I was hoping to get a morning walk on the Strip before the crowds of afternoon appeared and while my husband and the rest of my traveling group were still sleeping off last night’s vodka and Red Bulls. I took only three steps from my hotel door when I heard someone call my name from behind. It was our friend Jim, the organizer of this little weekend excursion, a gift to his wife and our dear friend, Ellen, for her birthday. He wanted to know where I was going. When I told him, he asked to join me. Ellen had forgotten her toothbrush. I had forgotten my contact cleanser so a trip to the store was definitely in order. I also said I wanted to walk around the hotel and check out the pool. He thought that was a good idea and followed me down the hall.

We were staying at the Aria, just one of several swanky new hotels in the City Center district of the Las Vegas Strip. We checked in yesterday, but didn’t have time to really visit the place as we had tickets for a show at another hotel that night. It was about 8:45 a.m. as we headed down the elevator to “The Promenade” where the pool was located. We followed the signs and the obnoxiously strong scent of Jasmine to the glass doors that led to the pool. At least that scent wasn’t as strong as the vanilla scent in the lobby or we might have needed air masks. Upon entering the pool area, we were greeted by an older gentleman with slicked back gray hair and wearing one of the burnt orange bowling shirts that signified he worked for the hotel. He asked us how we were doing. We said we were fine and seeing as how we were wearing street clothes stated that we just wanted to see the pool area. He said that was not possible because the pool didn’t open until 9 a.m. But it’s only 5 minutes before 9, we pleaded. This did not sway him. He said there was too much cleaning equipment that needed to be put away before we could enter. Expressing our disappointment he made us an offer.

“Why don’t joo go back to yer room, put on yer bathin’ zuits and when joo get back da pool will be open,” he said in his finest Brooklyn accent.

We said we were on our way to the store and didn’t have time.

“Wha-di-fy toad joo…dat da pool…iz eighty-one dah-grees?” he asked, leaning over his pool desk like he was letting us in a secret. That’s great, we replied.

“Wha-di-fy toad joo dat da hot tub…iz a ‘undred an’ four dah-grees?” Fantastic.

“Wha-di-fy I toad joo dat da temperature iz goin’ ta be sixty-eight dah-grees taday?” he said with a nod of his head. Ok, we were sold. However, we said we’d come back later.

“Joo look like a nice couple. Nutten more romantic dan sittin’ in a hot tub, eh?” he asked. We mentioned that we had other significant others and were not attached to each other.

“Well, joo know wad dey say, whad‘appens in Vegas stays in Vegas…” Yeah, we’ll pass, but thanks.

With that we were on our way out of the hotel laughing our asses off all the way to the CVS. A few minutes later while sitting in Jim and Ellen’s hotel room deciding where to go for lunch, Jim and I replayed the whole conversation to the others in our group. Jim had the whole room rolling with laughter with his authentic New York accent. We spent the rest of the weekend enjoying our new catch phase:

“Wha-di-fy toad joo deys runnin’ a maratawn on da Strip?”

“Wha-di-fy toad joo dat beers and hot dogs are a dolla fiddy all day?”

“Wha-di-fy toad joo dat Cabo Wabo iz at Planet ‘ollywood?”

“Wha-di-fy toad joo dat da Venetian iz no Palazzo?”

These are the kinds of stories that make travel interesting for me – the small, intimate and often hilarious encounters with people from the places I visit. While most travelers pass these incidental contacts off preferring to impress people with the museums they saw, the wonders of the world they photographed and the exotic food they ate, I prefer experiences of the ordinary kind, mundane even. Sometimes these incidents were uncomfortable in the moment, but with each retelling, become more memorable and, in my opinion, downright funny.

Like the time I was in Sydney, Australia:

After having spent the previous four hours of my Saturday morning conquering the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, I stopped in a nearby pub to have lunch. It was the pub talked about by our bridge guide because of its historical significance to the city of Sydney and the bridge, the Harbourview Hotel. (Although it was actually a pub, the Harbourview was called a hotel because of a law back in the day that only allowed hotels to serve alcohol so pubs back then had a few rooms for rent, but were really just pubs.) I was feeling pretty proud of myself for accomplishing the climb and felt I deserved a hearty lunch. What better place than the pub where all the workers on the bridge spent their free time and wages. When the waitress approached I was ready to order.

“I’ll have the fish fi-LAY and chips,” I said. The waitress cocked her head to one side and put her hand on her hip.

“You mean fish fi-LET?” She asked loud enough for the patrons at the bar to hear because they all turned to look at us. Of course, she wasn’t really asking me, she was telling me.

“Um, sure,” I said and then hid my head behind the menu. Wow, she must really hate the French.

Then there was this encounter in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico:

In an effort to get some comped excursions from our hotel, we agreed to attend the hotel’s timeshare presentation one morning. This would include breakfast and two tickets for a Jeep tour to a zip line in the mountains. When we arrived at our scheduled time, Hector greeted us and took us to the breakfast buffet.

After spending an hour at breakfast where Hector told us his life story - humble beginnings on a farm with many siblings before moving to the seaside to raise a family and make a lot of money - we then went to the “selling” area, a large, well decorated room with lots of round tables filled with people just like us haggling over timeshares.

After another hour of Hector asking us questions about our finances, our jobs and our vacation habits he then proceeded to complement us on how we dressed, especially impressed by my husband Christian’s shoes. We also impressed him with how well we took care of our money and that we chose Mexico for our vacation. We were the smartest, best looking people he’d ever met.

“Yeah, but how much does it cost?” we asked. He then spent another half hour telling us how wonderful this part of Mexico was and what it had to offer, the mountains, the ocean, the restaurants…followed by the amenities of the resort.

“Great, how much does it cost?” He then told us how many other units he had sold in the last month and how he was the best salesman the resort had.

“Super, how much does it cost?” He then told us about his family and how he had three mouths to feed.

After several more requests he finally gave us a five-figure number. Then he said the price wasn’t to purchase the timeshare. It was actually a lease good for only 20 years. That meant that we would have to repurchase the lease if we wanted to keep the timeshare. Had something to do with Mexican law about foreigners owning land, he told us.

Since we didn’t think repurchasing a lease at the same time we would be retiring was a good idea, we told him thanks, but no thanks and got up to leave. (Of course, we hadn’t planned on buying anything anyway, but this was a good out for us.) Hector then proceeded to curse loudly, telling us how stupid we were to turn down this fabulous offer. How quickly we had fallen from favor. At least we had a good breakfast. We missed the Jeep excursion, though, too many tequila shots the previous night.

Although we were pissed at Hector’s little temper tantrum at the time, now whenever we encounter an overzealous sales person, we smirk and say, no thanks Hector!

And finally some anecdotes from Marco Island, Florida:

I tagged along with my husband on a business trip. The trip was a convention/seminar at the Marriott Resort on Marco Island. The Marriott was gorgeous: Gigantic hotel room with king-size bed and a balcony. The bathroom was as big as our house at the time - all paid for by the company. It had four restaurants and a world-class spa on the property - not paid for by the company. The best part was having the widest beach I’d ever seen at my disposal.

After spending two hours of the morning getting a seaweed wrap and massage in the spa (a birthday gift to myself that I paid for), I then went to spend the afternoon lounging on a pool chaise with a book. A woman with two small children put their towels and bags in some chairs nearby. The kids, a boy and a girl, jumped and splashed around the pool laughing. They appeared to be having a great time. The woman sat with a magazine in the shade of an umbrella. About noon, a man in dress slacks and dress shirt approached the woman and began talking. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I sure heard what SHE said,

“What do you mean we can’t come to lunch with you?? You dragged us all the way down here and we haven’t had a single meal together. You should be spending this time with your kids!!!!! So when will I see you? What do you mean we can’t have dinner with you??? Why are we even here????” Her voice rose in pitch with each question.

Really? You know, your husband didn’t have to bring you and the kids to the Gulf Coast of Florida…with its silly sunshine and unbearable 80 degree weather. Oh, how awful that must have been.

Later that same afternoon, I met up with the wife of one of my husband’s coworkers, Robin. We sat at the bar of the beach café, called Quinn’s on the Beach, drinking ice tea and debating whether to get the Cuban or the Crab Cake Po Boy, when the bartender, a stocky woman with a little gray in her brown hair, came over and asked us where we were from. When we told her Colorado, she said she’d heard it was pretty, but had never been there.

“Maybe Marriott should send me there next,” she mused. We agreed, but said we thought that Florida was a pretty good gig.

“You’re telling me,” she said. “I’m originally from Boston.” She pointed to her name tag. Marriott name tags had the employee’s hometown as well as their name on them.

“I worked at the Boston Marriott for almost 20 years. Then when my son went off to college and I thought, I should go someplace warm, so I filed for a transfer and Marriott sent me here.”

We asked how long ago that was. “Almost three years ago,” she said. Then told us she was having doubts about Florida after the hurricane. Hurricane Wilma had whipped across Marco Island the month before. The Marriott was still cleaning up some areas of the resort and trees were down all over the island.

“We got lucky,” the bartender told us. “It was only a Category 3.” She said she was contemplating a move before another, stronger, hurricane came through. “I bet Colorado is great, but I don’t want to live where it’s cold.”

Robin and I let her in on a little secret…in Denver, it didn’t really get that cold. The mountains, yes, but the city, not so much. Sure it snows every now and then, but the next day the sun comes out and melts everything away.

“Mmmmm, I’ll have to think about that,” the bartender said while washing a glass and smiling. Satisfied we had another convert, Robin and I skipped the sandwiches and went straight for the cheesecake. Nummy.

For more colorful conversations and people, check out these previous blog posts:
Thomas – St. John
Richard – Ambergris Caye, Belize
Hitchhiking – St. John
Awesome Adventures – Key West, Florida
Tarantula – St. John
Antique Car Rally – Bundaberg, Australia
Late Night with Conan O’Brien – New York City

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Week: Treasure Island, Florida

Treasure Island

It was another cloudy afternoon in Orlando. Not cold, but cool and no sun to be seen. The morning had the promise of sun, but then it disappeared and took the fun out of sunbathing by the pool. With the threat of rain showers in the forecast I said to my husband, “I don’t wanna sit in this condo watching Sports Center all day!” After all, we had a convertible rental car and he did like to drive. I grabbed the Florida map and out we went. We made our way to I-4 heading west toward Tampa. Traffic was heavy, but as soon as we hit the town of Lakewood, the clouds disappeared and out came the sun.

An hour and a half later my husband said, “OK we’re in Tampa, now what?”

“We’re driving until we find water,” I said. As I scouted the map, I noticed dark bold letters on the gulf that said “Treasure Island.” That sounded promising, but I could only envision two things: Treasure Island, the book and Treasure Island, the Las Vegas hotel. What would we find on Treasure Island, Florida?

“Keep going on I-4 over the Tampa Bay Bridge,” I told him. Traffic was getting worse. It wasn’t even rush hour yet and a Tuesday afternoon no less, but we were only at a crawl. My husband had to use all his aggressive driving skills to get us out from behind an overloaded truck trailer belching exhaust into our convertible. Finally as we drove over the Tampa Bay Bridge the traffic seemed to break free as we headed down I-275 into St. Petersburg. Trying to figure out how to get to this mystical Treasure Island, I looked for a simple way on the map, but couldn’t really find one. Suddenly the exit for Alt 19 came up and I made my husband cut through three lanes of traffic to get off the interstate. There was no direct route to Treasure Island and the Gulf of Mexico. Right after we exited the interstate, however, we saw a sign that said, “Treasure Island, 7 miles.” We followed the signs, first heading west, then south, then west and finally north. As we crossed a small bridge another sign greeted us, “Welcome to Treasure Island.”

As we continued heading north following the coastline, we could see boat slips and resorts on both sides of the road. Treasure Island isn’t that wide so the gulf is on one side and various coves of Tampa Bay are on the other. Again my husband’s keen driving skills came into play when he found a public parking lot. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the vacationers that came to spend the day at the beach were leaving so we had plenty of choices. With the top safely up on the convertible and my camera around my neck, we were ready. We crossed a long wooden bridge that was built to keep people from walking through the protected grassy marshes along the beach. On the other side was the beach itself, unbelievably wide. I took off my sandals to feel the sand between my toes. We walked along the waterline and every few steps were piles of tiny shells. My husband said that was because of the pulling of the tides and the direction of the winds, the Gulf was pulled and pushed in two directions, forcing the shells to be deposited in piles rather than evenly dispersed on the beach. Eventually I had to put my sandals back on because the shells were just too hard on my feet.

As we walked, we noticed there weren’t any high rises along the beach, no huge hotels with neon signs or sky-high glassy apartment condos. I couldn’t believe there was this much water front property and the tallest building we could see was the Bilmar Resort at only eight stories. With its bright yellow paint and blue letters, the Bilmar was straight out of the fifties. From the water we could see people walking next to the hotel on some sort of path and decided we would take the same way back.

We must have walked up the beach for a half hour and we were getting hungry. As we headed inland we saw an icon I’d been searching for, a volleyball net. It was part of a small group of condos and had two tiki huts next to it. We walked around the condos to another wooden bridge that brought us to the “boardwalk.” It wasn’t a real boardwalk since it was cement, but a path none the less. The walk was wide and smooth and perfect for a couple to hold hands. As we walked along we came upon one art deco hotel after another. All were only two stories high; most had a U shape surrounding a courtyard with a small pool. Each hotel pool was filled with children while parents and grandparents sat near by and every hotel had a shuffle board. All were painted pink or white or yellow or all three. These tiny hotels had names like The Tahitian, The Windjammer and The Fargo. They seemed an era away from the modern high-rise resorts of Orlando.

We continued walking and saw another tiki hut built on the edge of a hotel only this one was a full bar. A small group of adults had gathered around, which reminded us it was 5 o’clock in Florida. Slowly, the eight-story Bilmar loomed again in front of us. Jutting off the back of the hotel we saw the deck of a restaurant filled with people and decided to stop. As we approached the steps to the deck we saw a blue and white mini-menu that said Sloppy Joes. Could it be related to that famous bar in Key West where Hemmingway used to hang out? It was! We walked up the steps and came upon a two-tiered deck with small groups of people sipping cocktails.

The hostess sat us at a table in the corner under a Corona umbrella with a perfect view of the water and the approaching sunset. Since Sloppy Joe’s was synonymous with Hemmingway, the menus contained a timeline of Hemmingway’s life on each page. I spent so much time reading about the famous author instead of studying the menu, I wasn’t ready to order when the waitress returned. In a rush I ordered the first thing that caught my eye; fish tacos I imagined that that fish tacos from the gulf would be fantastic. They didn’t disappoint. My husband added an appetizer of chicken quesadillas which were good, but the fish tacos were to die for. Made with gulf grouper, they were light and flaky and barely spiced with salsa and lime.

Unfortunately, we ordered too much food and stuffed ourselves. With one taco still left, we couldn’t eat another bite and instead settled back in our seats to watch the sunset show. The sun had been sinking since we arrived, but as it approached the horizon it had grown to gigantic proportions and commanded our attention. I got out my camera. With few clouds in the sky, there wasn’t much in the way of color, but the size and oblong shape of the sun made it interesting. As we watched, a blimp flew by. Why it was there and where it was going we didn’t know, but it made an interesting silhouette in the sky.
After the sun descended below the horizon, I clapped my appreciation. Time to go back to Orlando, the “happiest place on earth” and yet I was disappointed. The simplicity and retro-ness of Treasure Island stayed with me. I hope to go back someday and spend more than just three hours.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This Week: Chicago, Illinois

Second City Spring

Spring in Chicago. Pigeons begin to fill the streets, women start wearing their skirts a little shorter and heat starts to radiate from the sidewalk. Wonderful. Another sign of spring…Lake Shore Boardwalk is packed with runners, walkers, bikers, roller bladers and baby strollers from dawn until dusk. Since we were staying at the swanky Raffaello Hotel one block from Lake Shore Drive, I would get to join the droves of people getting in shape for summer.

Chicago is that rare combination of major metropolis located next to a huge body of water. Miami, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro come to mind so Chicago is in exclusive company. Aptly named is Lake Shore Drive and following it for miles and miles and miles is the boardwalk. Everyone uses the boardwalk, rich and poor, young and old, singles, couples and whole families. For the next hour or so, I would get to experience it like a native.

I stepped off the elevator and into the lobby or our swanky hotel. As I approached the front doors, one of the doormen opened the door for me.

“Have a good day, Mrs. Dow,” he said after I thanked him for holding the door. It blew me away they knew my name and this was only our second day here. I checked my cell phone for the time and put it in my pocket also checking to make sure my cardkey for the room was still there. Then I put in my earbuds and tuned my Sirius radio to Radio Margaritaville and took off down the street. One block to the east and around the corner and I was at the Drake Hotel, the place where Oprah’s guests get to stay. From here all of Lake Shore Drive was in front of me and Lake Michigan on my right took up everything to the horizon. The sidewalk was packed and the street next to it was just as busy. I was slowly leaving the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago behind me, but I couldn’t escape the traffic on my left. They would follow me all the way.

The weather couldn’t have been better with a light breeze blowing from the water and just a few wisps of clouds in the sky. The air warmed up as I put space between myself the tall buildings because the sun was now shining on me. Best of all, I was at sea level. No longer a mile high in Denver and trudging up and careening down steep inclines; gravity couldn’t effect me on this level plane. My plan was to run for an hour; a ½ hour heading north and then turn around and run back. With a little Jimmy Buffett playing on the earbuds, I was on my way.

It wasn’t Memorial weekend yet, but the lifeguards in their white shirts with red letters, life buoy slung ‘round their shoulders, were out standing on the sidewalk where the water meets the cement with a six foot drop. They were male and female and it was hard to tell if they were actually paying attention because of the dark sunglasses they wore. As I passed North Beach, the sidewalk continued next to Lake Shore Drive while the beach splayed out on my right. The life guards continued to stand near the water, but it was too early for beach goers yet, mostly people throwing tennis balls for their dogs to retrieve. Made me miss my dog.

I have stated before and will do so again, I am not much of a runner. Never have been. Ask my high school track coach and she’ll tell you how I quit the team. I am only 5’ 4” tall. Cut that roughly in half and you will discover that that my legs are barely two and a half feet long. I have the stride of a rabbit without the speed. Sad, no wait, pathetic. However, nothing gets you outside like running does. Treadmill? I feel like a hamster on a wheel. I need things to look at when I’m running, sounds to hear and scents to sniff. Nothing comes close to the feeling of running outside on a sunny day, breeze in my face, scent of exhaust in the air and some selected music in my ears. Time slows, the mind clears. Things that didn’t make sense yesterday suddenly seem simple while in the middle of a run. Though I may not go fast, by Jah, can I go far. I had the whole day to myself today and I was going to spend the morning running this glorious path.

For the most part, the run was uneventful, except for occasionally getting clipped by a roller blader. The sidewalk started to meander following Lake Michigan’s coastline, curving like a snake along and between sections of beach, grass park and cement roadways. The only constant was the buzz of the cars of Lake Shore Drive on my left. I could just barely hear it under the music. As I ran, the buildings on my left changed from giant skyscrapers, to high rise apartments, to brownstones and finally open space as I neared the Lincoln Park exit.

Just then a strikingly tall grandpa in black bike shorts and bright yellow sleeveless shirt crosses the entire path only to stop in front of me as he put in his ear buds. Seriously? He had the entire boardwalk, not to mention the grassy section next to it to so do his Ipod adjusting, but nooooo he had to stop in front of me. I felt like running into him just to let him know I was there, but in my good mood and better judgment, I jogged around him. As I passed he began to walk. Don’t know why he needed such an aerodynamic outfit to walk in, but to each his own. I was again on my way and enjoying my music and the warm spring air. I had gone about a block or so, when a shadow from behind started to cross my shadow in front of me. Suddenly, grandpa was just over my left shoulder, still walking. In my defense, he was at least 6’6” with his hips starting at my rib cage. But still, I had enough pride to not let this goliath pass me just walking. I sped up, striding out as far as my little legs would take me. Grandpa’s shadow began to fall back. As my lungs breathed faster, I took a quick glance over my shoulder. Grandpa was behind me, but not that far. I was approaching the Theatre on the Lake building. It was a place where the trail split, one direction following the water and the other following Lake Shore Drive. Please, please, please let grandpa take the scenic route. As I passed the theatre building, I took another quick glance and saw a bright yellow jersey heading toward the water. The path by the water was the longer of the two routes around the building so I had some room to relax my stride.

As I continued along the path, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to check the time. I had ten minutes before turning around. Even though I was no longer downtown, there were still many people on the trail. A biker went past in a hurry while another biker was riding no-handed while talking on a cell phone, mothers jogging while pushing baby strollers and young people with backpacks. I wondered who was actually working out, who had class and who was merely on their way somewhere or perhaps nowhere. It was almost 9:30 in the morning.

I was approaching some tennis courts and decided that would be a good place to turn around. The crowd around me had thinned a bit. Little did I know the surprise sneaking up behind me. As I ran around a light pole, Grandpa was about 20 feet behind me. How embarrassing. I could feel my face turn red as I passed him.

With Grandpa now behind me for good, I could focus on the vista in front of me. The northern skyscrapers of downtown Chicago were right there. There! The John Hancock building, the Water Tower Place building, the Drake Hotel, Lake Point Tower off to the side…amazing. At this point, I started planning the rest of my day. After cleaning up by using that fabulous hotel shower, I would stroll Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent Mile checking out all the stores filled with things I couldn’t afford to buy. I didn’t care. I was just happy to be here. Then maybe find a little café with some tables on the sidewalk. Drink some herbal tea and people watch. I wondered if the people running toward me noticed I was smiling?

The return seemed much faster than the finish. It wasn’t long before I was back at North Beach, this time with small groups of young people sitting in the sand, talking, reading, texting. The buildings on the westside of Lake Shore Drive started to get taller and taller. I snatched quick peaks at the condo windows wondering if the inside of those spaces were as beautiful as the outside. Who lived there? Yuppies, retirees, families, business moguls, fashion models, sports stars?

It wasn’t long before I was approaching the park across from the Drake. The air was cooler in the shade as the buildings now blocked me from the sun. After crossing the street I ran around the Drake Hotel the long way just so I could stay near the water. I probably could have stopped running at this point, but continue until I reached the my hotel’s block.

“Welcome back, Mrs. Dow,” said the Raffaello doorman as he held the door for me. The day was already good and it wasn't even noon yet.

Hotel Raffaello

Jog Chicago Lake Shore

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This week: St. John, USVI

Dipping our toes into the forbidden pond of hitchhiking

As we pulled out of the beach parking lot, we noticed an older couple standing on the side of the road. They had floppy hats, gray hair and wore t-shirts and khaki shorts with tennis shoes. They looked like someone’s grandma and grandpa. They didn’t hold out their thumbs, but yet seemed to eye our vehicle expectantly. I told my husband to stop the car and see if they wanted a ride. As he pulled over to the opposite side of the road, they walked over.

“You folks need a ride?” he asked.

“Yes, please!” they responded.

They got in the back seat of our 4-door Jeep Liberty and said hello. When asked where they were headed, they said they were going to have lunch at Caneel Bay Resort. Since Caneel Bay was on the way to Cruz Bay, we had no problem dropping them off. The couple said they were from Maine and were on the island to run in the 8 Tuff Miles Road Race on Saturday. I told them I was running it too, but it was my first time. For the next ten minutes, they told us how they had been coming to St. John for the last 10 years and the husband had run the 8 Tuff Miles the last few years. It was encouraging to meet someone who had done it before. Then the wife mentioned that Caneel Bay Resort had the best lunch buffet on the island and it wasn’t crazy expensive either. She said it was tradition for them to have at least one lunch at Caneel, sitting outside sipping wine watching sailboats pass as they dined. She advised us to try it sometime. We pulled into the Caneel Bay parking lot and they thanked us as they got out. We waved goodbye and continued our trip into town. That was our first set of St. John hitchhikers.

We often saw hitchhikers standing along the roads in St. John. This was our first trip with a rental car and, due to a strange coincidence, we had a car much larger than we needed. It made sense to offer rides. So after dropping off the older couple we decided to continue the practice. The idea was to create a Karma bucket and each person we offered a ride would add to our good fortune. We needed it because for the second half of our vacation, we wouldn’t have the rental car and might need the kindness of strangers ourselves. Did our plan work? Please continue…

The next day we were returning to our resort after a morning of snorkeling on the east end of the island. Having a car was wonderful because it meant we could get away from the crowds on the northshore beaches. As we approached the top of a hill near Colorful Corner, we notice two young men with backpacks sitting by the side of the road. I tapped my husband on the shoulder and he pulled over. We all said hello as they got into the back seat. They said they were going to Cruz Bay, but we were going to the Westin, which is before town. Because it was close we offered to take them to the Westin with us, but they instead decided that the Route 104 turn off would be OK and they would get another ride from there. We asked where they were from. Both were recently graduated college students from North Carolina. The taller of the two was taking the year off before joining the “real world.” He had been on St. Thomas for the last three months, but this was his first trip to St. John. His frat buddy had come to visit him for two weeks. My husband, a college football fanatic, asked him about his alma mater and what their football games were like. It wasn’t long before the two of them were comparing football tailgating experiences. If I hadn’t pointed out the turn, my husband would have missed it. We dropped them off and waved goodbye. We were two for two.

We discovered there were two types of island hitchhikers: Locals and tourists. There was one strict rule between the two: Locals picked up locals and tourists picked up tourists. We observed this near the bus stop/trash dump on Centerline Road just outside of town. Every time we passed people were always standing there. Then one would wave and start talking to a car as it passed. The car would stop and the person would get in while another person got out. You also saw this around the island’s main town, Cruz Bay. Locals were easy to spot. They wore jeans, tennis shoes or work boots and long sleeves shirts. They often had several plastic grocery bags in one hand. And if the person was female, they usually had one or more children clinging to their legs. If we slowed down for locals, they would wave us on. They wanted a ride from someone they knew, understandably. Tourists were also easy to spot. They wore flip flops and shorts and carried backpacks or tote bags. They were also colored bright red because their skin had been fried to a crisp after a day spent on the beach. However, there were occasions when it was difficult to tell the difference between locals and tourists. Read on…

The last night we had the vehicle, we decided to visit Coral Bay on the eastern side of the island for dinner. Once we turned in the car, we wouldn’t be able to travel to this side of the island anymore. As we wound our way on the descent into town, a man in faded blue jeans and dusty denim shirt stood on the side of the road at the end of a driveway. My husband pulled over and he got in. We said we were going to Shipwreck Landing and we would take him if he were headed that way too. He said he was actually going to Love City Convenience Store, but that we could drop him off at the fork in the road near the town’s trash dumpster. As we drove down the hill, my husband asked him where he was from. He told us he was from Cincinnati, but he had been living on St. John for the last several years. He worked construction and had a brother that came to visit him a few times a year. He then began telling us about his ex-wife who left him because she didn’t like living on St. John. It was too hot, the grocery store ran out of milk every other week, the house was too small. But that was OK with him. He was laid back guy and those things didn’t bother him because he knew how to go with the flow. Then he asked us where we were from. When we said Colorado, he began to tell us about a visit he made to the Rocky Mountains when he was a teenager and what a great time he had and how much dope he smoked and how beautiful it was there and that he would live there if it didn’t snow all the flippin’ time.

Approaching the trash dumpster, my husband pulled over. As the guy opened the door, he began telling us about all the great things he found at the dumpster, things he couldn’t believe people threw away, such as the electric fan, the lawn chair, an umbrella and some work shirts. He got out of the car still talking. As we pulled away he was telling us about the lawn mower engine he found and how it worked just fine after he got it home. We could see his lips still moving in the rearview mirror as we drove away. The next day we turned in the rental car.

Only one thing separated the Westin St. John Resort from Cruz Bay town. We called it “The Hill.” In linear distance, it was less than a half mile. In altitude, it was off the charts. Locals called it Southside Road. Anywhere else on earth and it would have been a 20 minute walk to Woody’s Seafood Saloon from our villa. “The Hill” turned that little stroll into a 45-minute, sweat-inducing, heart-pounding, Stairmaster work out. We have walked “The Hill” at least once on each visit, however, it wasn’t something we wanted to do on a daily basis.

The Westin had special taxis that took people into town with “negotiated” rates, but it was still 10 bucks for two people. Didn’t matter where you were dropped off, whether it was at the park a ½ mile away or Mongoose Junction on the other side of town, it was still $10. A non-Westin taxi was $20. When we first stayed at the resort back in 2005, the cost was only $3 per couple. That didn’t include the tip. Did it make us cheapskates to not want to pay $10 for a trip that was less than a half mile? A more intriguing question: Would hitchhiking solve this problem? It was time to see if Karma would reward us for the kindness we showed others when we had a car. Please continue…

We stood at the main entrance to the Westin lobby along Southside Road. People leaving the Westin had to stop right next to us. They tried not to look at us as we smiled and waved. Work trucks came up and down the hill and continued past us without so much as a glance in our direction. Didn’t we look like safe, trustworthy people? Just then a Jeep Wrangle came down the Westin driveway. We could tell from the car’s shiny exterior it was a rental. We waved at the car as they stopped. The mustached driver rolled down his window and asked where we were headed. Woody’s for happy hour, we answered. The couple in the car started laughing because they were headed there too. We offered to buy them a round for their generosity. As we went up and over “The Hill” we all introduced ourselves. They were Sandal and Barry from Ohio and they had been vacationing in St. John for over 16 years, since Sandal’s boys were little, and they always stayed at the Westin. They had been coming for so long they were friends with Woody’s owners. Sandal and Barry were huge Ohio State football fans, even had season tickets. We spent the bar’s happy hour comparing tailgating stories and discussing which bowl games we had been to. After happy hour, they took us to their favorite taco stand where we talked about our various experiences vacationing in the Virgin Islands. Because we were taking a snorkel cruise early the next morning we asked Barry and Sandal if we could call it a night and they were kind enough to drive us back to our villa, right to our front door. We made plans to meet at Woody’s for happy hour the next day.

After our snorkeling day-trip to Virgin Gorda, we had showered and ready ourselves for Woody’s happy hour. We tried calling Barry and Sandal’s hotel room, but there was no answer. Thinking we looked respectable enough, we waited by the Westin entrance on Southside Road. Didn’t matter if it was a shiny new rental Jeep or a beat up old Buick, every driver avoided our waves as they went by. The sun was beating down on us and sweat was beginning to drip down the back of my neck. Just then a small tan pick up with fertilizer bags and shovels in the back pulled over. We piled into the truck’s cab with Jacques, a Belgian who lived in Cruz Bay. He was on his way home after his workday at a lawn service company. He was picking up his kids from their after-school tennis lessons at the town’s park and asked us if that was far enough. It was just a few blocks from Woody’s, so it was no problem. In the short amount of time we were in Jacques’s car we learned he and his family had been living on St. John for only a few years, but he loved it. He felt his kids were getting a great education. He said he couldn’t afford tennis lessons back in Europe, but here he could and his eldest son was turning into a bit of a prodigy. Won every tournament he played in. He was hoping his son would get a tennis scholarship someday. He also house sat for a local homeowner who split his time between St. John and the Eastern US. Whenever the owner was out of town, Jacques could use his car, which was much nicer than the work truck he was currently driving, he told us, almost apologizing for not having a nicer car to give two strangers a ride. We told him we were happy to have the ride, no matter the vehicle. The homeowner was arriving in a few weeks for his three month stay so Jacques was disappointed in losing the car. Jacques didn’t have a car himself, didn’t need one between the work truck and the homeowner’s vehicle. At the town park, Jacques pulled into the small parking lot and we could see a group of children standing around with rackets. We told Jacques if he made it to Woody’s that evening, we’d buy him a beer. He never showed, but Sandal and Barry were already there and had Presidente’s waiting for us.

Our last day of the trip and our last shot at hitchhiking. We tried getting a hold of Sandal and Barry in their hotel room, but again they weren’t around. It was early, but we were hungry and Woody’s Seafood Saloon was calling us again. We stood in our spot at the Westin entrance and watched car after car pass, ignoring us. Then a gold-colored and very old American-built sedan stopped for us. A young man with messy blonde hair asked where we going. We told him Woody’s. He said he was on his way there, but he had to stop at the Lumberyard and pay his rent first. If we didn’t mind the wait, we could ride with him. The Lumberyard once upon a time used to be an actual lumberyard. Now it was a large mall filled with Cruz Bay businesses, including a scooter rental place, t-shirt shop and bakery. One of the shop owners was the young man’s land lord. When we arrived, his two roommates were standing in the parking lot waiting for him. After paying his rent we all walked over to Woody’s. Sandal and Barry were already there along with some other new friends we met the evening before. For a buck a beer, we bought all three young men some Presidente’s, but they weren’t too interested in hanging out with us old married people, especially when there were pretty waitresses to flirt with. We spent the rest of the evening with our new friends from Ohio and Georgia, enjoying our beers and a short rain shower. Unfortunately we had a 6 a.m. ferry to catch the next morning. Sandal and Barry were kind enough to give us a ride back to our villa. After exchanging email addresses, we said good night and wished them well on the rest of their island vacation.

Hitchhiking on St. John was interesting to say the least, but we met some good people while doing it and plan on hitchhiking again when we return.

Hospitality Car Rental 340-693-9160 (Ask for Thomas!!!)
Woody's Seafood Saloon
The Westin St. John
If you go to Woody's website, click on Pics in Paradise, then under Archives, click on March 7. C_Dog and her new friends can be found in one of those photos.

Monday, July 5, 2010

This week: Ambergris Caye, Belize

They were everywhere. You couldn’t always see them, but their sounds filled the air and their movements shook the trees. They were elusive, but their calls woke us up in the morning and while we tried to find them, they were already looking at us. No need to fear, it was just the birds of Ambergris Caye, Belize.

When it came to bird watching on Ambergris Caye, the de facto authority was Elbert Greer, Tennessee expat and 20-plus-year Ambergris resident. He came by this title not because of education or degree, but because he spent his free time looking and listening. He became so good at bird watching, he wrote a “Bird of the Week” column for the San Pedro Sun from 1991-2003. However, Greer didn’t become this noted bird authority by himself. He had the help of his faithful black Labrador, Bubba. In 2001, he and Bubba put these columns together into a book called, Birdwatching with Bubba (Xlibris) with Bubba taking most of the credit. Greer recently updated the book, now called Birdwatching with Bubba, 2.5, complete with color photos and note pages in the back to keep track of your own bird finds.

When Greer moved to Ambergris Caye back in 1986, he planned to live the good life in the tropics, far away from civilization. He cleared his own land, built his own house and business, and became a master SCUBA instructor. In those early years, Greer did without electricity, phones, and cable TV. For entertainment, he and Bubba simply sat outside, but he noticed they had company, lots of company. Greer saw Spotted Sandpipers on the beach that Bubba liked to chase, the nocturnal Nightjars that ate mosquitoes making life on the island more pleasant and the yellow-breasted Kiskadees that adeptly pilfered Bubba’s kibbles right from his bowl.

Greer could be found at the Journey’s End Resort where he had his dive shop, White Sands, about four miles north of the island’s only town, San Pedro. He recently moved the shop from another location, which made work even more hectic. Although diving was his passion, work was still work after all, which led to his other pursuits. Why bird watching?

“I didn’t have to get wet to do it and all my idle time was spent in the bar,” Greer said chuckling.

During that former “idle time,” Greer and Bubba would head into town to play a game of “Barstool Birdwatching” with the local bartenders. On more than one occasion, as he bragged in his book, Bubba came out ahead. Acknowledging his finds with a simple “woof,” Bubba spotted osprey, seagulls, and the island’s own Cinnamon Hummingbirds.

Although Greer gave up this game, he welcomed teaching us as we sat at the Smiling Toucan Bar and Grill at Journey’s End Resort. The rules were simple: First, find an outdoor bar in the Caribbean, next make friends with the bartender and imbibe with a local cocktail, then watch carefully. Each species of bird counts as one sighting and keep a tally. Whoever has the most sightings at the end of the afternoon wins. What? Don’t have time to find a bar in the Caribbean? No problem. Just substitute your own backyard patio, front steps or the neighborhood park. Substitute some friends for the bartender and the cocktails are optional. You will be a barstool birder in no time.

When Bubba was a pup, Greer told him he was a bird dog, but Bubba completely misunderstood and began a life-long mission to study birds. Through this study, he developed a style of bird watching he called “Bubba Style,” which Greer explained in his book. It’s a relaxed, live-in-the-moment type of bird watching rather than the find-the-bird-now-cross-it-off-the-list-move-on-to-the-next that most bird watchers use. Bubba wrote you should take time and be patient with the surroundings hoping for a “Wow, did you see that?” moment.

Bubba, the original, passed away in 1998 after a deadly encounter with a Tommygoff, a poisonous Belizean snake. Although he lived on in Greer’s book, there have been three Bubbas since, all of them black labs. Bubba #4 was tall and lean with a friendly disposition. With a shout of “Run like the wind,” Greer let Bubba loose and he ran through the shallow waters of Ambergris Caye. Slowly he trotted back, original Bubba Style.

After spending the afternoon with Greer and Bubba, we applied these newly learned bird watching techniques on our walk back to town. We saw hummingbirds feasting from a feeder on the deck of a private home. We had a three-for-one spotting of a Brown Pelican, a Laughing Gull, and a Great Blue Heron all resting of the posts of an abandoned dock. Then right before reaching our resort we spied a Great American Egret walking slowly in the water. That was quite a list for one afternoon. Bubba Style certainly worked.

To learn more about Belizean birds, Greer offers two birding tours. “The Early Morning Bird Tour” is to Cayo Pajaros and Cayo Rosario. It starts at 5:30 a.m., hence the name, and offers a three-hour trip complete with coffee and rolls in the boat. Cost is $60 US per person with a four person minimum. He also offers a mainland tour called “Lamanai for the Birds” which leaves San Pedro at 7:30 a.m. and is a full-day trip including lunch and a walking tour of Mayan ruins. Cost is $125 US per person. These tours can be arranged by contacting Elbert Greer by email at or by phone 501-226-2405. You can find out more about Birdwatching with Bubba 2.5 at or White Sands Dive Shop.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This week: Sydney, Australia

Sadly, the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb was not for disabled people. I discovered this when pouring over the bridge climb checklist of health conditions that would disqualify me from the climb, things such as heart ailments and missing limbs – no wheel chairs allowed. Because of the ladders, steps and narrow passageways, the bridge cannot accommodate these things.

I sat in the front desk area with several people; families and couples. A woman came from behind a door that was actually part of the wall, like a secret entrance. She announced her name was Sara and asked the people with 9 a.m. climb tickets to follow her through the door. In a tiny room with a bench on one end, we all sat down while Sara explained the forms we needed to fill out and that we needed a breathalyzer test. The forms had to do with liability and the Bridge Climb would not be liable for anyone or we couldn’t go on the climb. More importantly, we had to print our names as we wanted them to appear on our climb certificates.

After passing the breathalyzer test Sara ushered us through another door and to locker room area where she had us stand in a circle and introduced ourselves while she gathered our outfits for the journey. Starting the introductions were two couples from Canada and their Australian friends from New Castle. One of the Canadian women was afraid of heights. Sara then told us that many Australians did the bridge climb in an attempt to overcome that fear. Next was a family from Canberra with their 12-year-old daughter. Twelve was the youngest age the bridge climb would accept. Last was a couple from the Sydney suburbs. I was the only person from the States. Sara then handed us our lovely gray and blue jumpsuits to wear. Sara asked us to remove everything from our pockets and she gave us lockers to hold our bags including any cameras, wallets or purses. The keys to our lockers were hooked to the zippers of our jumpsuits and then tucked inside. Sara also requested that anyone with prescription drugs for chronic conditions hand them over to her. Two individuals had asthma inhalers. Sara put the inhalers inside separate plastic bags and wrote down the names of the owners before tucking them inside a fanny pack. We were 30 minutes in our bridge climb and we hadn’t even started yet.

From here Sara introduced us to Sasha, our climbing guide. Barely 5 feet tall, brown-haired and smiling, Sasha would take us up the bridge. But first we had to gear up and complete a practice climb. To keep germs away since all gear was reusable, we had to wash our hands in large round wash basin, like they have in sports stadiums. Sasha instructed us on how to put on our belts, which not only held our communications radio, but also permanently attached us to the bridge. In the front of our belts was a heavy wire with an unusual locking mechanism at the end. The mechanism weighed a kilo and looked like a yoyo. Inside the yoyo were metal spinners that allowed us to pass through the metal hooks that attached the tether wire to the bridge. A patented system, Sasha said. After putting on our belts we had to practice moving the latch over the hooks by walking through a small U-shaped line to get to the next prep area. If I didn’t keep the mechanism parallel to the rail, it didn’t go through and I had to use my hand to push it.

Our outfits were still incomplete so we moved to the other side of the room. As we gathered around, Sasha held up a small blue pouch and announced these were our “parachutes” to which one of the women in our group gasped aloud in fear.

“I’m just kidding,” Sasha said. “They’re really your life jackets!” We laughed nervously, but the Canadian woman verged on tears until her husband pointed to a sign above the bin that said Rain Jackets. Relieved, Sasha told us about our accessories. Fall in Sydney was chilly and with rain in the forecast, we attached a fleece pouch for warmth and separate rain jacket pouch for wet. Both jackets were sewn into the pouch. We merely had to unzip and then unfold to wear them. The pouches hooked to each side of our belts. Just what I needed, extra weight on my hips. Then we were given the option of attaching either a ball cap or beanie to our suits to protect our heads from the cold and our faces from UV rays. I chose the cap. These attached to hooks sewn into our jumpsuits behind our necks. If the wind blew the hats off, they wouldn’t fall to the highway below. Those of us who had sunglasses attached them to an eyeglass necklace that was also hooked to our jumpsuits. Finally Sasha gave us a handkerchief attached to a wristband. We put on the wristband and then tucked the handkerchief inside our jumpsuit sleeves. Sasha explained that these were for a runny nose, which can happen on a windy bridge, or for anyone overcome with tears at the beautiful sight of the harbor.

“It can happen!” Sasha laughed. The purpose for all this caution was because nothing, absolutely nothing, went up the bridge without being attached. Too many cars, boats and pedestrians traveled below and falling debris was deadly.

Now for a test run. We took turns climbing up a ladder, one person at a time. Then we walked across a catwalk and finally down a “double” ladder. The double ladder was two sections of a ladder with the second section moved about a foot to one side of the first. To climb the bridge we would have to navigate eight such ladders (four on each side). Everyone in our group passed. Just one more stop before starting our journey, the communications room.

Our radios were specially designed headsets based on ones army snipers used. Sasha explained that snipers not only need to hear the commands of their officers, but also the sounds around them so the military developed “inner ear bone” headsets. They rested on our temples and touched our upper cheek bone. The vibration of this bone carried sound to the inner ear, so we would be able to hear Sasha as she talked on the windy bridge as well as hear the sounds of the harbor. The headsets attached to a pack on our belts and made us look like we had black Elvis side burns. Armed with latest in technology, we were ready to climb.

To get to the inner workings of the bridge, we had to exit the training area and walk out in public to another door. Two gentlemen out walking their dogs watched us go by. Sasha swiped a magnetic strip card through a security box to open the door to the inside of the first bridge pylon. Steps and a passage way were carved from the cement of the pylon that brought us to the start of the tether line. Once tethered, we would not be able to change positions for the rest of the journey. The group with the woman who was afraid of heights went first, then the family of three, then me, then the young urban couple and finally the other couple from Canada.

The walk began about six stories high with a straight, narrow passageway from the small pylon to the larger Southeast Pylon. A garden path to the Rocks district was below. This area was blocked off by a construction site. Silver tarp draped down from the bottom of the bridge all the way to the ground and we could see workers with face masks going in and out of the tarp below. Sasha explained that Sydney was in the middle of a 13-year Bridge Painting Project. The Harbor Bridge was being completely stripped of 70 years of toxic paint so it could receive a fresh earth-friendly coat. The brief section of catwalk we had just passed was already done. Sasha said this project was difficult because so many of the earlier paints used on the bridge contained lead and had to be sandblasted down to bare metal before new paint could be added. Sasha pointed from our entrance to the tarp curtain and said that was the distance covered in three years. It was about half a football field and they weren’t even to the water yet. As we passed two workers waved at us and we could hear the sandblaster buzzing behind the tarp. On the other side Sasha pointed out the Park Hyatt Hotel, the most exclusive hotel in all of Sydney. The penthouse suite rents for $6000 AUS a night, she told us. They also boasted the most secluded pool in downtown Sidney, however, the rooftop pool was in full view of us bridge climbers who passed by every 10 minutes of everyday.

“Not so exclusive after all,” she joked.

Once we reached the Southeast Pylon, we had to maneuver through a tight space to get around the corner. Now we were at the base of the first of four ladders. These would take us straight up to the top of the bridge’s arch. What Sasha didn’t tell us, until just now, was that we would climb between two lanes of traffic. I could hear the cars above as the first people in our group began. At the base of the ladder were two other guides whose only job was to stand there and assist those who needed it on the ladders. When it was my turn, I was so busy concentrating on my feet that I barely noticed the cars buzzing by. The steps were narrow and if I clung too close, I banged my knees on the steps. Remembering to keep three points of contact, as Sasha instructed us, I made my way up the first section, slid right to begin the second section, then slid to the right again to the third section and one more time for the fourth. Sasha was waiting for me when I finished.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Like I’ve had a work out on a Stairmaster!” From here I could see the entire harbor unobstructed. It was chilly and windy, but not unbearable. The opera house was below and the ferry terminal nearby with boats of all sizes moving everywhere. We were on a set of gradually ascending stairs and could easily walk up the arch. As we moved, Sasha pointed out land marks, such as Fort Douglas, a former prison, and the opera house. I could see another group of climbers ahead of us just as another group quickly appeared behind.

About half way up, Sasha stopped for our first photo op. She called us forward in our small groups and took a digital photo with the city as a backdrop. Then Sasha moved to the other side of the stairway and we each took another photo with the opera house behind. Her digital camera was hooked to her suit as well. From here was just a short distance to the top. The summit was 134 meters above the harbor. Sasha had us pose for a group photo while we applauded.

At the top we made our way across a wide catwalk to the west side of the arch, stopping in the middle for more photos. I attempted to strike the “Captain Morgan” pose by holding up one foot and putting my arm in front of me. Sasha said no, I had to keep both feet on the ground, three points of contact always. Oops, that was embarrassing.

On the west side of the bridge a light rain began as we descended and Sasha told us how the bridge was built. The workers on the bridge back in the 1920’s did not have the extensive protection that we had. Without any support they would run across the girders from side to side. Attaching the odd million rivets that held the girders together took even more skill. Blow torches didn’t exist in 1923 so a worker was on the top of the arch with a kiln that would heat the metal rivets white hot. That person, using tongs, would toss the rivets, one by one, to another worker in the middle of the cross girder where he would catch the rivet in a bucket. Using a gloved hand he would retrieve the rivet and place it in the hole. Sasha said not every rivet tossed found the bucket. No one knew the exact number of rivets that fell into the harbor below, but people still found them washed up on shore today.

Responding to a question, Sasha told us that only 16 people, of all the thousands who worked over nine years, lost their lives on the bridge. She also mentioned this number was misleading because the death toll included workers who were killed in the prep area on the ground while making parts for the bridge. One of those deaths was a man who hammered sheets of steel and accidentally split his thumb open with his own hammer. Rather than go the doctor’s tent and miss a day’s wages, he put his glove back on and continued to work. He died of tetanus three days later. Sasha also mentioned Paul Hogan, star of Crocodile Dundee, was a bridge painter.

Sasha pointed out Luna Park across the harbor from us. Even during the day it was lit like a Christmas tree. The tiny amusement park was a gift to the city by the bridge’s construction company for putting up with the noise and mess of such a major construction. However, nearby residents soon complained about the noise the roller coaster made and had it removed. Now the only ride visible from the top of the bridge was the giant Ferris wheel.

We approached the Southwest Pylon to descend the remaining four ladders. This time we would be climbing between two train tracks, which sped by every 15 minutes. Just as our youngest group member, the 12-year-old, began her descent, a train zoomed by. Those of us still above commented how she wasn’t fazed at all. I wasn’t sure I would be so even keeled if a train buzzed within a few feet of me. My descent was train free. Greeting me at the bottom were the same two guides who watched us go up. I had no clue how they got there.

This was the home stretch as we walked across the west catwalk. Sasha told us that to build the bridge, the government had to seize homes and businesses to make way. One of those buildings was the Harbourview Pub. While residents were quite alright with the demolishing of their homes and businesses to make way for progress, they were not so willing to part with their beloved pub. They only agreed to the seizure if the pub was moved, so brick by brick, it was torn down and rebuilt 150 meters away from its original location. Because of the move, the pub no longer had its namesake harbor view. As we passed we could clearly see the third story balcony bar where people sipped pints and ate lunch.

After squeezing through another tight space, Sasha declared us finished. Another group waiting to start watched us as we unhooked our belts from the tether to freedom. Of course, we weren’t completely done, we had to return to the prep area, but I could hear each person sigh in relief as they unhooked themselves. The climb was exhilarating, but with the weather changing from drizzle to rain, it was good to be done.

Back in the main building we still had several tasks to complete. First we had to wipe down our headsets with a disinfecting cloth before turning them in. Next we put our caps, hankies, fleece and rain jacket pouches into another bin. Sasha said these would be washed before being put back out for use by other climbers. We had to march back up to the starting room where we removed our belts. Finally we removed our attractive jumpsuits and put them in a wash bin and washed our hands again in the large sink.

After retrieving our bags from the lockers we entered a different door to the Bridge Climb gift shop. Sara, from the breathalyzer test, passed out envelopes as we entered. Inside were our certificates complete with our name and a 5x7 group photo. To get the solo photos of myself, I had to purchase them from the gift shop photo center. I just showed them my certificate and they pulled up my photos. Within minutes I had three 5x7’s and a CD I could use to show everyone the three hours I spent conquering the Sydney Harbor Bridge. What a morning, mate!

To learn more visit: Bridge Climb
Harbourview Hotel & Pub
Luna Park

Sunday, May 2, 2010

This week: Sounds

Do you hear what I hear?

When people talk about their travels, they tend to do so in one way: Visually. And that’s perfectly acceptable in such a beautiful world. However, I’d like to offer another way: Audibly. Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been through the ear canals.


I was enjoying the view while walking on a trail above White Bay on Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands. The trail separated the more family-friendly beach of the Sandcastle Hotel and the Soggy Dollar Bar from the more clothing optional beach of Ivan’s Campgrounds and Stress-free bar. The view was stunning…water every color of blue from teal to sapphire, shiny white boats of all sizes snuggled within a perfect half-moon bay reaching out on both sides. It was while taking in this view that I heard a funny noise: ploop, plop, ploop, plop followed by chink, chank, chink, chank. The sound followed the crash of a wave so it had to be below me. I peered over the edge (I was about a story-and-a-half above the water). I saw only sand so I was perplexed. I watched the next few waves come in and didn’t hear the sound again. Then finally, my ears caught it: ploop, chink, plop, chank. It was off to my right. I moved over a bit and saw the thousands of hand-sized black rocks, polished perfectly round by ions of sea waves. The rocks were only in a small part of the beach that jutted out from the middle of the bay. If I had to guess, I’d say it was less then 10 yards wide. The wet rocks looked like giant beads of onyx. The rocks were quiet, except for the crash of several waves. Then a wave came in from one side of the bay. The water swept across the rocks and suddenly, the rocks sitting on top were in motion, ploop, chink, plop, chank as they rolled down the rocks below them. It was like watching a giant Japanese pachinko machine as the black rocks zig-zagged following the trail of receding water as the wave pulled away. I waited for the sound again as a wave approached straight on and hit the rocks with force. However, no pachinko sound followed. I then realized it was only the waves that came in from an angle that pulled the rocks from the beach into the water, which meant I only heard the sound every few waves. I wished I’d had a recorder to trap the sound. It was oddly soothing and slightly silly and I wanted to hear it over and over again. Such an unusual sound, I wanted to remember it long after I was gone. Turned out I didn’t need a recorder. I can still hear those rocks.

I knew we were in for something unusual when we received our park map at the entrance to Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. I unfolded it to find our way to the camp grounds. In the lower left corner, a large white outline of an arrow with the word “wind” in white capital letters. It pointed northeast. On the right side of the map was another white arrow also with the word “wind.” It pointed southwest and was right next to the line marking Medano Pass Primitive Road, the road we would be camping on. That wind must make quite a presence in these mountains if the National Park Service felt the need to put it on the park map. The wind was a nasty physical presence when on the dunes; blowing sand up my nose and pelting me with tiny darts. However, up at the campsite, the wind turned into something else. Our campsite was in a small valley below the road and next to Medano Creek. It provided protection from the wind, but every now and then it was still able to penetrate the towering aspen trees to our campfire and bring up the flames just to remind us of how nasty it could be. The sound of it, however, was nothing like the powerful gusts we felt. Its whoosh ebbed and flowed with a smoothness, like a rocking chair. When you looked up you could see the tops of the aspens swaying back and forth, which made you want to rock with it. The sound was guttural, not overbearing, but we did have to raise our voices when talking. Sometimes the dog would not come when we called her. We didn’t know if she was pretending not to hear us or if she really couldn’t hear us. After the sun set and the stars popped out, the wind was still the dominant sound, one minute behind us, the next minute in front of us, then a gust from the side. We never knew where it was going to come from. I made the comment that it might be hard to sleep with all that racket, but not so. Upon zipping myself up in my warm sleeping bag, I fell peacefully asleep in record time thanks to that soothing whoosh outside the tent. The wind blocked out all the other nocturnal noises that would have kept me awake; leaves, nuts and pine cones falling from trees; critters scavenging around; crickets, flies and mosquitoes; the bubbling of the creek that would have made me have to pee every hour. What a sweet blissful sleep! Too bad it abruptly ended at dawn when I awoke to the sound of……..nothing. Silence. Calm, Quiet. It made me nervous. How did this crazy wind go from full force to nothing? Outside the tent, it was chilly, but the sun was slowly warming the air around me. I heard birds for the first time. It didn’t last long. Within the hour, the wind slowly picked up and by the time we had breakfast, it was back to its whisping ways. Funny, our alarm clock was the when the noise stopped. I didn’t know which sound was more intriguing: the whoosh of the wind or the silence when it stopped.

Amazing things happened where land and water meet. Off the coast of Belize, Ambergris Caye paralleled the second largest barrier reef in the world. This alone made for an attractive place, where rock met air surrounded by water, full of Technicolor fish and marine animals. This reef protected the island from the harsh Caribbean Sea. From the beaches of Ambergris Caye, the reef was on the horizon, about a ½ mile out, which made it difficult to see. The white caps formed a line that followed the horizon. The reef was the reason the waters surrounding the island were calm, the reason boats traveled easily from Mexico to Costa Rica, the reason small children played in the shallow waters without their parents worrying about them getting swept out to sea, the reason windsurfers from around the world came here to skim the surface of Chetumal Bay. All because of the calm in the lagoon that formed behind the barrier reef. About a mile away from shore, that white stripe protected us from those waves. During the busy day’s activities, I didn’t give the reef much thought, however, as we walked the beach at night, my husband heard a strange sound.

“Can you hear that?” We paused and listened. Was it thunder? No because the sound never stopped or started.

“It sounds like…traffic.” I proposed.

“Wait, that’s the reef!” my husband exclaimed.

If we could hear that sound from 1/2 mile away, just imagine what it sounded like up close. I would find out later that week on a snorkel trip. It’s loud! And violent! The reef was all chaos with wave after wave crashing into it from all directions. Yet, tucked under the western side, fish lived without being disturbed and eels floated above the coral, oblivious to the noise above. Every night before retiring to sleep, we would stand on the beach or out on the pier listening. We could just barely hear it. It was a dull roar, a white noise, a rush of air. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The sound didn’t grow loud or soft. It stayed the same frequency, the same tone, the same decibel and it didn’t stop. It was the sound of eternity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

This week: Cruz Bay, St. John, USVI


My first encounter with Thomas was by phone. I wanted to rent a car for our vacation in the Virgin Islands. It was four weeks before we would arrive, plenty of time to rent a car I thought. Sitting at my dining table with a list of rental agencies from the internet, I called the first one. I asked for a 2-door Jeep Wrangler. They didn’t have one. The second place I called didn’t have one. No Wrangler at the third place either.

“How ‘bout a Liberty then?” I asked

“No, no Liberty.”

“Well, how ‘bout a Suzuki?”

“No. You don’t get it. We have NO cars” said the rather angry voice on the phone. Not good. I called place number four, still no cars. Place number five didn’t answer. Hospitality Car Rental was number six.

“Hello, Thomas!”

“I need a car for February 24 for one week. Do you have anything???” I asked trying to hide the desperation in my voice.

“Today is your lucky day!!!” he announced in a deep baritone. “I have a regular customer from New York City. He stay inna villa dat week every year, but he jus’ called me to say he not coming.” Without even knowing what kind of car or how much, I asked to rent it.

“No problem!” I heard him shuffling papers through the phone. Thomas told me that every car on St. John was booked. I said I was finding that out the hard way. He said I was very lucky to have called when I did or I might not have found a car at all. Since we were staying on the far side of the island, no car would have been a huge inconvenience. Before he could even finish reading me the rental agreement, I rattled off our credit card number. When the transaction was finished I thanked him. He told me he was glad he could help and then he said “love you, bye” and hung up. Wait…had I heard that right?

So a major part of our vacation plans were in place and everything under control. Four weeks later, we arrived in our stopover, Atlanta. It was 8 a.m. and due to a possible snow storm our St. Thomas flight was delayed. We were stuck in Atlanta for the next six hours. Hoping to catch some sleep I had just put my feet up when my cell phone rang.
“Dis is Thomas. Dere was a problem wit your rental car.” In the airport my phone wasn’t receiving very well. His words were fading in and out, but I managed to catch two of them, tailgate and smashed.

“Oh, if it’s just the tailgate, that’s no big deal,” I said.

“Oh, nooooo ma’am,” his baritone reverberated in the phone. “Not tailgate…Totaled.” Even though I heard him clearly, I asked ‘what’ anyway. Thomas continued, “De car I had for you is totaled. Dey drove it right off de road.”

“Are the people are OK?” Remembering the steep and twisting roads from previous visits, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

“Dere were no casualties, but de car is badly damaged.”

“Soooooooo now what?” I asked

“Don’t worry. I got replacement car for you. I begged everyone until I got you a car.”

“So we have a car?” I glanced at my husband who had a concerned look on his face.

“Yes, when do you arrive here?’

“Around 7 p.m.”

“I’ll leave the car in my parking lot and the keys will be under the passenger seat,” Thomas explained. This was all very strange. St. John was a friendly, safe island, but leaving keys in an unlocked car seemed too good to be true. Confused, I told him thank you and hung up. The next ten hours wouldn’t go by fast enough.

At 6:30 p.m. we arrived at the ferry terminal in St. Thomas. While my husband purchased our tickets I bought Coronas from the extremely convenient ferry terminal bar. I breathed deeply the warm, moist air. Aaaah, humidity. The Corona would subdue my nauseous head from the airport taxi ride. We were just taking our seats when Thomas called my cell again.
“I was jus’ calling to tell you I have a car for you. It’s here in my lot wit da keys.”

“That’s great!” I said over the boat’s engine. “We just boarded the ferry. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“Oh, you on da ferry now?” I told him I could barely here him above the motor. “Den I’ll wait for you.” Although I felt bad for making him wait, I was relieved because I barely understood his thick island patois and wasn’t sure I heard his directions clearly.

When we arrived at the Cruz Bay dock, I went to find Thomas while my husband collected our luggage. I had no idea who I was looking for, black, white, young, old. A woman standing at the end of the dock held an island villa sign. She was waiting for guests. Knowing it was a small island, I asked her if she knew Thomas.

“He was standing right there,” she pointed, but there was only empty space. Then she started shouting, “Thomas! Thomas!” A man walking down the street in a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans turned around. “Thomas, this woman is looking for you.” A smile lit up the dark man’s face.
“Car Rie! I have your car!” he emphasized with a hug. My husband caught up to us. Thomas graciously grabbed our largest bag and we walked across the street and around the corner to his parking lot. The car was a Jeep Liberty 4-door, way bigger than we needed.

He once again apologized about the car we were suppose to have. Thomas said it was a complete loss and he had to call in a few favors to get this new car. It was from another agency, St. John Car Rental. Even though we were getting a larger car, he said that we would still only pay the Wrangler price. Then Thomas explained we would have to come back tomorrow and take care of the paper work with the new agency and to get a refund from him since he had charged us in advance. He also told us that we could use both his parking lot and the other rental agency’s parking lot for free anytime we were in Cruz Bay. With parking a scarce commodity here, this was a generous offer. We thanked him and shook hands. Riding in the comfy Liberty on the way to our lodging, I was finally able to relax.

The next day we saw Thomas again in his dark blue jeans a crisp white t-shirt, but the shirt looked fresh. Like most men, he probably had dozens of them. He was tall and bald with huge arms and if he had had a gold hoop earring in one ear, he could have been a black Mr. Clean. We didn’t notice it in the dark last night, but his parking lot was also a smoothie stand, so we ordered a banana, strawberry and mango smoothie. He used fresh fruit that had been stacked at his order window. We ordered a small, but he gave us a medium for the small price. Then we sat next to his parking lot under a large canvas with a few plastic tables and chairs. The thick and rich smoothie could have been a meal by itself. Thomas came out of his stand to sit with us. Placing his cell phone on the table for easy access, he explained why getting a rental car was so difficult.

St. John was a tiny island. There were only two public roads: Northshore that followed the coastline went to all the beaches and Centerline, which cut over the middle to the island’s eastside. These roads were narrow and vertical. And for no good reason anyone could give us, they drove on the left side of the road in right-sided automobiles. During high season, these roads were packed with rental cars, taxis and scooters. My husband then mentioned all the construction trucks that were trying to keep up with new development. On top of that, Thomas added, the daily car barge was bringing over rental cars from St. Thomas. With accidents a frequent and sometimes deadly occurrence, something had to give.

“A few years ago, de government banned rental cars from St. Thomas coming over here,” he told us. “Now we have less traffic, which is wonderful. However, dey keep building more and more hotel rooms. Dere are twice as many people, but de same number of cars. Dat is why it so difficult to find a car. You have to start six months in advance.” My eyes bugged wide as I slurped my smoothie.

“Crazy,” Thomas slumped back in his chair. “Tis great for my business, so I don’t complain, but also ridiculous, you know? Lemmie get dat refund for you,” He said as he stood up from his chair. We thanked him for his hard work in getting our car and said we would stop by again.

The next afternoon we returned to Cruz Bay after a morning of snorkeling. We parked our car in Thomas’ lot and then ordered two more banana, strawberry and mango smoothies. He asked us if we wanted a shot of rum in them, but we declined because happy hour at Woody’s was less than an hour away. After getting our liquid fruit we sat in the plastic chairs and enjoyed the shade on a hot Caribbean day. It was cruise ship day on St. Thomas and that meant day-trippers, dozens of them roaming around town and buzzing by on scooters. We could distinguish them by their backpacks and large tote bags stuffed with beach towels. A family came up to Thomas’ stand and bought some smoothies. Thomas greeted each family member individually with a “Good afternoon. How are you today?” While the blender whirled, he would ask them where they were from and what they liked most about St. John. After handing them their drinks, he would tell them to enjoy their stay. Behind the family was a young couple and he greeted them the same way. They told Thomas they were from Seattle, which caught our attention because we rarely met anyone west of the Mississippi on St. John. We conversed with them while Thomas made their smoothies. We invited them to sit with us, but they had to get to the return ferry. With a break in customers, Thomas came outside to hang with us. He had a package in his right hand wrapped in foil. Turned out to be his lunch, roast chicken and rice. It smelled delicious, but the smoothie was quickly filling me up. Thomas asked how we were doing, but before we could answer, more people walked up to the window. We decided not to bother him so we waved goodbye and said we’d be back tomorrow.

On Friday morning, we arrived at Thomas’ smoothie stand again. Thomas was outside at the tables with stacks of fruit boxes - bananas, oranges, mangos. A beautiful brown-skinned woman handed him a box of straws and said she would see him later. She was already chatting on a cell phone as she got her blue SUV parked in the street next to the stand and drove away. She was as tall as Thomas, had shoulder-length curly brown hair with blonde tips and perfectly arched eye brows. Despite the humidity she wore pastel make up on her eyes and cheeks, but what really blew me away were the tight blue jeans and high heels she wore. This woman was dressed to the nines and it wasn’t even noon yet. Sadly I looked at my own attire: gym shorts and tank top, hair pulled into a pony tail. The only thing on my face was sun screen. I couldn’t even fathom wearing denim jeans in this heat and the humidity would sweat make up right off. Thomas smiled as he shook my husband’s hand.

“Dat was my wife. I needed some supplies.” My husband told Thomas he “done good” in the wife department and he flashed us that all-knowing smile. He told us about his family. He was born and raised on St. John while his wife was originally from St. Croix. They had three sons and the oldest was getting ready to go to college. He was considering the University of Minnesota, which we thought odd; an island boy who had never seen snow before going to Minnesota. Thomas, however, had a different view of higher education. Although proud his son was going to college, Thomas didn’t think it was all that necessary.

“I know doctors, teachers, I even know a judge...deese are my classmates who went to college and dey make no money. I never go to college and make lots of money. Education is a good ting, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Here in school, dey teach you science and math, but dey don’t teach you how to balance a checkbook or how to invest your money. People do such foolish tings wit deir money. Me, I teach my sons how to handle money so dey know what to do.” Thomas pointed his index finger to the table. “It tis the business man dat make money here (St. John), not doctors and lawyers.”

My husband asked Thomas if he made all his money from rental cars. Thomas said no, it was actually from two apartment buildings in Cruz Bay that he owned and collected rent from. However, the smoothie stand and rental cars were his first businesses which gave him the capital to invest in the buildings. Owning property on an expensive Caribbean island was quite impressive and we asked him why he didn’t just kick back and let the rent checks roll in. He told us he wouldn’t be as successful if he did that.

“I have to work all de time. I have a family to take care of, besides if you want to live long time and make lots of money, you must keep working.” We laughed because we were on vacation, not working. Thomas then asked us if we wanted our usual smoothie. That was Thomas, always working, always making money.

We sat in the shade of the canvas enjoying our smoothies while the rest of Cruz Bay worked. Pick up trucks with construction company names on the doors drove by. Thomas waved at a passing police car. The mail truck stopped with Thomas’ mail. A waitress we knew from Woody’s walked by. Thomas asked her what she was doing away from the bar. She said they needed more napkins and headed to the convenience store across the street. After unloading his fruit inside the stand, Thomas came back out to sit with us. He asked us what we liked about St. John.
“Meeting people like you,” my husband replied. “Bet you can tell us a great place to have lunch.”
He laughed. “De Fish Trap has excellent food. De chef is a friend of mine. Remember dat chicken I had yesterday? Dat was ‘im. You tell ‘im I send you; he make you de best meal for a good price.” Having finished our smoothies and knowing Thomas had to work, we said goodbye.
A few days later we returned to Cruz Bay to return the rental car. After settling our bill with St. John Car Rental, we walked the three blocks to Thomas’ stand and had what would be our last smoothies of the vacation. It was another cruise ship day and there was a line when we arrived. No problem, we had all afternoon. We ordered our “usual,” size medium. Thomas handed us two larges and refused us when we tried to give him full price. We told Thomas we had returned the Jeep and thanked him again for all the trouble he took to get it for us.

In his island accent he said, “No problem mon.”

Thomas did not want his photo taken, but I did get one of the fruit stand. Also included is a photo of the huge rental car. Check out these Cruz Bay websites:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

This Week: Please Donate Blood

On March 9, 2010, I was able to do something I haven't been able to do for a year. I donated blood. Last March Colorado's Bonfils Blood Center deferred me from giving blood for a whole year because I had spent a week in the Central American country of Belize. I knew travel abroad can be a concern for blood agencies, however, I learned the hard way just how strict those rules were. I remained patient and with the year over I can once again donate needed pints of blood.

Donating blood is one of the simplest, yet most important things that a person can donate. I have been donating blood since I was first eligible at age 17. I don't know the exact amount since I have worked with three different blood agencies over the years, but estimate I have donated at least eight gallons of blood.

Donating blood takes about an hour for most people. Upon arriving you check in with the attendant. This person keeps track of when you last donated and gives you a questionnaire. Some of the information they ask of you is to list all foreign countries you have visited in the last three years, what medications you are taking and what illnesses you have had. After filling out the form a nurse takes you into a small, but private screen room where he or she takes your temperature, blood pressure and pricks your finger to do a hematocrit (red blood cell) test. They also review your form to make sure you didn't miss anything. If you are accepted then you wait for the first available chair. Let the bloodletting begin!

The phlebotomist (person who draws blood) first sterilizes your arm with iodine, a dark yellow liquid on a large q-tip. Then an additional sterilizing agent is applied by a small sponge. The phlebotomist then hands you a small vinyl ball and asks you to squeeze it several time so your vein will appear. They refer to it as "popping" the vein. The phlebotomist then marks the vein with a marker or by applying a pressure mark with a fingernail or plastic tube. Once the vein is marked, the blood press cuff (sphygmomanometer) is put on your upper arm and tightened. This fills the vein making it even easier to see and preps it for the needle. At this point, you are ready for the stick. They use a large needle so the phlebotomist will give you the option to look away if you want. Yes, you can feel the needle go in, but once set, that feeling goes away. Sometimes it stings, but only briefly. Once the needle is inserted and the blood flowing, the phlebotomist tapes the needle down with a sterile cloth to keep it in place.

There is a ten minute time limit for blood donation. Most people can fill a pint in less than ten minutes, however, I am a slow bleeder. The cure for this is to drink lots of water prior to donating. Whether you fill up the bag or not, the phlebotomist will stop at ten minutes so you don't have to sit there for too long.

I have been deferred from donating three times. Once was because my blood pressure was too low, however, I blame the Broncos football team for that. It was during the Broncos Blood Drive back in 1999. Thousands of people were there so I had over an hour wait just to get to the pre-screening area. I had fallen asleep while waiting so my blood pressure was at sleeping level by the time they got around to me. I now make my own appointments with the Bonfils center in my neighborhood. The second time was because my iron levels (hematocrit) were too low - by only one point!!! That shows how strict they are. Then I had the deferral last year from my trip abroad. I don't consider myself to be an exotic traveler so I was quite surprised to discover Belize was on the list. (It is not listed on their website, but on a larger list kept at the center.) I was told that malaria is prevalent in many Central American countries, such as Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua. While rare to develop it in Belize, it is all the same geographical area, so Bonfils erred on the side of caution. Other places on the deferred list are most African countries, Haiti, Indonesia, Vietnam and, surprisingly, several locations in Mexico. I was also surprised to discover that extended travel in Europe can also lead to deferral, but they determine that on an individual basis. Extenuating factors include specific locations, such as rural England (remember Mad Cow disease?) and whether you had medical treatments while there.

Creepy as it sounds, I enjoy donating blood. I find it quite relaxing. You get to put your feet up and nurses are at your beck and call. Cold? Ask for a blanket. Thirsty? Ask for bottle water or juice. Some places you can watch TV. There have been several occasions when I have almost fallen asleep during the procedure. Unfortunately, the nurses won't let you fall asleep because you have to keep squeezing the ball to keep the blood flowing. Then afterwards, they give you cookies. How cool is that?

I currently donate blood to Bonfils Blood Center in Colorado. They supply up to 80% of the blood used in Colorado's hospitals, however, less than 4% of Colorado's population participates. There are many ways that blood is used and one pint of blood can help up to three people. In times of need, Bonfils can supply blood to out-state agencies. They supplied blood to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and to New York after 9/11. They even supply blood to the US Military so my blood could be going to help the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.*

Little has changed in the procedure for drawing blood in all the years I have participated, however, the rules and restrictions for who can and cannot donate have changed greatly. HIV was little known when I started and global travel wasn't as common back then as it is now. The basic requirements* are:
  • Must be 18 years old (16 or 17 with parental consent)
  • Weigh at least 110 pounds
  • Be in good health with no history of hepatitis or HIV/AIDS
  • Been at least 56 days since your last donation

Here are some suggestions if you are interested in donating blood: 1) Make an appointment rather than attend a crowded blood drive; you can always tell the attendant if you are donating for a specific organization; 2) Drink plenty of liquids, but not caffeine, before you go; 3) Relax!

People have told me they want to donate blood, but then find excuses not to. Some say it takes too long, but if you follow my suggestions above, it won't take more than an hour. Some people complain that it hurts. Please! I've had paper cuts that hurt worse. Stop making excuses and do something that will immediately benefit your friends and neighbors. Donate blood today.

You can find out more information and even make appointments at the Bonfils Blood Center website. For those of you outside of Colorado, check the American Red Cross to learn more about blood donation in your area.

*Information from Bonfils website.