"Getting there is half the fun"
Amber and I had always said that laying on the beach vacations weren't our thing. But when Jodie and Peter cautiously mentioned they were going to Anguilla, in the British West Indies for a friend's wedding, and that they were interested in traveling with another couple if possible, we couldn't pass up the chance. It was a first for us in a lot of ways. Not only the first time on a sunny tropical beach vacation in the Caribbean, but the first time we'd cashed in on all the airline miles we'd been stacking on the credit card for years and our first international trip with friends… friends with a toddler! We didn't get on the same flights with Jodie, Peter and their two year old son Oliver, and we quickly learned that although airline mile tickets are great in the pocket-book sense, they leave much to be desired in other aspects. Our original itinerary had five major portions–Portland to Seattle, overnight in Seattle at as cheap a hotel as we could find, Seattle to somewhere down south in the US, then to Puerto Rico, then finally to Anguilla. We arrived in Seattle late, flopped into bed for a paltry few hours of sleep, and then proceeded to have breakfast at 4AM in the IHOP a few blocks away. Apart from the early hour, the flight out of Seattle started off in a normal enough fashion. Amber and I have both traveled enough that airlines have few mysteries left, apart perhaps from how they can think anyone can subsist off the size of snacks that are all they provide on even the longer trips now. The plane rose into the air, cutting a course as the sun finally rose and tossed off the night we'd spent too much of motoring around near the airport in. About an hour into the flight, though, things changed. We didn't feel anything happen–there was no shuddering in the aircraft, no sudden rushing of wind, or the crack of a fiery explosion. The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to be making an emergency landing. The plane had two engines, and one of them had stopped unexpectedly. These systems were designed to continue working under such conditions, but it wasn't safe to continue on the original flight-plan. The attendants started giving us specific instructions, but these aren't the instructions that you've heard parroted almost verbatim at every take-off. They started off by filling in the people on the exit row, giving details of exactly what to do. They notified us all of how to sit–lean your head down between your knees… in economy seats? I hardly had room for my knees to begin with! They told us that in the case of an evacuation, everything was to be left behind. "If we have to get off the plane, and you come by me carrying anything at all, I'll rip it out of your hands and throw it away," said one of the attendants. I believed her. We're often confronted with our own mortality at different times, but rarely have I been faced with such a strong feeling of peril as I came to me then. I knew they were taking precautions, that likely the plane was perfectly able to land with one engine, that if we hadn't dropped from the sky already then it would probably be all right. It just didn't sink in all the way. Seated next to my wife, I took her hand and we looked at each other for the long minutes of the descent. We talked a little, but not much–only enough to tell each other of the love we already knew, the love that words wasn't enough to convey. Then an odd thing happened. After those initial moments of panic, peace came. I didn't want to die, but I thought about the life I'd led, my family, my friends, and most of all my wife sitting next to me, and I couldn't feel too sad. If it was time to go, so be it, but I was happy I'd spent the time I had the way I did. The plane felt a little uneasy and sluggish as it went into a broad sweeping turn, but the landing was only a little rough. To be honest, I've had several landings that were much rougher than that, and those with planes in complete working order. We were safe on the ground in Spokane–which I later learned was probably a deliberate choice since it used to be a test-landing strip for the military, and gave a couple extra miles worth of concrete in case things did get nasty.
Safely on the ground in Spokane, the fear and peace all mushed together were soon replaced by other emotions entirely–boredom and annoyance. As it turns out, the airline we were flying on didn't have a desk in Spokane at all, so any attempt to reroute us had to happen over the phone. For a long while they weren't sure if the plane might be able to fly again, but after a long while waiting that turned to a firm "no" and we were left to make other plans. Amber is a miracle worker in these situations. She knows how to talk to a person on the phone, when to sound annoyed, when to swallow it and be polite, how to cajole and work the system to get what she wants. She soon had us booked on a flight back to Seattle, the best option we could manage under the circumstances. We had a flight-plan worked from there that would get us to Anguilla 18-hour after when we should have originally arrived. This entire trip had little more than four hours on the ground at any one particular airport, so getting a hotel and resting was out of the question. We got back to Seattle almost half a day after we had left there that morning. Our flight got in with barely enough time for us to get to the other concourse where our flight was leaving from. The agent actually ran with us the whole way, caught the train between concourses with us, tried to usher us through security as fast as possible. Our names popped up on the random-search-o-meter, though, and we were given the most thorough inspection I've ever received traveling. Arg! The sprinting was not in vain, though, as we reached our flight before it closed and got off the ground. Flying at the best of times is already exhausting, but that trip was far and away the most wearing I've ever had. It was no easier for our friends, who had arrived the day before, then gone at the allotted time to the airport to find that we weren't there. We did eventually manage to get word to them at the hotel that we were still safe and arriving later than expected, but it was certainly not fun. When we finally did land in Anguilla, we walked down off the small plane into the warm tropical air. In the afternoon there was a slight breeze outside that offset the sweltering air until we walked into the small airport entrance. Standing in the hallway waiting to pass through immigration the temperature steadily climbed, but we were nearly there. Peter, Jodie and Oliver met us there with the rental car. There we were introduced to what became the mantra for the trip, as Anguillans drive on the left like in Britain. The dashboard in front of the passenger seat had a sticker in red on it that said "Drive Left." The same warning was emblazoned on the inner flap of the temporary driver's license Peter had been issued. The entire ride to the villa those words continued to bounce around the car–"Drive left!" We had the upstairs suite in our villa, with a porch overlooking bright blue waters, sandy beaches, and in the distance the island of St. Marteen was visible. Jodie and Peter asked whether we wanted to nap, as we'd hardly had a chance to rest along the way. Instead, we simply pointed out the doors to the beach. We'd traveled endlessly to get here; only sand and surf would satisfy us now. Growing up in Oregon, my impression of water temperature is, I believe, somewhat skewed. In Oregon, only the hardiest people choose to surf and swim, most often with wet-suits against the cold, even in the middle of summer. But this blue water was mild as a bath, with gentle waves that rose and lifted like a giant hand underneath you. We waded out together to where the water was well up on our chests and bobbed like corks scattered about. I could feel the pulsing rhythm of the ocean passing through me with each wave, and I knew the coming days were going to be something special, something I hadn't experienced before. \<Work in the rum punch on arrival!\>
The friends of Jodie and Peter's that were getting married had planned to get together with those guests who had arrived at a restaurant called Blanchards that evening. We were welcome, but no obligation. After the dip in the beautiful blue water, though, the idea of getting out to a nice dinner was attractive. Little did we know how nice the dinner would be–in several ways. The engaged couple were excellent fun, as were their family and friends. We had great conversation around an immaculately set table, with low, cozy lighting, the back porch open to the ocean, and not too many others in the restaurant. What we hadn't counted on was the fact that Blanchards is apparently known world-wide (there's been a couple of cookbooks published by the chef there), and it's one of the more expensive places to eat on the island. I was a little stunned to see that there wasn't an entree under $38. Now, I like a good meal, but that probably tops the most expensive dining experience I'd ever had back home–including the anniversary at the pricey steak-house. But the food was fantastic across the board. Since the bill was going to be painful anyway, I got the most interesting item to me on the plate–a combination with jerk chicken, Caribbean lobster, and mahi mahi. It came on a metal stand, making a tour of three separate plates with the different items. The lobster had an added sweetness I hadn't tasted in the small amount of lobster I'd had before. It was the first of many delicious meals across the island. We intended to cook more in the villa, but the small space there and the lure of the restaurants proved too strong.
Drive left: on the roads in Anguilla
Roughly 11 miles long, Anguilla doesn't have any major highways or freeways–the main paths that cut across it are two lane roads, weaving and ducking around the landscape, punctuated by occasional speed-bumps. A day or two after we arrived, Peter drove us to the rental car agency to add me onto the car and get a temporary license. You can drive in Anguilla for up to several months on a temporary license, so long as you are licensed in the US. Handed out right there at the rental agency, the license was a small piece of thick green paper, folded over and printed with "Temporary License" on the front. The details of my name and the necessary dates were hand-written on one flap inside, and on the other was stamped our ubiquitous slogan for the trip: Drive Left. From then on Peter and I swapped off driving responsibilities, as the change in driving took a much higher level of concentration than driving at home. I found myself needing to focus at each and every turn–which lane should I go into, how close is the car to the line, is that a goat? Apparently, hitting a goat was a serious offense on the island, and that soon made it's way into our litany of driving instructions: "Drive left, don't hit a goat!" Sidewalks were not available much of anywhere, so it was a common occurrence to find people walking well over the painted line of the side. When you are already struggling to make sure that you are properly in the lane, the possibility of a pedestrian or bicyclist suddenly popping into existence at every turn is nerve-wracking. And the speed bumps, sometimes well marked with signs, also crept in the darkness of some places. I hit at least one of them at full speed, scaring everyone in the car tremendously, and prompting a non-stop outpouring of "There's a speed-bump" whenever we'd approach one from there on out. Couple this with managing directions, and driving on the island often turned into a comedy of errors. Many of the roads weren't signed well, or at all, and with the driver so attentive to the road itself, it was often a miracle that we found the little restaurants and poorly marked turns. I wouldn't have thought that an island only 11 miles long could be so easy to get turned around and lost on, but there it is.
Day in the life
I'm a homebody, pure and simple. It takes a lot to drag me away from the simple familiarity of my own bed, my own coffee maker, my own computer with its easy internet access and properly arranged desktop shortcuts. Travel, although exciting and fun, has rarely seemed to me an opportunity to relax and rest. Anguilla has changed all that. Although there are certain new stresses introduced by settling for a while in a completely new place, there are freedoms that come with it as well. No obligation to go fix up the yard, run some errands, or catch that TV program that's on. Less stuff to physically contend with–if you packed well, then the essentials are all there for you, ready almost at hand. We established an excellent routine while we were in Anguilla. I was working on rewriting a section of my novel, Dreams of a Shaper, and for me writing equals relaxation. It became standard practice that whenever we got up in the morning, I would go out onto the porch overlooking the water and write. Writing first thing is a brilliant move for me. For whatever reason, it sets my day off right, relieves that stress of "I've got to get my writing done sometime today." I feel like I've accomplished something from that very earliest time. Why don't I do this more often you might ask? Well, I'm really not a morning person, so this ideal doesn't fit in practice when I've got work to attend to. Perhaps someday I'll be able to get out of bed far enough in advance for it to work again, but I'm not holding my breath. From the writing, the day would move on to lunch, and then afternoons down on the beach. We would troop around the house, careful to avoid the urchin-like prickles of the weeds. Once I stepped on one in the margin of the sand, putting my full weight down and driving it into my foot. The barbed end gave a valiant effort at holding on, taking quite a tug to wrench it out. The sand on the beach was so white and soft. It had some stones and shells littering it, but nowhere near the type of debris and flotsam I'm used to from Oregon. Almost always, we'd hit the water first, swimming and floating and drifting with the all-encompassing up and down of the waves. The resort had a golden retriever "on staff" that would often patrol these beaches and join us swimming. Once he came right out to Amber and pressed himself against her until she ended up half-supporting him and petting him for a long couple minutes. Presumptuous dog! From the water we migrated to the chaise lounges set under umbrellas, ostensibly to read although I don't remember making too much progress down there. Simply soaking in the warmth and the striking scenery was enough–no additional adventure of stimulation was required.
Adventures in traveling with a toddler
I'd be lying if I didn't say that I wondered what traveling with a toddler was going to be like. Oliver, Jodie and Peter's son, was just short of his second birthday, motoring around happily and almost using words that someone outside his family could understand. He's a great kid, but even the best of almost-two-year-olds are, in essence, toddlers. As it turned out, getting to spend longer amounts of time with Ollie was one of the highlights of the trip. After we got back, it was quite clear that he remembered us now, knew who we both were (Amber spends more time with Jodie and Ollie during the days) and when Amber came around without me would ask where I was. Kind of cool. Now of course, there were some bouts of crying, but as it turned out they were far less frequent than I would have expected. Most of the time, at least as far as I remember, he was a happy, willing little boy wherever we went. In the villa one evening he took to pushing one of our rolling suitcases back and forth on the floor, clearly miming the act of driving (got a few years left still Ollie!) Amber led him eventually to park the "car" in the "garage" (closet) when it was time for bed. Amber and I babysat Ollie on the day of the wedding, which turned out to be almost as much fun for me as it was for Ollie. Well, almost. Amber went to take a shower partway through the time, and Ollie and I played catch with a bouncing ball for a good long time. He worked himself up into a bit of a frenzy, so eventually I cut the game short and redirected to a children's sing-along video on the bed, which was the only really convenient place for Ollie to sit. I'd heard before about children getting so excited they threw up, but here was my first experience with it. I didn't see the event itself. I don't remember what I was looking at exactly, but when I turned back around he'd left a little puddle of puke on the bed and had a line of it down his chin. He looked almost as surprised as I was. With Amber in the shower I set to cleaning up, vaguely uncertain of myself as I hadn't ever spent much time around children this age. I picked him up to move him off the bed… … and the spot under him was wet. Frantically, I pulled back the sheets on the bed, getting it clear in time before anything soaked in any further. We got new bedding ordered up to the room, changed Ollie, and things went much smoother from there on out. Beyond that day babysitting, I learned another important lesson–constant vigilance! One evening Amber, Peter, and I were in the room, and Peter moved Ollie over into his crib. He'd never climbed out before, never made any motions toward escaping, but three seconds later, boom. Poor Ollie smacked his head good and wailed with the pain. I guess children that age are always learning and changing, so you can't take your eyes off them for a second!
Fun in the Sun… burns and other hazards
- Get sunscreen out, open cap
- Squeeze sunscreen into palm
- With help of spouse, apply sunscreen to back
- Apply to arms. Try to be thorough despite how it sticks and clumps in the arm hair
- Crane around in vain effort to apply to part of own shoulders you said you'd get
- Squeeze more sunscreen into palm
- Realize you should have taken off wedding ring, which is now greasy and apt to slide off
- Remove wedding ring, but carefully note where you placed it
- Apply sunscreen to legs. Try even harder to get it worked in smoothly through hair.
- Remember you haven't put sunscreen on your neck
- Squeeze just a little more sunscreen out for last bit
- Over-squeeze–now you have way too much
- Apply to neck
Smear over-squeeze to leg hair. Those leg hairs are never getting burned!
Seriously, though, I live in Oregon–taking proper precaution against the sun just isn't a normal agenda item around here. It seemed like it took almost ten minutes to get all properly slicked up before heading down to the beach. And despite all that I did get burned twice. The first time, as best we can tell, was while I was out on the porch writing one morning. I thought I was completely covered, but there must have been some slice of sunlight beaming onto my arm, because that's the only place that pinked up. The other spot was while snorkeling, patches across my shoulders that hurt as much as any sunburn ever had. It's amazing how intensely uncomfortable even a light burn can make you, the tenderness, how the slightest pressure is like dragging rusty nails over your skin, how even cloth sticks and prickles against those poor injured areas. We did find one bit of relief, though, in a petroleum based balm called "Petro-Carbo." Sold in the type of small, metal containers I associate with old-style hair slicking products, it was thick, smelled smokey and actually brought some relief. Each night after the toasting, we would go to sleep smelling like something that just came off the grill, ready to be turned.
Food, food, food!
We went to Anguilla with good intentions of cooking a fair bit of the time. Amber and I cook a lot–it was one of our favorite activities to do together when dating, and that's carried over into marriage. The villa had a small kitchen, there had to be grocery stores on the island, it would save money… so many good reasons to cook. Needless to say, we ended up going out almost every night of the trip. Anguilla has some excellent restaurants, and although I consider myself a moderate foodie, a lot of it had a bit higher-class attitude than our normal dining. As it's on an island, sea-food was always a winning bet with me. I had a fantastic tuna cevecha with these narrow, tender shoots of green through it. I had lobster at least twice, smaller, sweeter Caribbean lobster, often grilled and delicious. Several excellent jerked meat dishes, a sure hit for a spice-fiend like myself. My hometown of Portland is a great place to be a foodie, so although the meals were excellent all around, I've definitely had similar quality at home. The atmosphere, though, set those evenings apart. All but a few of the restaurants had large windows or open porches swung out to the night. The sound of the gentle waves on the beach just yards away made a wonderful backdrop to the conversation at the table. Between bites you could watch out on the water as solitary boats trundled along, bright speaks against the darkness. One particular restaurant, though, topped them all for sheer beauty. It was our last night dining out, and Amber and I went to Straw Hat. A well known place on the island, it is set right on a pier over a shallow, stony bay. Lights mounted down low illuminated the water and rocks in a stunning display–it looked like something magical, something from a postcard or a movie. We ate, and partway through the meal had another interesting sight across the way. A fire had started on the nearby island of St. Marteen–we could see its orange glow bubbling up out of a valley, lining the crest of the hill, and then moving down a ways. Fascinating to watch, I wondered whether it was just in forest or in a populated area. There was no way to tell in the dark. A recap of the food in Anguilla wouldn't be complete without at least one mention of rum punch. Ah, rum punch! That sweet mix of mango, papaya, pineapple… who am I kidding, I don't know what's actually in it. However, as a signature drink, I heartily salute it. I had several of them at different spots across the island, but my favorite would have to be the blend that Bart at our villa brought to us that first day. So cool and crisp, with a little bite of rum at the back and all the quenching goodness of a glass of fruit juice. It's one of those drinks that, although you could make it at home, order it at a restaurant or bar, it just wouldn't be the same without your bare sandy feet and a warm breeze on your face.
We only discovered snorkeling two days before we left. What a loss! Rendezvous Bay, right outside our window the whole time, proved to be teeming with life that I wouldn't have imagined. Directly outside of our villa there wasn't too much to see, but a short couple minutes walk around the curve of the bay were rocks, an old abandoned pier and colors like I'd never seen before. The hotel offered free snorkeling gear, so we suited up, wandered over to the other stretch of the bay where the watching was good, and donned the ungainly flippers and mask. To be perfectly honest, at first I wasn't sure that snorkeling was going to be my thing. The water wasn't too deep, and I floundered getting out to where I could actually swim. There's some part of me that fears things in the water that I can't see, and so in those shallower places where every motion potentially brushes up against a rock, it was a bit touch and go. Breathing through a snorkel without sucking water into your lungs also takes a little more doing than I expected. But given that it's your air supply in question, you learn to deal. Lastly, although I spat into the mask and rubbed it like a magic talisman, it still fogged up quite a bit, necessitating me to broach the surface, tread water, and try to clear it out by whatever means necessary. Having finally grasped the basics, we started moving out toward the abandoned pier. There, I understood the attraction of snorkeling, and (most of) my difficulties were put to rest. The fish we saw weren't large, but the colors–bright blues, carnival orange, yellow like a Lemonhead straight out of a bag of candy. They shimmered as they swam, the silver and white and red all around. We circled the fallen pier for a long while, staring into its crooks and crevices, seeing life in an array we couldn't have guessed from the surface. Far back in one spot a curving shell sat, its surface bright and clean, not something washed up on shore to be collected, but a living creature. Jodie took off after a long while and walked back, but Amber didn't want to go. "We can make it back," she said, pointing off to our villa in the distance. It gave me a little pause, but the water was calm between the areas, so I figured why not. We gradually drifted away from the fallen pier, across lower planes of rock sprinkled with sand. And I'm glad we did. Down on the bottom I saw a creeping sea cucumber, almost the length of my arm. Sluggish, it waved with the motion of the water as it pursued whatever serves such a creature as food. Amber wasn't close by, although she was aghast later that I hadn't found her and pulled her back to the spot. Drifting on, the water grew shallow as we came around the bend toward the part of the bay our villa was on. It felt like I could have reached down with my hand and touched the bottom, and there we drifted over something long a snake-like, its head turned up toward us, its mouth open in a hiss I couldn't hear. Sea-snake! my brain screamed, too many hours of exotic animal programs on the Discovery Channel giving me a voice-over about how sea-snakes were among the most poisonous serpents in the world, known for their vicious tempers. I thrashed at the water and shot away, seconds later realizing that as startling as it was, that was probably just an eel. The rock soon gave out, and we paddle our way over long sandy planes. But even there were things to be seen. Fields of what looked almost like grass undulated like a meadow caught in a wind storm. Small fish played there, and along the way we spotted a star-fish easily a foot across sitting on the bottom. Weary, we turned in to the beach, rising out of the water to find the clumsiness of the flippers returned. I yanked them off and stumbled up onto the sand. Amber and I both got our worst sunburns of the trip on that day–almost three hours in the water, and our backs obviously not covered thoroughly enough. But it was worth it, and we went down the next day too, unable to skip another chance to see the wonders that turquoise water concealed.
Knock it down, build a luxury resort. Bummer!
Anguilla had a somewhat partially developed feel to it–small shacks and tiny, unpaved roads giving way in sections to bright shiny new resorts and million dollar homes. Rendezvous Bay, the resort that we were staying at, was apparently one of the first tourist locations on the island, and it lacked some of that brand-new shine. You could definitely see the roots of a lot of the buildings in the fifties, and frankly I like the feeling of place it gave. This wasn't just another hotel in the middle of some bright, sunny place. This place had some history behind it, real people and lives that had been spent there. But "progress" is sometimes inexorable, and after that season Rendezvous Bay was shutting down for a couple of years to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. Apparently it had become too difficult to compete with the newer resorts on the island, and something had to be done. The word I got as well was that the original owner had passed on some years before, or such a thing might not have happened. It's sad to think of that place going, with its villas on the water side, with its character to be replaced by gleaming condos and new, spotless buildings. Ah well.
Departure tax, more airline woes
On our last day, we arrived at the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight. We went to the desk and checked in. I followed an agent back through a too-short hallway to a little building out back where they searched my bag without removing too much of it, while I stood there and watched. Bit of a change from the metal-detectors and wands of my home country.
Heading back out, we were told to pay our departure tax over at the other window. Departure tax? This was a new one to me, but we went over and found that it was $20 apiece. Opening our wallets, we didn't have enough for both Amber and me to pay. "ATM," the attendant at the window told us with a shrug, obviously not too concerned whether we ended up trapped on their little island for inability to pay the tax.
I walked over to the ATM, card ready to plunge into the slot, but something was wrong. It was out of order. I looked back around, but there was nothing else in the small lobby area that could possibly be construed as a working ATM. The airport was a solid distance from any other place that we could get money from. We went back to talk with the person at the tax window, when a voice piped up behind us.
"Here," said the man behind us in line. He opened his wallet and pulled out the cash that we were lacking. He handed us a card, and said, "Send me a check when you can. I've been there too before, in a hurry to get off the island and didn't have enough for tax."
We talked with him for a bit after that act of kindness, which was so warm and unexpected. It turned out that he worked in sales for one of the resorts on the island, and it was interesting to hear him talk about the downsides of island life–power outages for days, water outages, broken ATM's, merchants unwilling to take larger American bills. Anguilla was a beautiful place to visit, but hearing him talk I don't think I'll be putting down roots there anytime soon.
We got on the plane and took off, making it to Puerto Rico in time to sit on the plane for an hour before the entire flight was canceled. Here we go again.