Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Living and Diving Aboard Juliet

   I'm safely home sweet home in rural East Texas for the winter. It's been seven plus months on my maiden voyage in La Lair. I've traveled 13,000 miles of USA and Canadian roads since leaving Texas last May.

     The grand finale of my maiden voyage however wasn't in La Lair but in Juliet, a 107-foot sailboat with three masts and a jib.

     I boarded Juliet at Miami's busy, very retail-ish Bayside Marketplace which is Florida‘s main jumping on/off place for big and little boats, both passenger and commercial boats.

      Twelve SCUBA divers ranging from ages 21 to 69 boarded Juliet; our home-bases ranged from Maine to Texas, including Kansas and Missouri. We were an interesting hodgepodge; none of us was shy! I was glad Juliet promptly motored away from the dock at Miami. Had no desire to spend time or money with thousands of cruise customers at the retail-ish Bayside Marketplace. Pictured below are Chef Anna and Boatswain Jimmy, two of the five crew.

      When we left the very busy Bayside Marketplace, we passed cargo carriers loading and unloading their goods. That's Captain Donnie, in photo below. He chatted with us passengers about the upcoming and notoriously rough crossing of the Florida Straits.

     First Mate Nate motored the boat out of Miami. He explained all the boat's amenities. This sailboat has electric push-button toilets, unlike my last live-aboard about seven years ago when we pumped the toilets and took salt-water showers. Juliet also has a desalination system for plenty of fresh-water hot showers. First Mate Nate called me "Sweetie" for ten days (a benefit of being an old lady), and of course he was my favorite man! 

       We did an all-night rough crossing of the Florida Straits, to arrive at our dive spot the next morning in the Bahamas. I didn't hang around on the upper deck to count, but my guess is about seven passengers got sick all night. My roommate Pam got sick several times all evening, so I wisely gave her the bottom bunk.

     During the next nine days, we dived about three times daily at different reef systems during the day. There were a few night dives, too, but I'm not a night diver. One afternoon, we sailed with all four sails up, that was exciting! Captain Donnie invited me to take the wheel for about five minutes while we sailed. 

     We had to continually motor southeast while we slept at night to reach our dive spot each morning and ultimately our destination, the Turks (just north of Haiti). The route is 636 miles! I plotted our route with my SPOT unit.

     Each dive begins with a briefing from Dive Master Jessica. She calls us around the table on the upper deck and with her eraseable whiteboard, draws a picture of what to expect - such as low and high profile reefs, walls, depths, arrangements of reefs, currents, direction of buoy line. Since really deep dives are short in duration (divers use more air during deep dives near 100 feet), it's good to have a plan on how to see everything with just one tank of air before jumping in. Each dive spot has a name, similar to kayakers and paddlers naming white water rapids. Photo below is a description of the reef named "Born Again" (probably revived itself after hurricane damage). Blue numbers in circles are depths. Pink arrows show current, green squiggly lines show where she saw some garden eels, and orange shows walls and reefs.

     After we're briefed, we "suit up" and get ready to jump in. Since I was the oldest lady (64), the crew put my BCD station (see right-side arrow) closer to the jump-off platform (see left-side arrow). That way, I wouldn't need to walk too far with a 35 pound tank and a 12-pound weight-belt with 24-inch flippers on my feet. Suiting up with fifty pounds of gear and walking around a rocking, swaying boat is the hardest part of diving! Once you jump in, everything feels comfy and weightless.

     Tom took this photo of me and dive buddy Matt as we descended on a dive; looks like I'm clearing my mask or equalizing.

     Chef Anna had the hardest job keeping sixteen adults well-fed and happy. She grilled pork and steaks for three of the nine evenings on-board.

Meals were served family style . . .  we were a rambunctious group at the supper table!

     After supper, my favorite lounge chair was the Captains Throne with a glass of wine. Sometimes I played chess with Kendrick, and sometimes we divers would talk and drink into the night about our lives back home.

One afternoon, a dense beaked whale swam next to us for about five minutes.

Then it said "Au'voir my friends" and gently slipped below the surface.

One afternoon, a few of us took La Dinguette to a sandbar.

This lighthouse was nearby the sandbar . . . .

     One afternoon, we motored to Atlantis in the Bahamas. At their very swanky dock, we tied up with several multi-million dollar yatchs! We met a beautiful lady captain who was hired to sail a rich couple's sailboat from Rhode Island. We invited her to supper as she was lonely; a private captain's life seems glamourous, but she missed her friends and family.

     I'm not a resort-person, so I didn't venture to town. I just walked around the dock to admire all the yatchs, and had a chuckle at the name of the swankiest yatch, named "Incognito".

        Our five crew members were a good team. Here, First Mate Nate looks for the underwater buoy line and picks it up with the hook, Dive Master Jessica signals directions to Captain Donnie who's steering at the helm, and Boatswain Jimmy gets ready to hang over the side of the boat to tie the lines when First Mate Nate snatches the line.

     So where are my underwater photos? My philosophy is, if you want to see spectacular undersea reefs and fish, watch The Discovery Channel or go diving yourself! Quite a few divers invest in expensive cameras and show-off their undersea reef photos, but to be honest with you, The Discovery Channel's films are better. When I dive, I'm not there to fuss with a camera, I'm there to marvel at the beautiful other world that few of us get to see. Photos can't capture my awe at being a part of a school of fish, many will willingly let me swim with them. Yes, there were a couple of reef sharks. And yes, there was a loggerhead turtle with an immense head! as big as an adult's head! And yes, there was a smaller turtle that had been spooked by us and swam amazingly FAST! But better than all the fish is the hard and soft coral on the amazing and sometimes humongous shapes of reefs with millions of different kinds of critters, plants and minuscule colorful surprises everywhere! And all those experiences will be a vivid memory for my lifetime. No tiny photo is going to capture my sense of wonder and excitement of being in a fluid world with no sky and no land.

     My wish is to encourage folks to get certified to go diving themselves. My roommate Pam is 60 years old and she recently got certified; it was on her bucket list.

     At the end of our wonderful ten-day adventure, we took La Dinguette to Providenciales, the Turks airport. I flew back to Miami with a plane load of Cuban-Americans who had visited Cuba via Providenciales.

     La Lair was parked at the Hilton Garden Inn for ten days which is very close to the Miami International Airport. Their price (third party broker) is cheaper than the regular secured longterm airport parking businesses. Happy to report that the hotel's free shuttle service was prompt and La Lair wasn't broken into.

     I love sea stories by the way. The best is Endurance, Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Highly recommend it, you won't be able to put it down!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

From BWI to MIA by Land

     I may be a footloose independent traveler who prefers rural areas, but it was hard to leave the emotional comfort and amenities of my loving sister and brother-in-law’s place near BWI (Baltimore Washington International Airport). Their subdivision borders a nature trail of large old trees overlooking wetlands full of ducks and geese. A short drive away is an indoor swimming pool heated to 83 degrees; a lap-swimmer's nirvana. And on my way home from the pool, I'd stop at a wonderfully unique Mexican indoor grocery store that resembles a crowded Spanish-speaking outdoor market. I loved that store! During my month-long visit, I also spent time with my parents who live in assisted memory care, visited briefly with good friends Grace and Ron from Pennsylvania, and met Amanda, my nephew Bill's fiancee.

  But my next adventure was beckoning me. In two weeks time, I had to be at MIA (Miami International Airport), will explain further on down. On the secondary roads south, I saw thousands of acres of cotton crops. In high school, we all read history books about slaves picking cotton in the South during the Colonial period, but I didn’t realize it was still a major crop in the South. Everywhere was acres of plump soon-to-be-harvested or already-harvested cotton from North Carolina to Florida. 

     The most interesting story about my travels south however, is about two of our Presidents, Washington and Jefferson. I stopped at Mount Vernon, home of our first president George Washington. The day I stopped was special because there were volunteer horseback riders demonstrating Washington’s favorite sport – a fox hunt with hounds.

     Although I had toured Mount Vernon eons ago when I was a teenager, none of it soaked into my pea-size brain back then. What I do remember is that Mount Vernon looks like a palatial home befitting a President of the United States.

     While I waited for “my group mansion tour”, I walked around the impressive farm and lawn overlooking the Potomac River. No independent footloose tourists are permitted inside the mansion, each visitor picks a tour time, and reservations are highly recommended.

     Once my group tour began, we were told "no chewing gum, no food or beverages, and no photographs allowed inside Washington’s home." This very informative sign (see photograph below) greeted us at the beginning of the mansion tour. 

     When I studied the exterior of Mount Vernon, I was amazed. The “grandeur” of Mount Vernon is all an illusion made with Southern pine trees. It sure looks like stone and masonry! I suspect the illusion, however, was high maintenance. Part of the varnish, paint and sand mixture breaks apart eventually. Here's the frame of a door . . . .

     Washington’s preference for illusions also extended to the inside of Mount Vernon. Inside, the solid wood doors and solid wood wall panels are the best grainy cuts of Southern pine, stained to look like red oak and it's a beautiful well-done illusion! And although the roof looks like red clay tiles, it’s red stained cypress wood! 

      Inside Mount Vernon, the room sizes are very small in comparison to new homes today. The tour guide told us that the Washingtons made-do with interchanging the dining room and parlor depending on the number of guests and relatives spending meals and nights at Mount Vernon. Washington’s “mansion” is far from grandiose, it was quite homey and humble. Even his every-day carriage was humble, just a chair affixed on a slanted board.

     Washington wasn’t a poor man who had to economize. He married a wealthy widow Martha, and he acquired several neighboring farms near Mount Vernon, totaling about 8,000 acres of farmland and forest. He planted many trees, including several Tulip Poplar trees like this one which was planted about 1766. I asked a nearby little girl (with her parent’s permission) to stand in front of the tree to show a size perspective.

     On my travels south, I also stopped at Monticello, which was President Thomas Jefferson’s home. I didn’t tour the mansion (arrived too late for a tour time slot) but I watched their promotional film about Jefferson's mansion. Unlike George Washington who didn’t travel overseas, Jefferson spent many years in France, Spain and England as an American ambassador of sorts and Secretary of the State under Washington's presidency. Jefferson circulated among the opulence of castles and cathedrals made of stone, marble and masonry materials in the Roman and Greek architectural styles. So when Jefferson returned home to Monticello, his humble little abode, he began re-designing and re-building to reflect the more impressive architecture of the Italians and Greeks. As a result, Monticello has more grandeur than Mount Vernon.

     Continuing further south and arriving to Satellite Beach, Florida, I spent a night in the driveway of fellow Boondockers. This service is a great service supported entirely by us travelers. I've spent three nights with Boondockers, and each host is very welcoming and interesting. At Satellite Beach, the host was a chess player and creative cook like myself, and so we got along instantly. They also filled my water tank! It was pleasant spending a night along the very breezy Atlantic Ocean (red arrow points to surfer). 

     At Palm Bay, Florida, I stopped at a library to use WiFi and to my surprise, the library adjoined a wildlife sanctuary. I walked almost two miles of boardwalk at this wonderful gem in the rough.

      It was a peaceful, scenic place to walk a couple of hours in solitude.

     In about 30 hours, I'll be boarding a 100-foot sailboat for the Turks and then fly back to MIA to pick up LaLair from the long-term parking lot. If you're not familiar with SCUBA dive tours, here's my analysis. There are basically two methods. You can spend ten days in luxury at a resort with a regular bed, television, Internet, long hot showers, and walk to the dock to meet a boat every day, or you can stay and sleep on a berth in a boat that rocks for ten days (totally losing your land legs), limit your salt-water showers to three minutes and fresh water rinse to one minute, pump the toilet for one minute to flush, no Internet and no television, and dive about four or five times daily at a different reef each time, each day. Plus you can talk with the chef while he’s/she’s cooking in the galley, and help stir the pot.

      The thought crossed my mind, who I’d prefer to talk and dive with on that boat for ten days, Jefferson or Washington? I think Washington would be the better dive buddy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

One Day in Our Capitol and One Day in Baltimore

     Washington D.C. has millions of visitors and federal government employees that congest the streets and highways. Yesterday, my sister and her hubby and I joined the crowds. And like millions of other wise folks, we left our vehicles behind and took public mass transportation to the city.

     Fortunately, my sister worked and lived in the D.C. area for over 30 years so she was my free guide. For folks with no connections to help them, I'd highly recommend hiring a guide to make this visit worthwhile. It can be overwhelming; planning a visit myself would be a very steep learning curve for me.

     The commuter train ride to D.C. offered a glimpse in the number of new communities springing up near the train tracks. Mass housing, mostly brand new townhomes where trees weren't worth keeping, stretch as far as the eye can see, on a landscape that had been completely bulldozed for construction. All I could think about was the salaries of all these new federal government employees and support services for those employees who were getting cost of living wage increases each year for just living in the D.C. area. Do all these new federal jobs require living near the capitol?

     I put my pessimism about our country's future aside and decided to enjoy the ride. When we reached Union Station, it looked modern and impressive, despite the history of this train station when in 1953 a massive locomotive crashed under this area photographed below.

     In 1981, Union Station was a moldy mess, destined for destruction until Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole saved it with $70 million restoration funds.

    Other blog writers have done a much better description of their visit to our capitol than I could ever write or photograph. Click here for one of those blogs. Breezing through D.C. in one day like I did is definitely NOT the way to appreciate the magnitude of our capitol. And so, my only hope here is to whet your appetite to visit someday, and perhaps learn how to make the visit worth your time and expense. But wherever you come from, you'll not regret taking a commuter train and once in the city, boarding the cheap "Circulator" bus (50 cents for seniors, one dollar for others) which circles all the important landmarks.

     My sister and I both guffawed at these two women wearing high heels in the photo below . . . . they're probably employees and not visitors. Visitors wear sensible comfortable shoes to walk miles and miles and miles. My sis, brother-in-law and I probably walked about seven or eight miles, plus alot of standing. I wore my lumbar-support for the day. Also notice the heavy-duty "stop gate" in the photo? Washington D.C. has alot of experience with gate crashers; roadblocks are now heavy iron, electronically controlled.

     Our first stop was the Supreme Court. The line in the photo below is folks waiting for the 10 AM entrance to the oral arguments for November 9, first come, first served. I would have liked to listen-in for about five minutes, but the wait would have required standing for another hour and I suspect seats would be filled-up by the time I got there.

     So we contented ourselves with a limited walk-through. I leaned in on a velvet rope to take a photo of this staircase. I'm not sure who's allowed to use the stairway. The construction of this bronze and marble stairway is fascinating.  It was custom cut, assembled and then dis-assembled to be shipped to Washington D.C. to be put together again. Each step is anchored into the marble wall on one end, and rests on the step below the other, like a twisted arch.

     Our next stop was the Congress building known as "Capitol Hill". But it was being restored, so my photographs depict very little.

     Scaffolding was also inside with a huge cloth covering most of the rotunda.

    I was a bit dismayed. But fortunately the restoration project was explained, and I took heart. The years of work (projected to last another two years) to repair cracks in the cast iron rotunda is very fascinating. There's much manual labor involved. Last summer, Chef Renauld taught me how to tap metal holes for threading screws in my van; it's tedious and exacting work just to do one hole. The same tedious work is being done on the rotunda, so I can appreciate the magnitude of this restoration project.

     Visitors to "Capitol Hill" are herded in groups; lots of folks, even on a Monday in mid-November when it's a slow time of the year. Everyone's given a headset to follow their group leader who "informs" us about the history of the building. Unfortunately, the group leader didn't offer any more information than good reading material would offer. I suggest reading about Capitol Hill before you get there, and skip the group tour to just go it alone.

     During the herding, I noticed engravers didn't waste any time installing Paul Ryan's new job title. Someday I will return to "Capitol Hill" to see a completely restored rotunda and spend more days exploring without a group tour.

     The National Air and Space Museum is a favorite among visitors. This jet broke the speed record; the North American X-15 which reached 4,534 mph in 1967 when I was in high school! I find that amazing.

      And when my 91-year-old father was a toddler, Charles Lindbergh flew this plane with no front window around the world. As the often-repeated story goes, my father's older brothers, like many other young boys who were awed by Lindbergh, decided to build their own plane with a motorcycle engine. My grandmother wisely removed my then toddler-father from the field where his older brothers were taking-off and then crashed immediately. No one was severely hurt.

     The Wright Brothers' plane was re-fitted with new cloth, but the actual struts, wires and engine are the original plane that flew over Kitty Hawk in 1903. I didn't realize that Orville laid on his tummy and steered with his elbows resting on the cloth.

     We also visited briefly the Library of Congress. I took this blurry photo on the third floor behind acrylic barriers. Very few people are allowed in the actual library.

     It's a huge building with impressive architecture. 

     We also made a quick stop at the Washington Monument, and in the distance I saw the Lincoln Monument and the Vietnam Wall, and to the north, the White House. There's just too much to see and do! My blog does D.C. no justice; will definitely visit again with a plan, my walking shoes and lumbar-support of course.

     Guess you can tell I'm not a lover of cities. . . . . the nearby Patapsco Valley State Park is a prettier place to walk.

     And the historic city of Baltimore is also a worthwhile visit.  The recent race riots because of Freddie Gray's murder by police officers gave this city a bad name recently, but when I visited downtown and the Inner Harbor last week, I enjoyed it tremendously. Baltimore has "Charm City Circulator" which are 30 free city busses that travel four loops in the city, very impressive! There are the orange, purple, green and banner routes, and the longest wait time is 15 minutes. Folks could spend all day getting off and on these busses to visit various places. 

     When my sister, brother-in-law and I were there, there was a visiting historic tall ship from Norway, built in 1917. They had just arrived the week before, and were enroute to Norfolk in a few days, then back home.

     A newspaper article about this tall ship's entrance to Baltimore's Inner Harbor is good reading . . . . . click here.

We toured the main deck of this ship; tours were free.

     The Inner Harbor is prime real estate. In fact, it's easy to fall in love with the peaceful comings and goings on the water.

     I even entertained the fantasy idea of living here when I'm too old to travel. These townhomes in the photo below are built on piers over the water overlooking the Inner Harbor; they include a garage (accessible on the other side). At 4,000 square feet or so, they sell for about $825,000 and up.  Docking your boat nearby is extra.

This is the view of the Inner Harbor from near Federal Hill, a swanky historic neighborhood. The red arrow points to where the Norwegian tall ship is docked.

     It was a fun day in Baltimore which included Greek food at a Greek Festival. I splurged and had fresh raw oysters. We ended the day with a ride on the Merry Go Round with pretty horses; the adults on our ride outnumbered the kids. Proof that the inner-child in adults is alive and well. We just can't resist happy organ music, fun flashy lights and those beautiful horses