A Good Family Day

Dateline Sunday, December 28, 2008. Punta Cana, The Dominican Republic.

First real day of family vacation having spent all yesterday on planes and buses, arriving at night rather than in the light of day as expected. Fortunately, despite a night spent in two “queen” beds the size of singles— my wife and I were cramped while my son was comfortable in his own bed—we had a very nice day.

The order of things is not important to the story. The weather was warm, low 80s, but quite overcast. We were just happy to be out of the frigid, snow covered Midwest. We started the day by lounging at the pool and reading. We struck up a conversation with a family from NY for awhile. Our son hung out with us. We had breakfast. Our son D after sleeping later had gone to breakfast on his own and commented that he did not like eating alone and wanted to eat with us from now on (a parent’s dream with a 17 year old). Not even the occasional brief shower dampened the spirit of the first day of vacation.

We checked out the activities by the pool and a ping pong tournament was beginning. My wife and son are the talented players in our family and they competed. I went back to my book. My mistake. They came back to the lounges all excited. D had won the day’s tournament against some highly talented, international competition. The finals were a close match won by D 16 to 14. (More on the quality of the vacation’s ping pong in a later post.

My wife did the water aerobics, D and I went for a swim at his invitation—I know that things would change once he met some kids but I will take all the time he will give me. Late in the afternoon, my wife and I went for a long walk on the beach. Punta Cana has one of these many mile long continuous beaches. It is great for long walks on white sand.

The day ended with dinner at the Japanese restaurant, think Benihana’s,  The food was good and the service entertaining. D had a beer with dinner. Not a common occurrence.

I have saved the best for last. If you read this blog regularly you know that I love to SCUBA dive. For 6 or 7 years now we have been at resorts that have a free demonstration in the pool where guests can don the gear and feel the experience of breathing underwater. For 6 or 7 years now D has refused to participate. ALL I ASK is that he try it in the pool. I am not the athlete that his mom is so I cannot compete with him in ping pong, tennis, golf or any other son/parent sport. I have been hoping that SCUBA would be something we could enjoy together.

Once again he refused. I cajoled. He refused. I begged. He refused. I bribed. The opportunity to experience alcohol in some reasonable quantity finally won him over—much to the chagrin of my wife who feels I am leading him down a slippery slope. Too bad. I had nothing else.

The resort instructor was at first hard to find and then to understand. Spanish, not English is the primary language here. D put on the wetsuit, tanks and mask. He received instruction on when and how to fill and then release air from his BC and how to breathe through the regulator. He was without weights or fins so the experience was incomplete but down and away he went. He swam around the pool for awhile getting used to breathing underwater. I felt joys as I watched the bubbles.

He was then taught 2 basic skills. First, how to clear your mask if it fills with water and then how to retrieve the regulator if it gets out of your mouth. He mastered both which added to his confidence. I tried to let the instructor do most of the talking but was able to share my knowledge when his explanations were not enough.

Bottom line.  He liked it!!! This is not the time or place to have him take lessons. Too bad, I would have liked to strike while the moment was hot. No matter, this was a monumental step.

I am already planning our trip when he will get certified and we can dive together.

One very fine family day. Few things make me happier.

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5 Seconds Under Curaçao

Thanks to the cinematographic genius of Da Man, I can share with you the greatest underwater adventure since Sea Hunt (or Flipper).

S.C.U.B.A. Zen: 10 Life Lessons

S.C.U.B.A.    Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

Zen             School of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition;  To figure out something by meditation or by a sudden flash of enlightenment (definitions found on dictionary.com)

When done by a Master, SCUBA is a practically effortless voyage to contemplate the world beneath the surface of the water. People often ask me if it is difficult to do. I am sure that there are some circumstances where it could be but recreational SCUBA should not be. However, if you are not properly prepared it can be life threatening, lead to the pain of the bends or at least lead to an unsatisfying experience. Easy and dangerous are not mutually exclusive.

As I made mistakes, there were several, during the week that I dove I came to appreciate the lessons from more experienced divers as well as my original instructors. They seemed to have general application to life.  Since every aspect of life seems to have provided life lessons for profit (What I learned in Kindergarten, various business persons take on the world, etc.) I thought I would add a chapter about SCUBA. For free. (See what value you get reading this blog!)

SCUBA Zen Lessons 

  1.  Everything in SCUBA is easy. If it is not easy, slow down and think about what you are doing wrong. Find the right way.
  2. Look Good. Be as colorful as your surroundings. Define your own style
  3. Be Prepared. This is not just for boy scouts. Whether heading underwater, to a job opportunity or an important presentation make sure that you have all your tools with you. By tools I mean mental preparation as well as equipment.
  4. Check It Twice. In Scuba you have a buddy check out all your stuff to better ensure that everything works as it should. In life checking twice improves quality.
  5. Everyone Needs A Buddy. This is the no one is an island speech. I in particular only survive and thrive with the company of others. In SCUBA the rule is that no one dives without a buddy. Down there when something goes wrong it could mean life or death.
  6. Take It Slow. This is a stop and smell the roses kind of rule. SCUBA is all about observation not getting from one place to another. Go too fast and you will likely miss something spectacular.
  7. Have A Plan. Each dive site is different. You should never dive without you and your buddy discussing direction, depth, time under and how various potential issues will be addressed. If you know where you are going it is more likely that you will get there.
  8. Know your Limits. Different SCUBA certifications set limits on the depth you can go and the types of diving based on the training for that level. Especially with depth it is easy to just keep getting in deeper. Deeper in SCUBA means more pressure on your body and on the air you breath. Complexity rises exponentially. Going beyond your depths means danger. As in life, knowing your limits does not imply that you should never stretch yourself or always play it safe. Just understand the risks.
  9. Avoid Panic. Weather conditions change, equipment fails, you can hurt yourself. A cool head during trying times can save you and others around you. Two of the basic exercises you learn early is what to do if you can’t see or breathe. Checking off the steps that you have learned will keep you safe should be your first course of action in a hostile environment. (My worst dive situation was my first night dive. I got careless and lost sight of my group. Oh yeah and my light went out. It was pitch black. My lack of panic at the time both amazed me and saved me.)
  10. Breathe. For SCUBA this is a technical requirement. The air in your lungs contracts as you go deeper and expands as you head toward the surface. The only way to maintain the correct pressure in your lungs is to constantly breathe. In life, metaphorically as well as physically, it is important to breathe.

Life lessons. Another reason to join the world of SCUBA.

Thursday Has Become Adventure Day

I am working on how to keep the Adventure Thursday theme alive when I return to the U.S. and my regular life. I will let you know when this conundrum has been solved. For now I have the first Adventure Thursday to share.

Thursday April 10 in Curacao was definitely Adventure Day. It began with a drive to Christofel National Park on the NW side of the island, home to the highest peak on the island. The woman at the visitors center told us the climb would take an hour each way and that it was easy except for the last 15 minutes. She was right about the time but not about the easy part. It was a challenging grade for most of the way, at least for someone as not in shape as I am. (There were some middle school kids going up as we were going down. Three of the boys finished the uphill part and made it down only minutes after we did. Oh to be young again.) The trail was rocky and had some places where you had to navigate where your feet would go. Several times me and my 30 inch inseam had to conquer high steps from on rock to the next.  And then there was the final section. As tough as advertised.

First we had to scramble over some rocks using hands as well as feet. Then there was a vertical section involving finding footholds and rocks or tree limbs for my hands so I could pull myself up. The last 20 yards required squeezing through a very narrow passage, barely wide enough for me to get through, that had a very steep grade. My feet were on the walls to either side of me.

A few cuts and bruises but we made the summit. The views were stunning. I will post pictures when I return. I was admiring my stamina and fortitude just when I realized I would have to go back the way I came. Crap.

The climb down, at least for this first section, was harder than the uphill climb. Face forward going down. Finding places for hands and feet. Needing to jump or drop where you had reached and pulled on the way up. Complicating things were the people coming up sharing the same path. After surviving this first section the downhill was doable. Strenuous but doable. Amazingly it took about the same time down as up. We had thought that given the way gravity works the downhill would have been faster.

Thigh muscles ached by the time I finished. I expect that they may be worse tomorrow. However, Chistofel Mountain was just the beginning of this 4 part adventure day.

Part Two was the dive at Playa Kalki not far from the mountain. We made time to find a nice lunch and spend time on the beach. But then on to diving. We had rented equipment the day before. Unfortunately the entire dive set including air tanks had to be carried down 22 steps. (Also meaning 22 steps up on the way back.) We geared up, did buddy checks, got information about the reef and then jumped off the peer. This was to be only our second unguided dive. Ever.

Nice dive, good coral, interesting fish. Best of all was the freedom. When you go with a dive master and group, you all go where the dive master goes. Too often people bunch up. I have been kicked in the head many times on such a dive. But when you and your buddy are on your own you go where the whim takes you. See something interesting to the right, go check it out. Want to just play in the water like a fish…do it. We made it there and back on our own contributing to my SCUBA confidence level and adding to the legend.

Number Three was only a little bit adventurous but it all counts on Adventure Thursday. We had found a very nice restaurant on our way to Playa Kalki and decided to have an early dinner on our return home. The owner was a card. He came to our table and recited the day’s menu. I wanted to try something I had never eaten but decided against goat brains though they came highly recommended. I opted for the barracuda. It turns out to be a meaty white fish. The food was quite good and the atmosphere outstanding. There are bird feeders on the other side of a half wall next to our table. The birds there were beautiful. Orange and black, yellow and green, small and large. Then as we got up to pay the bill the owner tells us that life is to short to rush and that if we sat in the rocking chairs we could get a surprise. Ice Cream. That was a very pleasant surprise.

Last but not least was the Night Dive. I have done this a few times before. There is an extra bit of adventure, and for me trepidation, in diving when darkness surrounds you. All you have that allows you to see is a flashlight. The beauty of night dives are twofold. You see a few things that you may see during the day but all the colors are different. Even better, the nocturnal hunters are out. We did not encounter as much as I had hoped but we did see some lobster and a baby barracuda. For this journey in the deep we wisely chose to take a guide along.

Four adventures in a single day. Lets see to what extent I can keep up the new tradition of Adventure Thursday.

The Low Highs And High Lows of My SCUBA Trip

I have been in Curacao for two days now. My lugguge has not yet made the trip. It is missing some beautiful weather and I am missing my expensive brand new dive mask with the new prescription lens.  This is my low high. The low part is obvious, the high refers to the height of the American Airlines jet that should have brought my clothes and equipment to me. Or maybe it refers to the level of my level of exasperation and frustration.

It has been many years since I scheduled a trip just to dive, I had not been under the water for two years and only a few dives in the years before that. Six potential days to dive. At least three will be without the things that let me see well underwater or even the shoes to go hiking in.  I am not here to lay on a beach. I have been fortunate enough to do that twice already this year.  Ideally I am 60 feet below the surface most of the day and exploring the rest of the day.

So on to the high lows. I did dive today. Just one, a typical day is 2 and a great day would be three. It felt phenomenal, eventually. The dive shop we are using is low key and very friendly. The more experienced divers joining us really helped out. I generaly know how to hook up the various pieces of equipment but generally is nowhere good enough for being underwater. One of the others discovered a leak in my octopus, the spare thing that you breath through. I would have lost a lot of air and therefore dive time if that had not been fixed before we left.

Two other divers had not dove for at least a year so the dive master had us practice two basic skills just off the shore before we did the serious diving. First I took the regulator out of my mouth and tossed it over my shoulder. The object was to use the proper technique to recover it before I started breathing ocean.  Check. The second was to allow water into your mask and then clear it. Check again. This gave me a few moments to gain my composure under the water. I needed that.

We swam a ways on the surface until we were above reef a few hundred yards from the beach. Then down. I broke the surface of the water easily which is not always the case with me. It was a good reef. Interesting coral. There seemed to be a large number and a fairly good variety of fish. I was surprised when later the dive master said that there were fewer fish than usual.

I revel in the experience of floating under water communing with the sea life. This reef was long and deep. You could not see the bottom.  We went no deeper than 60 feet.  And yet for me depth plays a siren song. I want to keep exploring further down. Depth is a narcotic.  I am hooked.

The advantage of staying at 40 to 60 feet is that your air lasts a long time. We were down for 45 minutes and I had air to stay longer. However, until I am more experienced I need to stay with the group.

The dive was a definite high, low beneath the surface. More to come both for the highs amd the lows.

Spring Arrives

April 5th. It is in the mid-60s and beautifully sunny. Spring finally comes to Chicago. Let’s hope it stays awhile.

Of couse I am leaving town for a week. No complaints though. I am bound for Curaçao to SCUBA as much as I can.

It is just that mathematically the level of joy is related to the square of the difference in temperature between where you are and where you left. I will just have to make do.

The Life Aquatic

Maybe it was because  I have lived my life in the Midwest with the nearest ocean a thousand miles away. Maybe it was my first trip to the Caribbean in my mid- 20s. Maybe I was a creature of the sea in an earlier life. What ever it was, I love the ocean and the living creatures that inhabit it.

While I did not dive this vacation, the schedule and keeping the boys happy prevented it, I did snorkel. Once in Maui and several times on the Big Island. The main new creature this trip was the variety of sea turtles. Beyond that there were a great variety of fish and some spectacular corral.  Each snorkel experience was different. I am not certain what it is about the being in the ocean with a mask on that brings me such joy; I just know that it does.