Wednesday, August 28, 2013

II, Dominica

Okay, and I promised some diving pictures.  Diving here has been awesome.  In terms of what we actually see, it is on par with most of the Caribbean – except for the seahorses which are always otherworldly.  (I got a clearer picture here so that all of you that couldn’t find that last one would not have to go on seahorse-unfulfilled.)  But the visibility is crystal clear, there is no current, and the reef is completely healthy.  Makes a huge difference.  Plus there are only a handful of dive shops on the island so you are always the only people on the reef. 

We have been diving mostly at a dive shop called East Carib Divers run by a former East German uranium miner and his adorable French wife.  They have little bungalows right on the beach so you can wake up 15 minutes before the boat leaves and still have time for coffee.  And our room has a tree growing in the middle of it.  Mac has been doing his Advanced course and I have been taking pictures.  Life is pretty much as follows: wake up, dive, eat coconut, dive, gourmet lunch on the beach, quick wade across the channel for cold beer at the domino player bar, sunset on the beach, and huge plates of local food for dinner in the nearby village.  (At this pace my wetsuit is going to need to be let out.) 

And even though the seahorse is probably going to be the crowd-pleaser, the moray with the nose shrimp is probably my favorite dive picture that I have ever taken.  

For those that found the seahorse right off this time and still want a challenge, I have flounder...

And the angriest little puffer fish in the Caribbean (even puffed up he is smaller than a grape).

And finally for Elin, Elysia crispata, or the lettuce sea slug.  They come in common, or as the fish guide says, the much more rare "blue variety."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I, Dominica

I remember in grad school that at the first brown bag lunch we had, a public official came from Dominica came to speak with us about the problems his country was facing.  They were a poor little remote island basically was subsisting on banana exports and aid money.  They wanted to develop a tourism industry but they have almost no beaches (rock coastline), somewhat of a downer in the Caribbean market.  And it is sandwiched between two French speaking islands (it is anglophone) with an airport is the size of a gum wrapper that can’t take jets.  Plus when you say “Dominica” most people think you are talking about the Dominica Republic.  As this was early in my development career, I thought recommendations needed to be grounded in statistics and hard evidence, so he came away empty-handed.  But the pictures on his powerpoint looked epic so, then and there, the selfless humanitarian in me decided that I would one day go and help bolster the nascent sector. 

This was now eight years ago, and there still isn’t anyone here.  And unlike Bangladesh, which has been using the slogan “come before the tourists get here” since the 1970s, eventually they will come.  This place is unreal.  There are two main types of activities here – hiking through unspoiled rainforest to swim in pristine waterfalls, or diving on incredible reef in crystal clear water.  Mac and I have indulged in copious amounts of both.  As to ration the material, I am going to stick to the non-diving adventures here first.

For the first week, we rented this tiny little cottage up on the hill overlooking the forest and rocky cove.  Our adventuring was a bit limited since we were still working, but I have to pass on to management that I am much more productive with a majestic sea view.  We managed to sneak in a few short hikes to secluded mountain waterfalls and lunch at one of the beaches where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.  (I think Johnny Depp personally may account for a measurable percentage of total tourism revenue.)  There is a woman selling cold beer, and fish with avocado and breadfruit.  (You very much could have left me there.)  Other than that – we were the only ones there.

And not that weekends in DC aren’t cool and all – but here you can snorkel on Champagne reef – which in its own right would have been a great site but due to the island’s ongoing geothermal weirdness, it bubbled like a glass of champagne.  It is tough to describe how decadent it feels to be snorkeling with swarms of tropical fish in champagne.

Then there was Boiling Lake.  Considered the “premier hike” in an island that is pretty stacked in that department, with was memorable.  You start by walking through the forest, then it is up and down and up and up and up and down and down some pretty fierce hillsides, until you reach the “Valley of Desolation.”  In the middle of the lush green hillside, the burbling sulfur gases mix with the mud and natural water to make its own little oasis of hell.  Which takes 45 minutes to slog across.  And the one piece of advice that the lady that sells cold beer at the trailhead gave us – other than “you be startin’ a bit late now ya?” was “nae step in the sulfur pools – melt you shoes.”  Sage advice as it turned out.

Once you get to the top there is – as advertised – a boiling lake – which appears to be made of mildly noxious skim milk.  (You may be interested to know that this is in fact the second largest boiling lake in the world – second to Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand.  This is interesting not that there is necessarily a bigger one but that there is a list of such things.) 

All in all, the trip was about ten rough miles roundtrip.  I was thoroughly coated in mud from the knees down – plus in a fit of primal ecstasy at actually reaching the top I used some volcanic mud to paint clipart tribal tattoos on my face and arms.  In summary – I was dirty.  Luckily in addition to the nice lady selling cold local beer – the Titou Gorge was at the base of the trail.  Straight out of Indiana Jones.  You swim about 100 feet through a very deep very cold very narrow very dark chasm to this ethereal sunlit double waterfall.  Then back as fast as you can because you just swam 100 feet against strong current in very deep very cold (fresh) water and you had already exhausted from hiking  10 grueling miles and god damn if you were going to drown before you got that beer.  But at least you were no longer dirty. 

I have attached a couple pictures of this and a few sundry waterfalls.  And this caterpillar (pseudosphinx tetrio if you are Elin Grimes) which ate (with a few friends) our entire frangipani tree in four days.  After which they became hawkmoths which are similar to very small very stupid bats without sonar.

I am going to have to whittle down the diving pictures from the few hundred that I have accumulated before I can write the next installment… 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Le papillion et l'hippocampe

So let me say it up front and get it out of the way.  I am working from the Caribbean for the month of August.  Now if everyone is done chuckling, it really isn’t as bad of an idea as it sounds.  I spent the last two months lining up outputs from the consultants, and now I have a month to put them together.  Working part time and taking some vacation as well.  I work for my most productive four (or six or whatever I am feeling that day) hours, and then go play.  If it rains, usually I would be upset because it was raining on my vacation, now it is all cool, because I just spend that day working, and take a sunny Thursday off.

My partner in crime, Mac, and I spent the first two weeks of our month on the island of Guadeloupe.
Guadeloupe is a French overseas protectorate, which means it is like the Puerto Rico of France except they get to vote in parliament (which makes it one up on the District of Columbia).  There are a couple of them, so Guadeloupe is the one shaped like a butterfly (or two volcanic islands connected by the land bridge but this is France after all and that is nowhere near sufficiently poetic).  In addition to my previously mentioned productiveness, we have been filling in the days hiking, sunning, diving, beaching, driving, cliffing, volcanoing, waterfalling, and drinking copious amounts of Caribe beer.

Basically this post is really just a vehicle for me showing off my dive pictures.  (It may not have the packed sea life of the Pacific or Red Sea, but the viz is crystal.  And on the upside, its most sectarian conflict is over whether to drink French or Trini beer.)  In addition to the flamingo tongue sea slug and the puffer fish with the weird eyes, I also got the biggest sea horse that I have ever seen.  He is a bit hard to see in the pictures (natural camouflage blah blah blah), but you can just make him out.

The cliffs along the ocean are nice and dramatic for hiking, and one is never really that far away from a golden beach if it gets too hot.  Then there was one sort of ill-fated decision to hike the local active volcano (every island has got one) in the rain.  The sulfur mixed in with the low hanging clouds and basically left us in a foul smelling hazy for three hours.  I am attaching a photo so you can see how happy I was to get to the top, and looking, as Mac rather generously described, like a wet puppy.

Fortunately there was a nice bar at the bottom that served Ti Punch – which is a fruity island favorite when served in tourist bars but is just a shot of cane rum with lime and sugar when you stop in the roadside pirate bar (ie what Jimmy Buffet drinks the night his wife leaves him).  But it took care of any lingering chills right quick.

So that is Guadeloupe – catching a southbound boat tomorrow afternoon…