Posts Tagged ‘travel blog’

American Paradise (Part 17 of 17)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

Finally, we docked in a marina full of nice boats.  Unlike Mayaguena Island, we weren’t the only boat around.  Here in Freeport, Bahamas, were hundreds, maybe thousands of every size and description.  I eased off the onto the dock.  I had become so used to the swaying of the sailboat that the ground seemed to be swaying underneath me.  I had to fight to keep my balance and not stumble over like a drunk.

Tony spoke to the harbor master, then returned to the boat with instructions for us to stay put until customs officials arrived.  After 20 minutes, I was going nuts.  I could see the marina’s bathroom and showering facilities.  I couldn’t resist.  I had to get the salt stains off my skin, wash my cuts, smell fresh again.  I gathered up clean clothes, shampoo, soap and a towel, and headed for the shower.  I muttered over my shoulder, “Let them arrest me.  I wanna shower!”

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Once in the shower, I couldn’t wash myself.  I had to hold my arms out sideways to brace against the walls so I wouldn’t fall over.  My land legs hadn’t returned yet.  Still, I was all smiles and finally got enough of me clean to call it quits.  I dressed, then walked a hundred yards over to a casino in the first floor of a hotel.  I stood at the Coke machine and bought three straight sodas, guzzling each one like I’d been in the desert.  It was sooo nice to drink something cold again.

Returning to the dock, I saw uniformed authorities checking Tony and Lisa’s papers.  They passed.  As they eyed mine, I announced that I would not be leaving on this sailboat.  The higher ranked official didn’t like that thought.  “You have to,” he stated with a genuine smile.  I was firm in my resolve, so we began negotiations.  Soon, he relented and would allow me to fly on an airplane.  He drove me to the airport and we had a wonderful discussion.  He was a nice chap, a pride to his country.

At the airport, I bought my $79 ticket and he assigned a security cop to make sure I got on the plane.  Two hours and another three cold Cokes later, the puddle-jumper plane bound for Orlando began boarding.  Soon, we were airborne.

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By the time the hour flight was circling Orlando, just about all 20 passengers on the little airplane were thoroughly engrossed in the tales of my sailing adventure.  I showed off my cuts and bruises like they were medals.  After touch down, we departed the plane onto a tarmac.  Surrounded by a dozen of my new friends, I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground.  They applauded, causing a tear in my eye.

Needless to say, I have not stepped foot on a sailboat since that fateful adventure in 1990.  Once was enough.  But I have relived that trip a thousand times.  I’ve swayed with the waves, heard the wind, felt the seaspray, and looked longingly at the sunrises, sunsets, moonrises and moonsets.

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 16 of 17)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

I was anxious to get the life raft inflated and paddle the 200 yards to shore.  I was ready to explore Mayaguena Island.  But by the time Tony and Lisa were ready, the dock was nearly empty again.  I had hoped to talk someone into giving us a ride to town, but most already left for home.

Finally, we got to the shore.  When I stepped out of the raft, I stood on the beach and then bent and grabbed a fist full of sand and yelled a victorious “YES”.  I soon located a few locals who took us halfway to town.  On the ride, after relating our story about the storm, I mentioned that I washed my blood off in the little harbor.

Imagine my horror when my new companions told me that 14-foot sharks are so abundant there that it is off-limits for locals to swim.  They said I was lucky to be alive to tell of my foolish act.

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At a makeshift drug-runner airplane landing strip where we were dropped off, a jeep quickly stopped and ushered us into the open-top backseat.  It turned out to be island’s governor and the chief of police in the jeep.  They didn’t reveal their identities until we reached the edge of town (actually, it was more a collection of shacks).  By then, we had already shared our experiences at sea.  They knew we were good folks.  And beat up.  In typical island-style, the chief told us not to bother showing him our passports because it would make unnecessary paperwork for him.

After five Cokes and an order of french fries (they called them chips), I called home back to City Girl in New Jersey on a shortwave radio.  I had told her I’d be in Florida in nine days, so she was shocked when discovering I was only halfway there.  Three hours later, we were back at the raft.  We inflated it again, and raced to get aboard our sailboat.

We left Mayguena and limped northwest in our battered craft.  It would be nearly a week before we got to Freeport, Bahamas.  Another week of nothing cold to drink and no shower.  My thoughts that last week were of a great, big chocolate milkshake, of soaking in a bathtub, and of being on solid ground.

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The Mayaguena to Freeport journey was uneventful.  We were all somewhat subdued after our ordeal at sea.  The beautiful skies, especially around dusk and dawn, left lasting memories.  Finally, we spotted the Bahaman island.  It was exciting.  It was just what I needed to rid me of an incessant headache that had haunted me since the storm.  A few more hours and we’d be in port.

It also meant the conclusion of the sailing portion of my trip.  At Freeport, I would find other means of transportation to Florida.  You see, I had discovered that sailboats are too slow for me.  A hundred miles a day won’t due.  I thought to myself that I would never do a long sail again.  Never!

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 14 of 17)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

The only other downside that first week at sea on our voyage from St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands to the central Florida coast was that the winds were not cooperating.  Tony had expected to cover 150 to 200 miles a day, but at 4 knots we only logged 96 a day.  On top of that, the winds were in the wrong direction.  We needed to head northwest, but in reality we were going almost dead north into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

On the eighth day, there was NO wind.  It looked like a tabletop, something I’d never seen before except in maybe an old Errol Flynn pirate movie.  The only thing breaking the surface was the thousands of flying fish who accompanied us the entire trip, and three killer whales who seemed curious about our craft and kept rubbing against it.  They let us touch them on each pass.

By midday, off to the north, we noted ominous black clouds.  We were about to get the roller coaster ride of our lives.

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Within an hour, the wind had kicked up to 40 mph and the seas were wild.  When we were in the trough between two waves, the tops were 30-40 feet above our heads.  The rain came down (or perhaps sideways is a better description) with such force that it stung our exposed skin.  The power of the ocean and Mother Nature had earned my instant respect.

We had a big problem that had to be addressed immediately.  Tony, not knowing how bad conditions would become, had decided to leave the sails up as the storm approached.  Now we had to get the sails down or risk losing our masts.

Since Tony was the sailing expert and the most necessary person aboard, I quickly volunteered to go out and reel in the sails.  Snapping on a lifeline, I crawled along the deck as waves washed over me.  It was like being in a washing machine. 

In what seemed like an eternity, but was probably 15 or 20 minutes, I got the sails down and secured and got back to the hatch.  My heart was racing a mile a minute.

The storm continued all night and all the next day.  We each took our three hour shifts in turn outside in the weather, although we really had no control over our craft.  Or destiny.

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 13 of 17)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

(This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.) 

I had an hour to hitchhike across the island to the Megans Bay beach, but I was there in 45 minutes.  I was tired from not sleeping and a bit woozy from all that alcohol, so I plopped down in the sand.  I looked across the bay and saw what I imagined was their anchored sailboat.  Soon, Tony appeared, jumped into a tiny lifeboat, and rowed to the beach.

“Let me pump some more air into this before we head back,” he said.  “It’s not holding air very well.”  That done, I threw my possessions into the life raft, climbed in, and we were soon back to his sailboat.  I met Lisa, and soon the three of us were heading north toward Puerto Rico.  I had never sailed before, but this seemed like fun.  It wouldn’t last.

About six hours into the trip, the combination of over-imbibing the night before and being a landlubber caught up to me.  The rocking back and forth of the boat was too much.  “I’ll never drink again,” I said as everything in my stomach came up and found its way into the Atlantic Ocean. 

I continued to heave over the side when I noticed a US Coast Guard cutter bearing down on us.  They must have thought we were drug runners because the next thing I knew they launched a motorized raft and four of the soldiers were carrying machine guns.  Over a loudspeaker, one yelled, “Prepare to be boarded”.  Through it all I was laying prone on the deck, cursing everything my stomach was rejecting.

After coming aboard with guns drawn, one yelled at me, “Don’t move!”  “Please shoot me,” I answered.  I think I would have preferred it to being that sick.  After they tore the boat apart in search of drugs, the Coast Guard guys mellowed out and we chatted for awhile.  Naturally, each one had done his training in Cape May, New Jersey where I lived, so we had a lot in common.  Oh yeah, they got a real kick out of me being so sick.

The need for three crew on the sailboat was due to each person needing to take the helm for three hours, then you’d have six hours to rest.  That would have to be maintained around the clock.  Tony had me follow him in the batting order, that way he could brief me – the rookie - on anything special I needed to know when I took over.

For the next week, the trip was rather uneventful.  We anchored in a small bay in Culebra that night, then the next day stopped in San Juan to stock up for the voyage.  My seasickness lasted just that first day, and the beautiful sunrises and moonrises and sunsets and moonsets brought an inner peace that defies description.

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Besides my seasickness, something else lasted just that first day – our electricity.  For some reason the boat’s batteries wouldn’t recharge.  That meant we had no running lights at night when those big ships that were 20 times larger than us could squash us like a bug hitting a windshield.  We would have to be extra alert on our night shifts.

It also meant we couldn’t use our global positioning satellite (GPS) instrument whenever we wanted.  The ship’s batteries, if we didn’t use them for anything else, had just enough juice for us to use the GPS tool once a day for five minutes.  We could only positively fix our position once a day.

Hmmm.  No lights, GPS only once a day, and a life raft that wouldn’t hold air.  What had I gotten myself into?

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 12 of 17)

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

With my decision made to leave the US Virgin Islands, the self-proclaimed “American Paradise”, I had already lightened my work load by quitting my construction job.  The parents of the five schoolkids I was tutoring also understood that when the call came, I might be leaving St. Thomas in a hurry.  How prophetic!

On the second day after placing in marinas the 3×5 cards looking for a boat ride, I got a phone call in the Mexican restaurant where I worked.  It was a 45-year old fellow, and he and his 18-year old daughter were sailing to Florida.  He wanted to know if I would meet with him to discuss me becoming a crew member.  I told him to come right over to the restaurant and we’d chat.

Tony and I hit it off right away.  It turned out he had a 46-foot ketch that he had built in his backyard in Durban, South Africa.  He and Lisa, his daughter, had been sailing for the past year and a half.  They needed a third crew member to sail the approximately 1,500 journey to Florida.  He expected the journey to take eight or nine days.

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I talked to Tony about my desire to really go to Belize, then travel up through Mexico on my way back to the states.  I was undecided. Sail with them to Florida, or hold out for Belize?  Decisions, decisions.  I didn’t dwell too long.  “I’ll go,” I said, “Under one condition”.  Tony took a deep breath and waited for the punchline.  “You can’t have any drugs on the boat.  If you do, tell me now and I’ll just walk away.  I won’t tell anyone, but I won’t come along.”

Tony vehemently assured me that he didn’t and said he’d never put his daughter at risk.  We shook hands, and agreed he’d pick me up in a life raft at 6am the next morning on a small beach on the opposite side of the island.  My heart was pounding in anticipation!

As Tony left the restaurant, I quit my job and told them to not bother writing my paycheck.  They could keep the money since I was leaving abruptly.  That only seemed fair.  I went back to my house, and a short while later my backpack and duffel bag full of tools were packed and sitting by the door.  Over the next two hours, I said good-bye to as many friends as I could find, including Willie and his family and all the kids I tutored.  I also called City Girl from a pay phone and told her I’d be in Florida in nine days.

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By 5pm, Aaron and Doug returned home from work.  “I’m outta here,” I exclaimed, then told them about my upcoming sailing adventure.  “Let’s party,” we agreed.  We walked to our favorite bar and began the farewell party.  By 2am, well inebriated, a half dozen of us headed back to the house.  By 4am, when Aaron and Doug called it quits, only a local woman and myself were left. 

She was known for walking around town with her pet parrot on her shoulder.  You can’t imagine how many tourists wanted to take her picture every day.  She was also a clairvoyant, if that’s the correct term.  She had visions.  She was a sweet person and we all like her alot.

By 5am, we were getting ready to call it a night.  I looked over at her sitting on the sofa and she was crying.  I sat next to her and said, “It’s alright.  You won’t miss me that much.” 

“No,” she said.  “It’s not that.  I just had a vision.  In it, you have two happy years with a woman, then you perish at sea.”  She sobbed even louder, then we hugged.

Oh my gosh.  I’d been with City Girl for two happy years.  Was I now going to die at sea?

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 11 of 17)

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

After about three months in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, repairing homes destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, our workload backed off to five days a week, eight hours a day.  It gave me plenty of extra time to expand my horizons.  To me, that partly meant more jobs.

I had already begun tutoring Willie’s oldest son, Nathan, a lovable 8 or 9-year old.  Like Willie, he had that infectious smile that endears them to everyone.  I got paid, of course, but thoroughly enjoyed educating this youngster that had a thirst for knowledge.  He had never seen snow, never seen a pine tree or pine needles.  Try explaining what they’re like to an inquisitive young mind that had no reference point.

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Soon, I was bringing library books to our tutoring sessions, so once the school work was completed, we had bonus time to explore new horizons.  I started getting more students, beginning with Nathan’s 6-year old sister.  Then a boy who lived in a rickety house up a litter-strewn alley, followed by another brother and sister.  Before I knew it, I had five young minds to help shape.  It was challenging, and quite rewarding spiritually.

That occupied my time from 3:30 to around dinner time three days a week.  I was learning as much about their culture as they were learning their 3 R’s.  But still, I had one goal unfinished in St. Thomas.  I came here to be a waiter.  I had to give it a shot.

Along the waterfront was a second floor, open-air Mexican restaurant.  I ate there once and thought it looked like a fun place to work.  So, needless to say, I stopped in to try to pick up a couple nights waiting on tables.  I was quickly hired.  I met alot of interesting people there and since the restaurant closed at 10pm, it didn’t affect my getting to the construction foreman job by 7am.

My education on the Caribbean way of life was on-going.  All the kids wore uniforms to school, no matter which school they attended.  High school basketball games, to my astonishment, were played outdoors.  Yes, outdoors.  There were no indoor gymnasiums.  Where else can you have a basketball game postponed due to an afternoon thundershower?  Boxing was big there, and Emil Griffith was their local hero.  Boxing matches, always SRO, were held in the infield of baseball stdiums.

The locals loved their music.  Reggae music greeted you on every street.  Steel bands were a family affair, with three generations sometimes playing side by side.  Red beans and rice were a favorite meal, especially with a side dish of fried plantains.  It was such an interesting culture.  It opened my eyes to the diversity of our planet’s people.

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As winter passed to spring, the urge to head back to the United States crept up amongst each of us.  I felt like I’d grown five years in about six months or so.  My awareness was elevated, my understanding of others multiplied.  Life in St. Thomas was so different from my life in the US, yet each held a special place in my heart.

So I made my decision to leave.  My plan was to hitch a ride on a boat, hopefully to Belize.  From there I’d travel north through Mexico to Texas.  To that end, I filled out a bunch of 3×5 cards asking for a ride.  I placed them in a half dozen marinas, then waited for the phone to ring.  I was ready to roll the dice again, seeking another adventure!

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 10 of 17)

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

(This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.) 

Life in St.Thomas, US Virgin Islands afforded us plenty of time to enjoy the sights.  One night a week I would cook dinner – red beans and rice – at our house and we’d eat out on the deck and enjoy a calm night of watching the stars and the harbor.  The other six nights of the week, we went out and partied!

Blake, Aaron, Doug, and myself had a ball exploring the different bars and restaurants.  There were plenty of other “continentals” we met, including a bunch of utility crews from Alabama and Mississippi that had been sent over, trucks and all, to help restore the island after the destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo.  The camaraderie was great and it brought lifelong friendships.

Sundays, our day off, were usually spent at Coki Beach.  This was a typical beautiful, narrow Caribbean beach, located at the opposite end of St. Thomas.  I would normally hitchhike over there about 9am and swim and lay on the beach.  Aaron and Doug would grab a bus later and show up by noon.  We’d spend the rest of the winter day enjoying the 90 degree water and alternating taking trips to the island vendor a hundred yards away who sold ice cold Heinekens for two bucks apiece.

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Blake went back to the states after a couple months, so Doug and Aaron gave up their apartment and moved it with me.  It saved them on rent by having an extra person to share expenses, and my place was much nicer.  Our landlord, the little old guy nearly 90 years old, also owned a home on St. John, which along with St. Croix made up the US Virgin Islands.

He needed repairs done on that house, so for awhile I would have Aaron and Doug drop me off at the ferry on Saturday afternoon, then I’d take the seven mile boat ride to St. John.  Sunday morning, I’d be outside by 6am doing repairs.  Aaron and Doug would get off the ferry at 10am, then we’d spend the rest of the day exploring St. John.  We had use of the landlord’s jeep, so we drove way up into the mountains, checking out nature trails, old sugar plantations, and the local scene.  St. John, with just 6,000 inhabitants, is the most beautiful of the Virgin Islands.  The other two islands have about 50,000 residents each.

Life was almost a dream.  The four-foot long iguanas sitting 40 feet up in trees, the dolphins, the huge sea turtles, Megan’s Bay, the beaches, the splendid oceanview homes and estates, the sailboats and yachts and cruise ships, and the hustle and bustle of an island rebuilding after a hurricane made life serendipitous.

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But there was a dark side to the Virgin Islands.  Crime.  I know I’m generalizing, maybe even stereotyping, but a large segment of the male population did not work.  It was the women that carried the load, did the tourist-related jobs.  The women dressed up and went to work everyday to make money to feed and clothe their family.  A much smaller percentage of men had gainful employment.

This led to problems with alcohol abuse and drug abuse.  Especially crack.  The crack problem was near epidemic.  No wonder every first floor window in the entire Caribbean seems to have bars over it.  Break-ins were rampant, a sure sign of desperate drug addicts.  We let a local guy use our bathroom once.  After he left, our watches were all gone.  Unbelievably, he denied it!

Aaron, Doug, and Blake each took their turns getting robbed at knifepoint or gunpoint on the streets, sometimes even in daylight.  I never got robbed, which can probably be attributed to the fact that I was over 15 years older than them, looked a bit rougher (okay, a lot), and didn’t wear designer sunglasses and clothes like they did.  I wasn’t a target, they were.

Inevitably, crime is the reason most continentals eventually leave the US Virgin Islands, or anywhere in the Caribbean for that matter.  After more than a half year in St. Thomas, it was enough to send me packing, just like everyone else.

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 9 of 17)

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

It was easy to quickly settle into a routine in St. Thomas.  The first 40 jobs we had with Willie’s construction company were all putting roofs on houses.  These unfortunate folks had open sky above, and every time it rained it poured into their houses.  To take care of everyone ASAP, we would rough frame a temporary roof, then cover it with those big blue tarps.

Lumber was in short supply, with plywood impossible to get.  So the best we could do was get some 2×4′s and 2×6′s and nail enough of them over the top of the house to hold the tarp.  Working six days a week, 10 hours a day, we had everyone closed in within two weeks.

A few days after starting the job, the French guy who was the foreman had a blow-up with Willie.  All I know is that Willie showed up at the job I was doing, pulled me aside, and asked me to become the new foreman.  Wow.  Five days into the job I was replacing the French guy who hired me.  Fate, huh?

A couple days later, Blake and I were hanging out in the town square one evening when two 21-year old “continentals” stopped to ask directions.  It turned out that Aaron and Doug were taking off a few semesters from the University of Minnesota.  “You guys looking for work?”, I asked.  “Well, yeah,” Aaron replied.  The next morning they began working for Willie.

As foreman, my life just became easier.  We now had 14 workers, plus myself.  That allowed me to put Aaron and Doug with one seven-man crew and Blake with the other.  The local guys needed motivators – or was it my spies? – to keep them working when I wasn’t on sight.  I drove the small pickup truck that had in the near past picked me up hitchhiking.  Now it was mine to use in the day to shuffle the guys from job to job and bring them materials.

Once we had the 40 homes under cover, it was time to actually build new roofs.  The rest of each home was concrete or block – because of hurricanes and termites - but the roofs were wood covered by rubber roofing material.  A gutter system ran rainwater into a cistern (sort of a closed-in basement) where it would serve as the home’s potable water for drinking and cleaning.  So sloping and building the roof and gutter system just right was important.

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In the US Virgin Islands, the lumber companies don’t have delivery trucks.  Instead, a dozen guys with trucks of various sizes and descriptions sat under a tree playing cards until someone needed a load of supplies moved.  They’d throw a price at you, then negotiate, and finally a deal would be struck.  It was free enterprise at its best.

I went into the lumber company as we neared the new phase of actually building the roofs and ordered $9,000 worth of plywood, 2×6′s and 2×8′s, nails, rolls of rubber roofing, and guttering.  Then I hired a truck and we pulled up to the supply door.  I handed the worker my receipt.  “We don’t have any of this except the nails and gutter,” he calmly said in that laid-back Caribbean manner.

I exploded.  “You mean, you guys just took my $9,000 and you don’t even have the stuff?”, I asked in disbelief.  “It’ll be coming on the supply ship Thursday morning.  Come back then,” he stated, still not the least bit concerned or apologetic.  Thursday 7am came and I was there with a driver and truck, again.  “Sorry, the ship came but we didn’t get the materials we ordered.  Someone else got to them first,” a different laid-back employee stated.

I was disheartened knowing that so many families were counting on us to rebuild their roofs.  I found out that the next ship with our supplies was due in Saturday morning.  I quickly devised a plan.

On Saturday morning, I took the six largest, toughest natives on our crew.  One was named King, and he was 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds.  Another weighed 400 pounds.  I pulled up to the dock right next to the ship and implemented my plan.  I marched up the gangplank, my crew of rough characters on my heels.  I showed my receipt for the materials and announced that we were taking our stuff.  We didn’t wait for the shipmates to agree or debate.  We started passing the lumber and supplies over the side of the ship into our big truck. 

In 20 minutes, we were on our way with a truck full of building materials.  Who says the spirit of Blackbeard the Pirate doesn’t live on?

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 8 of 17)

Monday, February 18th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

Now with the job thing out of the way, I turned my thoughts to finding a place to live.  I couldn’t keep paying $35 a night at the hotel.  I had to find a house to rent, though that meant I’d most likely need a roommate to share the expenses.  I went back to the downtown area, just two blocks from my hotel, to talk to the vendors again.  Word of mouth might be the best way to snag a place to hang my hat.

I greeted most with a “Hello again”.  Their usual reply, upon finding out I’d already landed a job in just 24 hours, was an astonished “Congratulations”.  Then I’d quiz them on the availability of anywhere to rent.  I got a couple leads, but each was at the opposite end of the 4 mile by 13 mile island.  “I’d rather be here in town where the action is,” was my reply.  “And my job is right up there on the hill,” I’d add pointing to a street just two blocks away.

That night, I headed to the hotel office to pay for an additional two nights.  Hopefully, that would be all the time I needed.  Optimistic, aren’t I?  Or naive?

My first day of work was an eye opener.  Always early and never late, I was at Willie’s house by 6:30am.  As the locals began walking up the hill to work, I was taken back.  Nearly half of the dozen guys had a bottle of Heineken in hand and they were drinking.  “You’ve gotta be kidding,” I thought.  “I hope they don’t get caught by Willie”.

No worries.  Soon, 11 black guys and one white guy were at Willie’s front steps, half casually drinking their morning beer.  Willie took it in stride and never said a thing.  He was all smiles, a real likable guy.  The French guy who hired me showed up, split us into two crews, then dropped us off at two different houses.

The white guy was named Blake, he was from Michigan, and it was just his second day on the job.  By noon, we agreed to look for a house to rent together, as roommates.  Handsome, well-dressed, and well-spoken, I knew that he would handle his end of the financial responsibilities.  What a relief.

That night, Blake and I did a bar tour.  At each stop, we’d begin mingling with locals, hoping to pick up on place to live.  No luck, but we sure had fun.  We shared an immediate bond and I knew we’d become fast friends.

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In the morning, on my five-minute walk to work, I stopped to buy the Virgin Islands Daily News from the same woman I had every morning.  She stood by the side of the narrow road, hawking her newspapers.  I explained my dilemma on finding a house to rent.  Casually and without any change in facial expression, she said that I should try that house over there.  An old Dutch couple approaching 90 years old had a house in back that was vacant.

The workday seemed to drag on, the thought of finding out about this house never off my mind.  Likewise for Blake.  We worked late, until about 6 o’clock, then I headed for the house while Blake went back to his hotel to pay for another night.

The old guy was slight, about 120 pounds and 5-feet tall.  He was a real gentleman and we hit it off.  He showed me the house.  Oh my gosh, it had a tremendous view overlooking the harbor.  Two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room, and huge deck facing the harbor and hundreds of colorful sailboats, yachts, and cruise ships.  We struck a deal and I quickly paid two months rent.  This wasn’t paradise, it was shangri-la!

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 7 of 17)

Monday, February 18th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

The US Virgin Islands can be a culture shock to folks from the United States, which I soon learned the islanders call “continentals”.  The race demographics of people are 89% black, 1% Asian, and the remaining 10% are whites comprised of a mixture of old Dutch, Europeans, and “continentals”, like myself.

Stepping off the airport runway and into the terminal, which was the approximate size of a basketball court, I got my first taste of island life.  Everyone was smiling, laid back, and willing to help.  Oh yes, and more than willing to offer some service that would part you from some of your American dollars.

I hopped on a bus, one of those 20-seat rattle traps, and headed into Charlotte Amalie, the capitol of St. Thomas.  I absorbed everything I saw on the ride.  I pulled out the list of contacts I had compiled and plotted my first day.  Once in the capitol, I departed the bus and searched out the non-tourist hotel I had been told about.  I walked through the busy downtown market, where all types of locals were hawking their wares.

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I located the hotel, booked two nights, stashed my gear, and wandered back to downtown and the harbor district.  My best bet to get the feel of the island was to talk with local vendors, many of whom were transplanted continentals in their 20′s and 30′s.  Most had come here, like me, for an extended working visit, and then decided to stay.  My looks – 38 years old, bearded, jeans and tee shirt – made it easy for me to quickly be labeled a non-tourist.  It would open doors.

I spent the day walking around looking in the duty free shops that were crowded with cruise ship patrons, getting a feel for the local flavor, and talking to as many locals as I could – black or white.  My first impressions were that the island was very colorful, drivers traveled on the left side of the road rather the right, the cars tended to be small, and traffic was congested.  In Charlotte Amalie, you could make better progress walking.

I was also struck by the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo.  It seemed like every fourth house was missing all or part of its roof.  Many windows were boarded up, or at least covered in cloth.  There were telephone poles laying every where, with broken lines still attached.  Trees were uprooted and toppled over, or missing their tops.  It was eerie.  I felt for these people, though they bravely seemed to take it in stride.

As a steel drum band played on the square in front of the post office, I sat on the lawn and reflected on my week long trip than brought me from New Jersey to St. Thomas.  It had been filled with ups and downs, but here I was at the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  The Virgin Island license plates constantly reminded me that I was in “American Paradise”.

The next morning, I was up early and ready to go.  This was the day my job hunt would begin.  My first stop was Frenchman’s Reef, a large destination resort located on the edge of town.  I hoped to land a job as a waiter, something I have the knack to make a lot of money at.  I hitchhiked over there, taking less than an hour.  At first glimpse, I was disheartened.  The resort was wrecked, with half its windows and doors blown out.  I proceeded into the lobby, where I was given an employment application and told that they would certainly hire me at Christmastime, over two months away.  That wouldn’t do.

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I left, and stuck out my thumb to head to my second choice for a job.  I was immediately picked up by a young thirty-ish French guy in a small pickup truck.  We talked and he asked what I was doing here.  “I came to live here for the winter and be a waiter,” I stated.  “I might take a part time carpentry job, too.”

“What if I offered you a full time construction job with good pay?” he asked.  “How much would you need to make per hour to forget being a waiter?”  That was an interesting proposition.  Since I had my heart set on being a waiter, I named at outrageous figure.  “Can you start tomorrow?” he replied.  I was stunned, “Sure”.

He took me to meet the boss and company owner, Willie, we shook hands on the deal, and I bid them farewell until tomorrow morning.  Here I was, two hours into my job search, and I was all set.  Yes!!!  Maybe this really is American Paradise.

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 6 of 17)

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

I finished out the damp evening by going over to the bridge, just 50 yards away, and climbing up to the concrete ledge where my backpack and duffel bag were stashed.  I didn’t sleep much, but at age 38 I didn’t tolerate laying on hard surfaces as well as I did at 25.

At first light I gathered my stuff, including the soaking wet sleeping bag, and headed in the general direction of the hiring office for shipmates.  I stopped and hung out in a park as I killed time until the office opened at 9am.  I met a person in the park and we swapped pleasantries.  Soon I was relating my attempt to find a ride to the US Virgin Islands.

“Why don’t you fly?” he said.  “I just did it and it only cost $79″.  That didn’t really interest me.  Besides, I don’t like heights and hadn’t flown in 20 years.

Finally, at 9 o’clock the office opened.  I told the woman, a real sourpuss, that I wanted to work my way to St. Thomas.  She wasn’t very encouraging, saying it would be a week before there were any openings.  She handed me an application and I left.  I opened the 8-page form outside as I walked, frowned, and dropped it in the nearest trash can.

I spent the rest of the morning and half of the afternoon hanging out in marinas looking for a ride.  The 75-foot yachts, 150-footers, the 200-footers, I tried them all.  No dice.  The designer clothes crowd wouldn’t budge.

By 4 o’clock, I was frustrated.  Then I thought of my friend in the park.  Maybe I should fly?  Heck, I had gotten from North Carolina to here on less than $20.  My only expenses were calamine lotion, cotton balls, a couple beers, and two quarts of chocolate milk.  And I did have $1,200 hidden in my socks.

I kept rationalizing until I won myself over.  I called the airport and found a $79 flight at 6:00am directly to St. Thomas.  I booked it.  By 7pm, I had hitchhiked to the airport, where I spent the night sleeping on the floor with folks who had missed their connections and were waiting for the next flight.  I came at night because I didn’t want to risk thumbing at 4am and missing my flight.

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At 5:45, they loaded us into one of those little puddle-jumper planes.  It was small and intimate and only about 30 people.  And hopefully less scary than one of those jumbo jets.  Soon we were airborne, and in an hour and a half we were preparing to land in St. Thomas.

I was ready to explode from anticipation.  I was about to live out one of my 10 goals.  Cross another off the list.  As we dropped down toward our runway, I could see the palm trees, the towns, the harbors, the blue-green Caribbean waters, the hotels, the shops, the natives, the culture.  Touch down.  I took a deep breath.  I was in the American Paradise!

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 5 of 17)

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

I awoke in the pre-dawn hours to the biting of little gnats.  They were annoying, and getting me at a time when my chigger bites from North Carolina were just starting to clear up.  My only refuge was to snuggle down into my sleeping bag and pull the top closed.  The only trouble was that it was too warm to do that.  In minutes I was a sweat ball.  I hadn’t set up my tent – which was orange – because I didn’t want to attract attention to myself.

Within a half hour, I’d had enough.  I got out of my sleeping ball, rolled it up, and headed back to the highway.  It would be light soon so I’d surely get a ride.  It was a Sunday, but sometimes the decreased traffic this early in the day was an advantage.  It only took a few minutes before I was in a car and speeding down I-95 toward Miami.

By noon, I was in Miami at the marina district.  I had several good rides that morning, meeting interesting people.  A young 20-something guy had spent time in the US Virgin Islands, and he supplied me with contact names in St.Thomas.  He even suggested a non-tourist hotel that would be the perfect place to stay while I found more permanent accommodations.  But first I had to get there.

Now to find a ride to the Virgin Islands.  I began that quest by finding a place to stash my backpack and duffel bag.  Under a bridge, next to an upscale marina on the Intracoastal Waterway, I saw a ledge.  No one would ever spot my possessions up there.  I climbed up the concrete support pillar and packed my stuff outta sight. 

I enjoyed my freedom of movement again.  No 60 pounds of stuff to carry.  I normally carry only a backpack, but the prospect of construction work in St. Thomas after the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo had caused me to double my load by carrying carpentry tools.  I expected to be there at least half a year, so I didn’t skimp on supplies, either.

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I spent the afternoon going from marina to marina, dock to dock.  I find that if you just act like you belong there and have a smile on your face, nobody questions you.  The large yachts, I discovered, were in town for a boat show that just began.  None of them were heading to the Caribbean until the following Sunday.  That wouldn’t do.

I tried the docks that housed the working boats.  I found a few that were taking supplies to the Virgin Islands, but none were leaving until at least Wednesday.  I’m too impatient to wait that long.  Also, it was now October.  I was anxious to get to St. Thomas.

I did get a suggestion to try the place that finds crew jobs for guys.  They’d be open first thing Monday morning, so that became my plan.  So I headed back to the bridge to check on my stuff.  It was all there, safe and secure.  I decided to head toward the marina bar district, where plenty of ship captains would no doubt be out partying.  I talked to several boating people in bars, but no luck. 

Time to get some sleep.  I returned to the bridge, got my sleeping bag, then snuck into a real fancy marina complex.  Staying out of sight, I laid out my sleeping bag behind a row of meticulously pruned shrubs on the perfectly manicured lawn.  I was soon fast asleep.  It wouldn’t last.

I was startled awake.  A pop-up irrigation sprinkler came on about 4am.  Problem was, it was directly under my sleeping bag.  What to do?  I pulled my bag back enough to expose the sprinkler head, then pushed it back down with my hand.  It kept watering, but only gushing a small geyser from the ground.  I had to hold it 10 minutes or so before it finally finished its cycle and shut off.  My bag was drenched.  My shirt and head were soaked, my spirit dampened. 

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 4 of 17)

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

The fourth day of our waterborne journey would end in a much different manner than expected.  After entering Florida near Fernandina Beach, the captain again became anxious over the one diesel engine’s performance.  The oil pressure was running low and the engine sounded different than the previous day.  The captain was worried about putting too much stress on the healthy engine as it picked up the additional load.

Again traveling at a slower speed, we proceeded south.  We had seen a few alligators at the mouth of some creeks on our trip, but today I hoped to spot a bigger prize.  Manatees are beautiful creatures that almost seem a cross between an elephant seal and a mermaid.  I sat up front at the ship’s bow to try to increase my chances of seeing one.

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We passed Jacksonville, where the Intercoastal Waterway crosses the St. John River.  About 10 miles before reaching St. Augustine, the captain put the first mate at the helm and he headed below deck to the engine room.  He returned with bad news.  “We’ll have to pull in at St. Augustine to have that engine checked.  I don’t want to push it any farther,” he proclaimed. 

A little while later we limped into the city docks.  The captain would search out a mechanic to get a prognosis.  “We’ll know in an hour how serious it is,” he said.  I decided to explore this charming, ancient town, so I disembarked.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The architecture was magnificent.  I went into a museum and learned all about St. Augustine’s illustrious past.  The entire downtown, in fact, was like a museum.

An hour later I was back at the ship.  “Bad news,” the captain said with resignation in his voice.  “We’re going to be here at least two days.  You’re welcome to stay here with us and wait it out, if you’d like.”

It took me about 10 seconds to decide.  “No thanks, I think I’ll be moving along.”  I packed up my belongings and bid them farewell with my usual parting, “Thanks for everything.  I’ll never forget you guys.  Have a nice life!” 

I walked through downtown, then stuck out my thumb to hitchhike the few miles to I-95.  From there, it would be about 300 miles to Miami Beach.  A few hours later, I was about 100 miles down the road when I got dropped off at an exit ramp.  It was after 5 o’clock, so it would be dark in an hour.  I noticed an abandoned gas station and decided it would be a good place to spend the night.

Spreading out my sleeping bag on the hard, concrete behind the gas station, I gazed at the sky.  What was in store for me now?  On the boat trip, I had been thinking a lot about whether the boat owner would permit me to sail all the way to St. Thomas.  I figured it was 50-50.  Now that was all a mute point.

As dusk turned to dark, the stars began to appear.  The celestial heavens always make me feel more grounded, and usually bring a clarity to my thoughts.  I would get to Miami, then work the docks until I got a ride to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.  My goal clear, I dropped off to sleep in anticipation of more adventure, new horizons!

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 3 of 17)

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

(This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.) 

We shoved off from Isle of Palms by 8:30 the next morning.  But something was wrong.  One of the diesel engines, which had given them problems earlier in their trip before I joined them, was acting up.  “I don’t know how far we can go before that engine goes down,” the captain said, obviously distressed.  “We’ll just have to take it slow.”

We headed south, but traveling at half the speed of yesterday, the going was slow.  We shared the captain’s concern, but there was little the first mate and I could do.  We tried to be extra nice to him, but being underfoot in his pilot house annoyed him.  “Go up top and relax,” he told us.  “There’s nothing you can do.”  We got the hint and grabbed the binoculars and a few Heinekens and exited his territory.

The waters were always calm except when we crossed a large bay.  The mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, NC and the St. Helena Sound near Beaufort, SC were particularly choppy and windy.  During these times, the first mate and I got off the roof and retreated to the sanctuary of the pilot house.  Since many of the navigational buoys had been displaced by Hurricane Hugo, we acted as spotters for the captain.  We had to help determine if a buoy’s location was genuine, or it had blown there in the storm.

That night we docked at a marina in Hilton Head, SC.  Frustrated by the underperforming diesel engine, the captain was ready for some relief.  We inquired at the marine store as to a good restaurant, then had them call us a taxi cab.  Four hours and a lot of beers and good food later, we stumbled back onto our boat.  At least temporarily, the captain had forgotten about the mechanical troubles. 

The morning found us soon past Savannah, Georgia.  The engine was no worse, so the captain ran a little faster than yesterday.  “We’ll get the engines worked on in Miami before we head to the Caribbean,” he said.  My ride had only been guaranteed to Miami.  There, the owner would board for the cruise to St. Thomas.  The captain was undecided whether to ask if I could come along.  He didn’t want to alienate the owner, especially since he was owed a lot of money for piloting the ship from Connecticut.

One of the first towns we passed in Georgia was Isle of Hope.  Through the binoculars, it looked like a picture postcard version of a small southern town on the water.  It was drawing me, calling out.  I couldn’t answer.  I often follow my whims when such an opportunity knocks, but not this time, not here.  What was I gonna do, jump off the boat? 

That night found us stopping at a marina at St. Simons Island, stopping short of crossing the sometimes treacherous St. Andrews Sound.  Following the previous night’s routine, we showered, then hailed a taxi cab.  More beer and fine food awaited.  Life was good.

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We tackled the Sound first thing in the morning, through the fog of a hangover.  After crossing the Sound, we found Cumberland Island National Seashore on our left.  For the next 20 miles, the binoculars took center stage.  I combed the island, hoping to spot the fabled wild horses.  They didn’t disappoint.  A group of six or eight wild horses were tearing down the beach.  Their grace and elegance blended smoothly with their flat out speed, which pulled their manes straight back like a flag in the wind.  If only I could be one of them, if only for an hour.

- Mountain Man

American Paradise (Part 2 of 17)

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

 (This entire 17-part story can be found in the “travel” category.)

Returning to the boat with my gear, I climbed aboard.  It turned out that the big guy was the captain, hired to take the yacht from Connecticut to St. Thomas.  The little guy was the first mate.  The two of them hired out to move yachts for millionaires, and each knew exactly what his duties were on the ship.  They worked well together.

The boat was a 68-foot wooden Hatteras yacht, if memory serves me correct.  It had two diesel engines each over 1,000 cubic inches.  There were five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a huge living room.  It was luxury exemplified.  The pilot house had two humongous captain’s chairs, each affording a fantastic view of the waters ahead.

The captain gave me my choice of the three unoccupied bedrooms, and I chose the one in the front of the boat.  It had it’s own bathroom, as well.  The “fore cabin”, I believe these lifelong sailors called this suite.  I “stowed” my gear (I’m getting the hang of this nautical lingo, huh?), then came up on deck to drink a few beers with them and get acquainted. 

I didn’t sleep well that night.  The chigger bites were driving me crazy.  By morning, I had streaks of dried blood all over my lower legs.  I just couldn’t stop scratching.  Jeepers! 

The captain had delegated one chore for me each day – I was to wash the windshield of the pilot room.  I climbed up with windex and a roll of paper towels and in 10 minutes or so the salt water stains were gone.  Before we “shoved off”, the captain assigned another task for the first mate and me to tackle – go buy beer.  “Get whatever you want,” he said.  With visions of Heineken dancing in my head, we walked up the street and stocked up.

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We headed south down the Intercoastal Waterway atop the steady rumble of the ship’s engines.  We exited North Carolina in an hour or so, entering South Carolina.  The calm waters made for great sailing.  I sat up on the roof deck with the first mate, binoculars at our side to spot wildlife and interesting small port towns.  The day passed quickly as we cruised the calm waters.

One 30-mile stretch that was particularly beautiful was through Francis Marion State Forest.  The hanging Spanish moss from cypress trees projecting “knees” above the waterline had an eerie charm, a feeling of “Gone with the Wind” southern ambiance.

Our uplifted feelings soon vanished when we approached Isle of Palms.  Hurricane Hugo had cut a swath through the area, leaving hundreds of acres of trees nothing but twisted stumps and piles of brush.  We rounded one turn in the IW and witnessed the fury of the hurricane.  There was a pile of boats – at least 75 or 100 – that rose 60-feet in the air.  A lot of people’s broken dreams were in that pile of debris.

We found a marina at Isle of Palms to dock for the night.  In the ship’s store, the marina owners told tales of the powerful hurricane.  It had only came through two weeks prior, so the expressionless looks on their faces needed no explanation.  They were still in shock.

As we talked, I ambled over to the first aid aisle.  Calamine lotion and cottonballs were on my mind.  My arms and lower legs were a mess.  Leaving the store, I showered and covered myself in calamine.  The captain and first mate got a big kick of me and my misery as we walked into a nearby restaurant, my pink-caked arms hanging from my side.

- Mountain Man