Footprint in the Sand

Many years ago, my foot was broken. I didn’t break it, someone else did, but that doesn’t matter, I still ended up in a cast. Unfortunately, it happened just a few weeks before I was scheduled to depart for Aruba. I had been anticipating the trip for several months and considered cancelling , but when the doctor advised that there was no reason to not take the trip, I interpreted that not just as permission but as an official prescription. I packed my shorts and sunscreen and my determination to forge ahead. The cast was removed the week before departure but was replaced by a very unfashionable flat bottomed wooden “sandal”. Form definitely followed function in the shoe that was designed to keep my foot from bending. As ugly as it was, at least I was now vertical. I was still restricted from wearing regular shoes and walking long distances, so I requested airport assistance. Much like a VIP, which in this case translated to Very Injured Person, I was taken by electric cart to the gate where I was transferred to a wheelchair and received priority boarding. It seems that you’re treated a bit differently when travelling with an injury. People are kinder and they show a bit more compassion.  I wouldn’t say it was worth breaking my foot for but it did make the experience easier and a whole lot nicer. If you’re a regular flyer you know that there’s value in being one of the first aboard a plane. You don’t have to wait for others to safely stow their luggage “in the overhead bin or under the seatback in front of you.” When you’re first on, you get the best pickings. My companions and I were going to milk this for all it was worth. Fortunately when we landed in Aruba it was a terminal landing meaning that there was a jet way leading into the building. It was a much nicer alternative than trying to get down the many stairs that come with a tarmac landing where you walk down the stairs from the cabin of the plane to the ground and then to the terminal. But alas, my chariot awaited and I was whisked away to Immigration. Actually, no one ever “whisks” in the islands. People of the Caribbean tend to move a little slower, probably because of the heat or maybe because there’s no reason to rush. They call it “Island time” which is very different than Eastern or Standard time. Island time is when they tell you they’ll call you cab in a few minutes and the phone rings 78 minutes later.  It was a leisurely stroll to the terminal where my travel companions waited to pick up our luggage. Bags in hand, with some piled on my lap, we exited the airport terminal to claim our rental car. That first blast of heat when you exit an air conditioned building in the Caribbean is always a surprise. Yes, you’ve come for the warm weather and sunshine but somehow it still takes a bit of time to acclimate yourself. Aruba is the most southern of the Caribbean islands and is part of a cluster called the ABC islands consisting of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. It’s as close to South America as you can get and is located only 15 miles from Venezuela. For reference, that’s closer than Beacon is to Poughkeepsie. It’s a small island at 20 miles long and 6 miles wide. Despite the lack of size, it’s easy to get lost when driving around due to the lack of road signs. Perhaps that makes it more interesting. Fortunately, it is graced with glorious weather. The island rarely sees a rainy day and is located below the hurricane belt which makes it a safer bet during the summer storm season. It’s dry and arid with cactus more common than palm trees. The succulent is in such ready supply that the locals have learned that a straight line of closely planted cactus forms a fairly impenetrable natural living fence. Aruba also has marvelous white sand beaches, an active nightlife and a pretty good restaurant scene. Best of all, it’s a clean island. The Dutch influence can be seen everywhere from Heineken beer to wooden shoes as souvenirs. The first thing I wanted to do was visit the beach. I was definitely the one leaving very odd foot prints in the sand due to the wooden sandal. It was slow going but at least I was upright and on the beach. I couldn’t go horseback riding or dancing but I could and did go on the Big Banana. It’s exactly what it sounds like and it didn’t require walking only that you and 4 others sit straddling a giant yellow banana while you hold onto the attached handles. The big banana is pulled through the water by a motorboat. It’s a fun ride and seemed safe enough. However the spray of sea salt combined with direct sunlight dried out and blistered my lips creating a very uncomfortable lesson for me: sunscreen is not just for major body parts!  Our last day of vacation came all too soon and we were looking forward to a pleasant return trip with similar priority treatment as we enjoyed with our inbound travel. However, what the travel gods giveth they can also taketh away. Instead of being first on, I was held back until everyone had been seated and then I was rolled aboard. Of course the overhead bins were already full and arm rests were already claimed. Perhaps the delayed boarding was standard procedure or perhaps it was just a gentle reminder that it was time for me to get back up on my own two feet.

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Virgin Camper

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a camper. Indeed, if there is a word that means the opposite of camper, that would better describe me. I often get caught up in the idea of communing with nature, living off the land, being self sufficient, etc. While I haven’t reached that level yet, I am an avid recycler. However, in reality, I like a soft comfortable bed behind a secure door, perhaps with evening turn down service and a sweet left on my pillow. I’m not a prima donna. I often enjoy local accommodations, small inns, even privately owned Bed & Breakfast establishments. The common denominator: an enclosed bathroom and a bed. The general idea of sleeping out under the stars sounds romantic and adventurous and even peaceful. Then I remember that other creatures are sleeping under those same stars – or worse, maybe they’re NOT sleeping! Yet, for reasons I don’t remember, I was compelled to gather a group of friends and suggest that we travel to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to go camping! Surprisingly, it didn’t take much convincing and all were eager to venture forth into the tropical wilderness. It is believed that Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands in 1943, first landing on St. Croix.  The U.S. Virgin Islands are generally considered to be comprised of three islands. In addition to St. Croix there is St. Thomas, the better known of the 3 islands and home to the Capital city of Charlotte Amalie. St. Croix is the largest island and then you have tiny, magnificent St. John. St. John was previously owned by the Rockefeller family. 20261_267868491580_6278115_n.jpgIn an attempt to protect the beauty of the island they presented it to the United States as a gift. The government wisely and immediately designated 2/3 of the island as a national park, thus preventing development of the most pristine areas. Choosing the campsite was easy. After a bit of research, I chose to stay at Cinnamon Bay campgrounds because they offered a selection of accommodations. Getting to St. John wasn’t so easy but was worth the extra effort. It required a flight, a bus ride to the Red Hook ferry terminal, a ferry ride to Cruz Bay and then we needed transportation to the campgrounds. I chose to rent a car but must have missed the optional choice for tread on the tires. I recognized the omission one rainy afternoon as the car slid backwards down a slippery road. Fortunately, I had reviewed the options available at the campground before our arrival and was confident in my decision. The first option was a bare site: translation” haul everything that you think you might need to be comfortable” such as: a tent; sleeping bags; a source of light; toiletries, toilet paper, bathing accessories, cooking utensils;  water sports equipment, etc. The second option allowed you to upgrade to a tented site where you essentially still haul everything on the previous list, just minus the tent. The third option and ultimately what I chose to reserve, was one of the cabins. I use the term “cabin” rather loosely, lest you envision a cozy log structure with an old fashioned stove, canopy beds, checkered curtains in the windows and indoor plumbing. The cabins consisted of two cement walls on opposite sides, two screened walls, front and back, 4 canvas cots and a bonus, it had a roof. It also had roll down shades to allow for a bit of privacy. The view more than made up for the simple accommodations as you could see the blue Caribbean waters through those front screens. The lack of atmosphere was nothing compared to finding your way quietly through the dark of night to go to the latrine. This certainly was not “glamping”, the hybrid word for upscale, glamorous camping but it was definitely a step up from the traditional form of sleeping on the ground. Fortunately, the campgrounds offered shower stalls to wash away the salt and sand that found its way onto and into every part of your body. I know that taking a shower under the stars sounds romantic until you realize that not only is the outdoor temperature many degrees cooler than the heat of the day but the water is also cold. Your exposed skin becomes an ‘all you can eat buffet’ for mosquitoes and the beach towels  were still damp and sandy from the earlier excursion to the shore making it difficult to dry yourself and still feel clean. However, a quick glance upwards was all that was necessary to remind me of why I chose this travel experience. The view when I looked up at the clear sky was absolutely extraordinary. Night time quiet on an island is very different from night time quiet in Dutchess County. There are no cars, the blare of a television is noticeably absent and your neighbors are respectfully quiet and they generally settle in early for the night unless they’re going into “town” for a night in Cruz Bay.  Instead, you hear the pops and snaps of burning wood in the campfires and the hushed soft murmurs of fellow campers retelling the day’s events. You hear the rhythm of the sea rolling in and pulling out, over and over again, as it has done for eons until you drift off to sleep. Certainly the option for more lively evening entertainment was just a 20 minute ferry ride across the bay to St. Thomas where you would find duty free shopping, restaurants and nightlife.  However, shopping, restaurants and nightlife abound in Dutchess County.  The whole point of the trip was to slow down and enjoy a relaxed lifestyle, even if just for a short time. I decided to forgo the nightlife in favor of being lulled to sleep by waves as they touched the shore. It was a good decision.

Mrs. V goes to Israel

For almost her entire life, my grandmother was known as Mrs. Vedell.  Once her husband, my Grandfather, passed, she had no idea how to be anybody other than Mrs. Vedell.  Obviously the family was concerned as she had been dependent upon her husband for almost everything, including driving. They lived in Florida and there was talk of her relocating back North but in the end she chose to stay in the home that she shared with her husband. I regretted that my Grandfather never fulfilled his wish to visit Japan before he died, so I was even more determined to help my Grandmother fulfill her wish of visiting Israel.   For years she had listened to the stories of her fellow condo dwellers. One by one they all seemed to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Some went to visit the land of their heritage, while others travelled to attend a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the coming of age celebration of young Jewish boys and girls.  I often tell less confident travelers that sometimes the first step in making a big journey is just making the decision to go. That always seems to be the hardest part and somehow, the rest seems to fall into place. I decided to take my own advice and convinced my Grandmother that we could and should make the trip.

I knew my Grandmother was serious when she applied for her first passport. The die was cast, we were going to Israel. We would be a party of 3, each with their own agenda.  Often, when I’m counseling other travelers whose vacation time is limited but with a very long wish list, I recommend that each traveler jot down his or her top 3 “must see” spots. I suggested this tried and true method for our trio. When the lists were complete, the items that we all had in common were moved to the top of the list. I then tried to fit in as many extras as possible in what became an interesting version of “Let’s make a deal.” If I can see this, I’ll agree to do that.  This usually ensures that everyone gets to see the priority items on their individual wish list and no one comes home disappointed.  There weren’t any big surprises on our lists. Mainly, the most popular tourist sites that you usually expect to visit when traveling to Israel. Much to my disappointment my request for a camel ride in the desert didn’t make the final cut. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that a 79 year old woman would choose a more comfortable mode of transportation. One choice that we all agreed upon was a visit to the Dead Sea. Also known as the Sea of Salt or more affectionately, the Sea of Death, it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water and at almost 1400 feet below sea level, it sits at Earth’s lowest point. The name is derived from the observation that due to the salinity no creature or plant life inhabits the lake or rarely the surrounding area.    Who wouldn’t want to go there? Our plan included a visit to nearby Masada, a World Heritage Site in the Judean desert. It is an ancient fortification that sits atop a mountain where the mass suicide of almost 1000 Jews took place while under siege by Roman troops. We would then spend some down time by the Dead Sea. When I chose our hotel it was important to have easy access to the sea. Since this was also a vacation we wanted a pool for my Grandmother, who loved to swim.  Because the Dead Sea has almost 10 times the salinity of an ocean, the buoyancy is amazing. Even a non swimmer like me was able to proceed confidently knowing that it would be darn hard for me to drown in this body of water. Despite the posted warnings that were placed everywhere, my Grandmother, decided to dive right in. Literally. It didn’t take more than a minute or so for her to surface and start hootin’ and hollerin’ from the pain of the salt in her eyes. Several employees came running (I suspected this might not have been their first rescue) and pulled my Grandmother from the water. Due to the salt stinging her eyes, she was unable to open them and they physically steered her to the outdoor showers where she was thoroughly rinsed and then dried. Once calm was restored we headed indoors to the pool. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, not everybody learns a lesson the first time around and I’ll be darned if she didn’t dive right in a second time. Not realizing that the pool was also filled with the water from the sea, my Grandmother, kicked and breast stroked her way clear across the pool leaving an angry, shouting mob in her wake. And just  like a bad dream  that keeps replaying, by the time Mrs. V reached the other side of the pool she begin to feel the now familiar pain of the salt stinging her eyes. Once again she was hauled to safety where she was thoroughly rinsed and then dried. It was almost an exact repeat of the first time only this time she kept repeating “I just wanted to take a swim, all I want to do is take a swim.” Now that my Grandmother is long gone, I reflect back on the trip and am happy to have fulfilled a wish. I still laugh when I think about all those angry tourists.  But I also learned a lesson. Sometimes, in life you just have to go ahead and jump on in.