Friday, June 27, 2008

Household Appliances Hinder Recovery

While we were in St. Maarten, I fractured my wrist. Our building was set up with condo balconies jutting out from one side, and open corridors along the other. You climb an outside stairway, and walk along the corridor to reach the door to your unit. The corridors are open on one side, exposing them to the weather. But because they are considered part of the building, they are tiled in glossy white tile.

The tile looks great in clear weather, but when it rains, the tile gets wet. And when it's wet, it's as slick as ice.

My daughter and I left the unit to visit the swimming pool right after a downpour. I gingerly walked from the doorway to the staircase, edged down the stairs one by one, set my foot onto the tile at the bottom of the stair, and hit the ground like a bag of wet cement.

My daughter stood there with her mouth open as I groaned and rolled to my knees. Somehow I don't think she's ever going to become one of those heroic individuals who leaps into action in an emergency.

After a minute or so, I stood up, none the worse for wear (I thought) and we hung out at the pool for the afternoon. I had a minor nagging pain in my wrist, like a sprain. It didn't get better all week, and it didn't get better once I got home. So I went to the doctor, had X-rays taken, and sure enough, it's fractured. The injury is very minor, so the doctor gave me one of those Carpal Tunnel Syndrome wrist braces that fastens with Velcro, and told me to wear it for 4 weeks, taking it off to sleep and shower. When I'm wearing it, I have no pain, and it's only a minor inconvenience.

There's only one thing that could be a problem, and that's if I re-injure it, which is very unlikely while I'm wearing the brace.

Yesterday, I was getting dressed after my shower, and of course, I didn't have the brace on my wrist. I was watching TV, absentmindedly putting on a shirt. I put my left arm in, and slung the shirt around my back. As I slipped my right arm through the armhole, I stretched it up into the air, right into the whirling blades of the ceiling fan. Damn, that hurt. Looks like I might wearing this brace for more than 4 weeks.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Prickly Pear

Years ago, before our daughter was born, my wife and I took a trip to the Caribbean. We had a disagreement over exactly where we should go. She wanted to go to Anguilla, which is just a large sandbar, 16 miles long by 3 miles wide. I had never been to the Caribbean before, and I was concerned about unfamiliar dangers, such as hurricanes, shark attacks and dysentery. I didn't want to go anywhere that was too small to have its own hospital. So we compromised, and went to Antigua instead. It was a great trip, full of memories, but of course, my wife harbored a deep resentment, feeling that somehow I "owed" her a trip to Anguilla.

While in St. Maarten, she discovered that there are snorkeling tours to Anguilla, operated by a company at our hotel. But we waited too long to make a reservation, and they were full. So we hunted around for another tour operator, and found one that operates out of a little waterfront barbecue joint down the road. Unfortunately, they weren't going to Anguilla, but to a small, uninhabited island called Prickly Pear. Because Prickly Pear belongs to Anguilla, we were required to bring our passports. And technically, I'm off the hook for the trip to Anguilla.

The boat is a 60-foot sailing catamaran called the "Bluebeard." It has a large Heineken logo prominently displayed on the hull. The captain told us that Heineken pays for the sail (which also bears the logo), gives them a stipend for gas every year, and lots of free Heineken. In exchange, they ferry bigwigs around during the Heineken Regatta every year. Here's the sail:


They ferried 17 passengers to the boat in an inflatable dinghy, and the captain took us out of Simpson Bay under engine power. We rounded the tip of St. Maarten, and all of the men on board were conscripted by the captain to help hoist the mainsail, which is hard work. I might have been annoyed by this, but the trip included free drinks. The crew raised the jib, and we were off, skimming over the deep blue ocean. It was breezy and warm, and completely delightful, as long as you didn't suffer from seasickness, as this woman did:


My daughter has been frustrated the entire trip because her cell phone doesn't get a clear signal at the resort. To her delight, she discovered that once we were out of Simpson Bay, she was finally able to send and receive text messages, which is how she spent the entire trip.

Meanwhile, I familiarized myself with the industrial nightmare known as a marine toilet:



The crew consisted of a captain and three deckhands, Rydeck, Ingrid and Josef. The deckhands handled the sails, the anchor and the dinghy, which occupied about 1/8 of their time. The rest of the time they took drink orders, and they happily spent most of the trip making rum-and-cokes and tequila sunrises for the increasingly relaxed passengers.


Ingrid is from Tanganyika in Africa. Her husband is a professsional sailboat racer (who knew there was such a profession?).

Josef is from the Czech Republic. He has a degree in Mathematics and Chemistry, but decided to see the world before he settled down to teach. While travelling through Europe, he met a guy who owned a sailboat and was sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, so he hitched a ride as a crew member. He moved around the Caribbean for a couple of years, including a memborable stint on the island of Dominica, where he lived for 3 months on $40. "I spent most of it on cigarettes," he admitted. "It's like paradise," he said. "You reach up and pick fruit from the trees, or you dig up a root, you make a fire, and you eat. The people are happy to meet you wherever you go, and will invite you to stay with them." He's thinking of Central America next. I envied his footloose, casual approach to life. Of course, my father would have called him a "bum."

Eventually, we arrived at Prickly Pear, a tiny little coral island with a perfect white sandy beach.


The captain dropped anchor, and everyone got into the water to snorkle along the reef that protects the beach.


The water was as clear as vodka. On shore, the captain rang a bell to call us to lunch, which had been prepared for us in a tiny restaurant operated by an Anguillan man and his wife, who service the boatloads of tourists who come here every day. My daughter was captivated by the little yellow-bellied finches that ate rice right out of her hand.


Afterwards, everyone sunned themselves on the deserted beach.


Sadly, we had to leave, and everyone got on board for the return trip. Rydeck dropped a fishing line in the water, trolling a lure. Within 15 minutes, the reel started squealing, and he reeled in this Spanish Mackerel:


We rounded the point of Anguilla (those mountains in the background are St. Maarten), and sailed along the highly-developed coast of St. Maarten, followed by black-headed gulls looking for a handout.



Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moobs, Crabs and Free Beer

We went on a little shopping trip to Philipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten. A cruise ship was in port, so all of the shops were open (one of the shopkeepers told us that the shops don't even open if there's no ship in port).


Front Street is composed of wall-to-wall jewlery shops, selling diamonds, emeralds and Rolex watches, which cost thousands of dollars. On the side streets, you could buy t-shirts, beachwear and fake Rolex watches, which cost 25 dollars.

I was amused by all of the jewelery stores, in furious competition with each other. They were staffed by professional salespeople, all wearing suits and ties. All I could think about was how much it must suck to live in a tropical paradise and have to wear a tie to work.



We entered one knick-knack shop on a side street, and a salesperson approached me while my wife picked through the merchandise. "May I help you, sir?" she asked. "No thanks, I'm waiting for my wife," I replied. "Can I get you something to drink? she asked. "Water? Coca-cola? Heineken?" I was taken aback, thinking it was some kind of retailing trap. I declined, and eventually, we returned to our resort, and decided to cool off at the beach.

On the beach at our resort, there's a small thatch-roofed bar staffed by laid-back islanders. They're cool and friendly. I walked across the hot sand at one point, and put my Visa card on the bar. "We don't take credit cards, mon," he told me. "But if you want a beer, I'll give you one."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing, but he reached into the cooler and handed me an ice-cold Presidente. I stammered my thanks, and headed back to my wife, unable to imagine what kind of heaven I must be in, with uncrowded, clean beaches, clear water and free beer.


While sipping the beer, I noticed a guy in his sixties walking down to the water. He had the largest, most perfectly-formed set of man-boobs (moobs) I've ever seen. They had to be at least 40DD.

Shortly after the guy with perfect moobs left the beach, another local guy with a shaved head came down with a large plastic bucket full of hermit crabs. He runs a crab race on the beach every evening at sunset. Each crab shell is marked with a number, and he wandered up and down the beach soliciting bets. "These crabs are on steroids!" he declares. "Viagra! Red Bull!" At sunset, he draws a large circle, and dumps the crabs in the center. People scream and shout as the crabs scuttle for the edge of the circle. The winner gets a t-shirt or a bottle of cheap wine.



I wonder if it's possible that this guy actually makes a living doing this. I like to think that he makes a couple hundred thousand a year. Some stuffed-shirt businessman wearing wing-tip shoes and a power tie sits next to him in first class on a flight to New York, and strikes up a conversation, proudly declaring himself to be the East Coast regional manager of a business supply company. "What do you do?" he asks. "I run crab races on the beach," he says, then plugs in his iPod and smiles all the way to New York for a meeting with his broker.

The next day, I walked down to the beach to settle up with the bartender who had given me a free beer. He wasn't there, so I asked the Rastafarian behind the bar how much a Presidente was. He said, "They're 2 for 4 dollars, but if you only want one, I'll give it to you." I have to get the hell out of here.

Terrified and Exhausted

Here in St. Maarten, you see a lot of cars you don't see in the US. They're all tiny and economical, which makes perfect sense here. But I suppose most of them wouldn't pass emissions regulations in California, so they're not available at home.

We rented a Hyundai Getz, and drove to the French side of the island. Like Hispaniola, this island is divided into two countries - Sint Maarten, which is a Dutch territory, and Saint Martin, which is French. We noticed a dramatic difference between the two sides of the island. The Dutch side seems shabby and poorly maintained. The French side seems more affluent, with much better infrastructure. We saw lots of construction of homes and businesses on the French side, but on the Dutch side, all you see under construction are hotels and resorts. Here's the border marker on the road to Marigot - no customs, no immigration.


We drove to the road that leads to the highest point on the island, a mountain called Pic Paradis. On that road is an old sugar plantation called Loterie Farm. It's a tourist destination now, being maintained as a rainforest preserve. They have
an excellent bar, a restaurant, hiking trails and "canopy adventures." We walked through a grove of banana trees to get to the canopy adventure section. I'm always surprised at the weird appearance of bananas growing on a tree.


I found one tree covered with forbidding, inch-long thorns. A couple of fist-sized snails were working their way up the trunk through this treacherous landscape.


There are two canopy adventures available: The "small one", and the "extreme." We chickened out and took the small one. A guy showed up and fitted us in zipline harnesses, and we were each given one leather glove. You used the glove to grasp the zipline, which worked as a brake as you approached the end of each run. He showed us how to use a pair of carabiners to clip ourselves to various anchor points. You were "never, never, never" supposed to leave yourself completely unclipped, even when standing on a stable platform.

We climbed a ladder to the first platform. The course was laid out as a series of treetop platforms, connected by a variety of challenging bridges made of steel cable. Most were fairly simple. For example, there was the two-cable bridge: one cable with another stretched about 4 feet above it. You clipped your caribiners to the top cable, held on, and slid across the lower cable.

Others were sadistic puzzles created by frustrated video-game designers. My favorite consisted of a series of suspended wooden "X" shapes, with suspended rails in between. It was difficult and frightening to cross. Another one looked like a simple two-cable bridge, with wooden treads between them. But the designers had thoughtfully spaced the treads about four feet apart, forcing you to stretch across the yawning gap between them.





I should mention that this was a pretty strenuous activity. Within minutes, we were all sweating heavily, huffing and puffing, our lax TV-watching muscles quivering in protest. The effort was relieved periodically by ziplines, where we got to hook our roller rig over a cable and fly through the treetops to the next platform. At one point, perched on a high platform, I asked my wife how she was doing, and she replied, "Terrified and exhausted."


Somehow during this experience, I managed to split my shorts, exposing my backside to amused hikers down below. My wife has a good picture of my embarassment, but forgot to bring the cable that connects her camera to my computer. So I'll be spared the indignity of showing it to everyone.

After the canopy adventure was complete, we went directly to the bar for frozen mango coladas, and collapsed in exhaustion onto the soft cushions on the veranda. The young and very French bartender asked us, "Deed you do the extreme zeepline? Eet's rilly cool!" He then pointed up the slopes of Pic Paradis to the high point of the extreme zipline, and it was instantly clear that we had made the right decision.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Not the Toilet Paper Guy

We made arrangements to travel to St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles once school ended. But our arrangements didn't include a massive sinus infection. A week before departure, my wife started coughing and sneezing and nursing serious sinus headaches.

Our flight was scheduled for Saturday, but we rescheduled my wife's departure for Monday to give her time to recover. That cost an extra $200. And there's no guarantee she'll feel well enough to travel.

So my daughter and I left the house at 3:30am on Saturday morning. We drove exactly six tenths of a mile and were pulled over by the police. The officer walked up to the car, looked at me and my daughter, and said, "Obviously you're not the toilet paper guy." She explained that someone had TP'ed a house in my neighborhood that night, and she was lurking, waiting for the perps to drive by.

Eventually, we made it to the airport, flew to Philadelphia, changed planes, and flew to St. Maarten. It was a ridiculous distance to fly, considering that we live in Florida, but it was the cheapest route we could find.

We took a cab to the resort, and the cabbie was listening to loud American country music. My daughter plugged her MP3 player into her ears as a defensive move, and turned it up all the way.

The resort is perched on the knob of a hill overlooking the entrance to Simpson Bay. There's a nice view from our balcony.


Those canister things on the unit below us are solar water heaters, and they work really well. I asked the cabbie on the way over when is the rainy season in St. Maarten, and she said, "September." That's it, one month. So they get plenty of sun here.

But this view comes at a price. We're on the second floor. There's an elevator, but in typical island fashion, it's broken, and there's no concept of when it might be fixed. My ancient knees aren't used to climbing stairs in ranch-house Florida. Worse, getting to the beach is easy. Getting back is brutal.


Here are a couple of pictures of the beach:



I snorkled along that little breakwater and saw lots of Blue Tang and Sergeant Major fish, as well as sea urchins the size of soccer balls.

Everywhere around the resort are unobtrusive security cameras swivelling inside little glass housings, watching people come and go.


Well, if anyone is looking for me, I won't be far. This little swim-up bar is next to the pool right outside our unit.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

Have You Seen This Man?

My friend B* and his wife, K* had a new baby this week. My friend C* and I decided to drop by the hospital after work to congratulate the parents and greet the new arrival. I haven't been to a hospital to see a baby in a long time.

When we entered, we were directed to a security desk, staffed by uniformed personnel. We were each required to provide a photo ID, which was placed on top of a little box containing a camera. "Look at the camera," the guard told me. The camera swivelled around on gymbals, and took my picture, then swivelled upwards to photograph my ID. A badge was printed, bearing my name and a photograph that could not be used to identify me in any court in the world:


Clearly, it was intended as a deterrent, not an actual security device. A door was unlocked, and we were directed to an elevator, which took us up to the Obstetrics floor.

There, we were met outside the nurse's station by another security officer. She logged us in to a logbook, then unlocked the door admitting us to the rooms.

K* had delivered her new daughter via C-section, so she had a bit of recovery ahead of her. Their two boys were excited by the new arrival, and I took this shot of B* oldest son, demonstrating what real security is. Future boyfriends are gonna have to go through this guy:


After we said goodbye, C* and I got lost on the way out. We wandered around the hospital unchallenged, wondering if the two of us could manage to carry an MRI machine out to the car.