Saturday, August 23, 2008

The East Coast Adventure, Part III

Written 8/22/08

I hate jellyfish. I mean, I really fucking hate fucking jellyfish. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Death to cnidarians. Just say no to nematocytes.

Also, I have discovered my first allergy.

As I was finishing my last post, my arms had started to itch. The tiny dots that remained from my jellyfish stings, all but vanished since an hour after the incident, had started to puff back up again. I tried to go to sleep, but I was too itchy. First my wrists, then neck, shoulder blades, and forarms, started to puff back up and get itchy. And yes, I scratched them. A lot. I know the standard advice is not to, but I figured I would do what I usually do with mosquito bites: scratch them until they bleed and the itching turns into a mild stinging, which I don't mind nearly so much. Itching is up there right behind nausea for me for unpleasant sensations. Later the next day, we used John's iPhone to look up jellyfish allergies (that's what John figured it was), and the descriptions we found sounded just like what I had: some hours or days later, the marks come back and are "intensely itchy."

So, I hardly slept. The next day, though, we had the Bio Bay tour (bioluminescent bay), including (during the day, while there was nothing to really see in the Bio Bay) kayaking through mangroves and picnicking on the beach. It sounded lovely. But boy, I was tired and itchy and icky feeling. After some time vacillating on whether I was up to it, I figured I didn't know when I was going to get back here, and it sounded too cool to miss.

Written 8/24/08, 4:45pm, east coast time

I headed down there in just street clothes, without a bathing suit, thinking I'd do the kayak part of the tour and just look at the glowy water. When we got there, Karen gave me a hard time and said I'd miss the best parts of the tour if I didn't get in the water. I had to admit it was actually pretty irrational, since I wasn't really likely to get stung by jellyfish again, so that meant I needed a bathing suit. On Karen's recommendation, John and I ran down to a shop down the street called "Diva's Closet". They only had three one-piece bathing suits left, only two of which were my size. I wound up getting something I normally wouldn't have given a second look to, and paid more than I normally would for a bathing suit, but, you know, it didn't take long to decide that I did like it after all.

And, good thing I did get it, because the first activity turned out to be not kayaking, but snorkeling. Great place for it, too - there must have been tens of thousands of fish under that pier, big schools of 2- to 6-inch silver ones (sardines, maybe?). Besides the big groups, there were anemones with tiny glowing blue shrimp, weird spindly crabs like daddy longlegs spiders, tubeworms, and a few brightly colored tropical fish. It was almost as good as the dive on the whole, and better for sheer number and variety of fish.

After that, we piled into vehicles and bounced on the dirt road over to the bioluminescent bay, which looked like just another bay during the day time, and had the decidedly off-putting name of "Mosquito Bay". We got into the kayaks and headed toward the far side of the bay. I wasn't sure where we were going, but sure enough, our trusty guide (he even referred to himself as a little brown guy) knew where there was a gap in the dense mangrove growth we could get through. It wasn't so much paddling as grabbing roots and branches along the sides to push yourself along. Little crabs lived on the roots of the mangroves, which, we were told, climbed down when the tide was low and cleaned the lower parts of the roots, keeping them functioning well. We came to several clearings, getting deeper and deeper into the patch, and into ever shallower water. At the furthest point, the water got so shallow that even our shallow-draft kayaks ran aground in a few places. Since the water didn't move much here, it heated and evaporated even further - it must have been over 100 degrees, like warm bath water. I didn't quite bring myself to taste it, for the bottom of the waterways was all deep in mangrove leaf sludge, a soft red goo we were told was highly nutrient rich, and provided an excellent environment for nesting birds and fish eggs. Once again I was impressed with how neatly things dovetail in the wild, and how easy it is to throw these carefully balanced systems off by what initially may seem like harmless actions. Mangroves are an important part of their local ecosystems.

After we got back out to the main part of the bay, we crossed again to head toward the inlet, where water from the sea came in, but not out (the importance of which would be explained later). We paddled over some rough-ish water to get out to a beach, where we played in the water for a bit, then had a "picnic" lunch of sandwiches and chips (Karen said the dinner was usually a bigger production, but since there were only 4 of us on the tour in the low season on a week day, we didn't get the usual barbecue). After watching most of the sunset, we paddled back through the surf, with the still surprisingly warm water splashing up on us, and back over to the bay, where it was getting dark enough we could begin to see the magical glowing.

As we reentered Mosquito Bay, we weren't sure what to look at: the faint glimmers of dinoflagellates as our paddles disturbed them, or the thunder cloud glowing over the town of Esperanza in the distance. The cloud was rather striking - it looked like a lion's head, and sometimes the lightning would come down in a way that it looked like it was breathing fire. I've seen some good lightning shows in Tucson, but that one was in a distinctive setting that really stays in the mind.

But, lighting aside, there was still this odd glow following the paddles. The dinoflagellates are like single-celled fireflies; they use the same chemicals to glow. They only emit light when they sense compression in the water, an effort to scare away predators; hence the glow not in the water in general, but only where our paddles had disturbed it. Water in the open ocean has 30-40 of these per gallon; here, where the water from the sea flowed in and not out (so these tiny things could not escape from the bay) and the water was so rich in nutrients from the surrounding mangroves, there were one half to three quarters of a million per gallon. This was supposed to be either the highest or second highest concentration in the world.

Next, we jumped in the water. This is probably the closest anybody gets to Harry Potter style magic - whenever you moved your hands (or anything else), streams of glow followed you. Splash, squirt, trickle it from your hands, squirt it from your mouth, kick it with your fins... it never got old. The best, I think, was just to pick up a handful and watch it run down your arm: you could clearly see the tiny sparks going off all over your hand and arm, like camera flashes in a dark stadium, tiny, blue, instantaneous, but bright and many of them.

On the way out, we paddled back past the mangrove, and our guide said to try hitting the bottom of the kayak with our feet. When we did, we could see a dozen fish dashing forward, outlined in glowing blue. That also didn't get old.

After getting out and getting back home, we were exhausted, but again I didn't get much sleep due to the itching, and we decided it was high time to get back to civilization. Connie left that day, Tuesday, and our original plan had been to spend a day in San Juan and go back to the mainland Wednesday. After probably 45 minutes on the phone with the airlines, we found a route that might have gotten us back that day, but we still needed to catch a flight to the main island. Karen called Vieques Air Link, and was told we got put on the list for the 12:40 flight to San Juan, which we hadn't seen in the schedule, but we thought they added more flights as the ones they had got full, and figured this was just a later addition.

My idea was just to get to the mainland as quickly as possible, but Karen wanted to take me to the local doctor to see if he could get me anything stronger. I was skeptical since we'd already gone to the pharmacy Monday morning, and the stuff they'd given me hadn't made any noticeable difference. But, after explaining my situation about half a dozen times to different aids and nurses who spoke varying degrees of English, the doctor finally came by (just minutes before we had to leave for the airport to catch our supposed 12:40 flight), and said I'd get just what the pages on jellyfish allergies we'd seen recommended: shots of benedryl (antihistamine) and prednisone (steroid). The shots were a bit sore, but, several hours later, the itching was finally going away. In the meantime, the benedryl knocked me out pretty good, and I was once again glad I had John there to handle things.

When we got to the airport, we found that the person Karen had talked to had been looking at flights from San Juan to Vieques, the opposite of the direction we needed, and the next flight out at 1:30 had been canceled because they didn't have fuel for the plane. That was pretty much a killer for the earlier flights we'd been going to take, so John got back on the phone to make sure our flights for Wednesday hadn't been canceled.

So, after a bunch of runaround, we still wound up taking all our original flights, but most of our stay in San Juan wasn't seeing attractions, it was eating and sleeping. On Karen's recommendation, we stayed at the Marriott, which was just lovely, if a bit spendy. By then, I didn't care too much, and was happy for the nice room in a nice hotel. The only other noteworthy part of that stay was the taxi ride over. My god, I am never going to drive in San Juan. The taxi cab, a minivan, barely fit in the roads, and had to do a bit of wiggling to get around some turns. In the densely packed traffic, everybody just pushed their way through, room or not, through roads I would not have tried to fit two cars past each other on. At least I wasn't driving and it wasn't my vehicle. But, we did arrive without incident, rather to my amazement.

The next day, we wandered around San Juan a bit, then headed off to the airport to catch our flight to New Jersey.


The East Coast Adventure, Part II

Day 2 (written the same time as day 1; see note at end of previous post)

The first thing we did was turn off the alarm instead of hitting snooze. If not for Connie calling, I’m not sure when we would have woken up. The plan for the morning was diving, which meant being at the pier at 8:30. We’d set our alarm for 7:00, and needed to leave by about 8:10. Connie called at 8:00, so after several minutes of scrambling to get ourselves in order, make sandwiches, and one trip back for forgotten cash (need to pay for the boat dives!), we were off, and only about 10 minutes late. Even if the operation was run for mainlanders, it was still kind of on island time, so nobody even mentioned we were late.

They took us out to a reef with two bowls, to a depth of about 60 feet, where we saw a good assortment of corals, a couple of lobsters, an eel, a group of jaw fish, some garden eel, and even one small nudibranch. The second dive was at a different reef, a bit shallower, and more of the same. This was the first test of a new underwater camera we’d gotten just for this trip (a smaller, lighter, less elaborate one than John’s) , and the first time I’d played with an underwater camera. Hopefully we’ll get pictures up soon; keep an eye out.

After the second dive, John and I decided to hang out in the water a few more minutes, since the 3rd diver wasn’t out yet. Then, I felt something stinging me, first on my arm. My first thought was "Sea lice? What the fuck are sea lice?? Even the sea has lice here!!" (For those of you who haven’t read The Sex Lives Of Cannibals, (1) read it; it’s awesome, and (2) this is a quote from it.) I didn’t really know what it was, although I think I was already vaguely thinking jellyfish (but hadn’t quite gotten as far as the term); mostly I was thinking about getting out of the water as quickly as possible. I swam toward the boat, and wound up getting more stingers on my neck before I managed to leap out of the water (never mind waiting for the dive master to get out of the way – Amy wants out!).

The captain and dive master were the ones that said "Yeah, probably jellyfish larva." I asked if they happened to have any vinegar; no, but they had ammonia. Ammonia. Like, the stuff in Windex. To put on my skin. Well, you know, I was stinging, and that’s what they recommended, so heck, I put it on. It didn’t do anything noticeably bad (besides making me smell like window washing), and it took the sting away pretty well, so I was happy. Upon examining myself, I had a few dots on my left forearm, a swath across my neck, and what I dubbed a "jellyfish bracelet" of puffy red dots wrapped around my right wrist. Mostly, I was surprised how quickly they went down – by the time we were half way through lunch, which we went to right afterward, the swelling was almost completely gone.

Ah, lunch. One of my five favorite meals – and this place did not disappoint. Banana's, right on the waterfront, right across from the pier the boat went in and out from. Fish a chips, with fresh red snapper, and fries clearly made from real potatoes; deep fried bananas (John ate that; I had one and went "yup, weird as I thought they'd be... more for you!"); frou-frou drinks for our hostesses; and mozzarella sticks for "dessert" (they were out of ice cream, and John wanted mozzarella sticks anyway).

After a full morning of diving, what did we want to do? Snorkel! So, we set out to a peninsula joined to the island by a narrow walkway of sand, and puttered around for a while. The boat dive did have more to look at, but here we saw not only huge schools of tiny fish, but a large spotted eagle ray.

After our 3rd time in the water, for a total of probably 3.5 hours for the day, we were feeling a bit salt- and water-logged, so we came home and cleaned up. When everybody was ready, we headed out to a lovely restaurant called Trade Winds. For those of you who’ve been to Hawaii, it’s kind of like Café Pesto, but with the décor of Uncle Billy’s, or that restaurant across the street from the King Kam – good, interesting food (urban, even), but with light covers woven from palm leaves, and everything made out of visible wood, much of it not even cut into rectangular boards. Here too, the food left us full, happy, and tired.

So, here I sit, my jelly fish stings coming out a bit again, with the A/C in our bedroom running, and John snoozing softly beside me, face down without even a sheet over him, since he passed out while trying to cool off. It’s all worth it when you get in the water, though.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

The East Coast Adventure

17 Aug 2008, 9:24pm, Puerto Rico time

Day 0-1 (a long sleepless continuum)

The journey, it was long. After 2 weeks of furious preparation for leaving, including work, setting up an elaborate watering system to keep our plant alive for 2 weeks (still have my fingers crossed!), and miscellaneous loose-end-tying, our first flight left at 10pm Friday night. Neither of us slept at all. We landed in Atlanta at 5:55am. At 8:30, we got on our next flight. It left half an hour late due to several factors, but that was fine – one of the factors was an “equipment change” that put us on a larger plane – a much larger plane. There was room to sprawl across 3 seats. So, that flight, we managed to doze a bit, at least enough to keep us going long enough to get on our last leg.

We landed in San Juan at 12:45, plenty of time since our next flight wasn’t scheduled to take off until 2:45. However, upon landing, I found a voicemail on my phone from our puddle hopper airline, asking if we could make the next flight earlier, but if not, that was okay. I’d thought that one was around noon, so I figure it was too late to do anyhing about that, and we did, after all, have paid reservations, and I figured this was a “just in case you can”, since the other flights that afternoon were pretty booked up. In our sleep deprived stupors, we grilled people in the airport until we found, downstairs, in a subsection of the airport removed from the main bustle, a counter that said “VAL: Vieques Air Link” – but, alas, it said to check in upstairs, “at the TKT counter near the food court.” Hmm, food court. That part sounded good. But we hadn’t passed a food court, so we had to ask where that was as well. It turned out this counter was outside security, and the line, it was much long. So, we figured we’d try hanging around at the counter downstairs, to see if anybody showed up who could check us in.

There were a few other passengers hanging around chatting, and I overheard them talking about checking in down there, and sure enough, one of the guys talking was one of those really useful people who knows everybody, and every obscure contact you could want, including the phone number at the ticket counter upstairs. So, I called and asked if we could check in without going through that security line again, and he said hold on, he’d be right down. Moments later, a skinny brown guy with a walkie-talkie appeared and asked us for our flight info and our IDs, said he’d be back with our tickets, and went back up. After just long enough to make me doubt he’d actually come back (perhaps 20-30 minutes), he reappeared, and said the flight was leaving then, and to come with him. It was only 1:30, but I guess everybody for that flight was there, so no point waiting around.

We got on our little 8-seater plane, and before long, were on our way to Vieques. This wasn’t one of those huge magical flying buses that are so big and enclosed you can’t see how any part of it works. No, we could look down out of our windows and see tires – the tires we were going to land on when we got to the other side. We could see the GPS screen showing where we were and the islands below – and this was not a screen put up for the infotainment of the passengers; no, this was the one the pilot was using. And we could see the pilot, and the instrument panels. I love small aircraft.

Vieques airport is the smallest I’ve seen, and that includes Kona and Hilo before tourists discovered the Big Island. The baggage claim conveyer belt was about the width of one at a grocery store, and only about 10 feet in diameter.

After getting settled in at our home for the next four days, we had a few hours before dark, so, despite being very tired, we did the natural thing to do upon arriving in the Caribbean: go to the beach. There were maybe a couple dozen people on a stretch of beach half a mile long, and the water was even warmer than Hawaii (84 degrees, I'm told, and I believe it). It's also extremely salty, which means both that you float very well, and that it burns your eyes and nose a bit. But, still, extremely nice.

For dinner, Karen, whom Connie had come over to visit, came up to the place we were staying and cooked a lovely dinner of steak and vegetables - just the thing after a long trip with only airport food. I'd been hearing bits about Karen for a while, so it was neat to finally meet her. She's a delightful mix of energetic, laid back, practical, and frank - just the kind of person to do well getting away from corporate America to a tiny tropical island.

After sitting on the porch chatting for some time, we finally called it a night, since we needed to get up early the next morning to go diving.

I have "day 2" already written, but the machine it's on has no battery left, and the docking station is coming in some luggage tonight....