An excursion to Calebra

Looking back on our second Sunday in Puerto Rico…

Our friend Raymond’s recommendation of Bio Bay, as you remember, had turned up five stars; so we asked him about arranging a couple of other things for us with East Island Excursions, the company for which he works. First of all, this company takes high-powered catamarans back and forth between Fajardo and Culebra, and also between Fajardo and Vieques. For the Culebra trip, to which the Vieques excursions are similar, you pay I think $80 per person and you show up at 9:00 in the morning. By 9:30 you are headed into the teeth of the trade winds, zooming across the Caribbean in an exhilarating ride, though unfortunately you are not allowed to stand up, or to sit outside the cabin on the back part of the boat enjoying the wind and spray. (This is my take. Other persons’ takes will differ depending upon their susceptibility to seasickness, naturally.) By 10:30 you are moored just offshore the island of Culebra, floating over a tropical reef in a transparently clear Caribbean bay, snorkeling away to your hearts’ content (with man-sized floaties if you never learned to swim, and with an introductory snorkeling training session if you have never snorkeled). By 12:00 or so you and your friends on the boat and the unlimited free rum that is also on the boat, have gobbled down the better-than-I-expected lunch, pulled up anchor, and moved around a headland to the next bay, where one finds Flamenco Beach, often listed as one of the top ten beaches in the world. (CNN placed it at #3 but CNN is not exactly known for dispassionate objectivity and factual reliability; I think the safest conclusions to draw from CNN’s report are (a) that Flamenco Beach is a very fine beach, and (b) that the owners of the Flamenco Beach Resort have let it be known to CNN that they donate generously to the Democratic Party. Discovery Channel rated it #2 in the world, though; so at least there seems to be something of a consensus that it’s a really really nice beach. And I am no beach connoisseur but I thought it was at least better than, you know, Galveston.) By 3:30, having been allowed if you wish (and can find a seat) to ride back in the open part of the boat for the calmer, trade-wind-assisted return trip, you are back at the wharf in Fajardo.

Helen originally wanted to know why the trip was so short, and I told her that I had no doubt that East Island Excursions, through long experience, had optimized the trip length to minimize customer complaints. And the fact that she slept most of the way back on my shoulder is a pretty good answer to her question: considering how much time everybody spends swimming and drinking, by 3:30 nobody’s complaining about getting home in time for a good nap. Well, at least, her sleeping on my shoulder all the way back would be a pretty good answer to her question if it hadn’t been that I doped her before we headed home. But I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

Helen, as has been mentioned several times in these pages, is susceptible to motion sickness; so even though she ordinarily holds Western medicine in contempt and refuses to hold truck with such barbarian notions, I was able to convince her to take a couple of Dramamine before departure. And this was highly successful; although three other people among the twenty or tourists on our boat had to resort to ice packs and seasickness bags, Helen smiled her way through the entire trip.

A helpful note in case you yourself avail yourself of East Island Excursion’s hospitality: asking for fruit punch on the outbound journey is asking for the chance to hurl fruit punch all over your face and holiday clothes when the boat happens to slam into an oncoming five- or six-foot wave at twenty miles an hour or so, just as you’re about to take a drink. This did not happen to me, as I declined any drink, being gifted with near-psychic foresight, and also having been on boats on the open sea before. But it did happen three times to the girl enjoying the window seat at the next table, along with a young man placed next to her for maximum ease in flirtation, and with a couple of older-generation family members on the other side of the table. The first time it happened she and the rest of her party, whose drinks had also abandoned their cups for more interesting locales, laughed gaily and asked the crew for refills. The second time it happened they also laughed gaily, and again new drinks were brought. The third time it happened the young lady reached up, slid open the glass window, seized her own cup in one hand and the cup of the young man next to her in the other, and hurled what remained in the cups out the window. After that, nobody at that table seemed disposed to request a refill.

A couple of hours later, as people were coming in from snorkeling in twos and threes to grab some lunch, I happened to be standing by when one of our fellow excursionists discreetly broached a question to the first mate, having first made sure none of those who had suffered on the outbound crossing were in hearing distance. “So tell me,” he asked with a smile, “do you on the crew ever take bets on which of you can best predict the number of people who will get sick?”

She chuckled and answered, “No, it’s hopeless. You really never can tell. There will be days far more choppy than this one when everybody is calm and happy. And some days when it’s as smooth as a pond we’ll have five people throwing up. We never have any idea what’s going to happen.”

Not everything this first mate says, I should tell you, ought to be taken as gospel. She had been the one to give the welcome and safety speech as we slowly motored out of the marina, and she obviously has ambitions of working someday as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Among other things, she assured us that it was a myth that captains go down with ships. “Here on our boats we follow the Italian protocols,” she told us. “So if you see the captain and crew dive over the side, it’s probably a good idea for you to follow suit.”

She also greatly enjoyed the t-shirt I happened to be wearing, which urges passersby to “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS…except for Dave, he’s a jerk.” As we were waiting for all the passengers to gather aft for the snorkeling safety speech, she asked me where she could find one for herself, but as I don’t remember where I got it myself, she decided to just hunt for it online. Then I told her (this is the gospel truth, by the way) that on two separate occasions I have had Starbucks baristas ask me, in all seriousness, “Wow, who is Dave?”

“No way!”

“Yeah,” I answered her as she bent nearly double laughing. “I didn’t really have an answer prepared for THAT one the first time. So I just said he was my brother-in-law.”

The first stop, as I mentioned, was the reef, which is where we were anchored when that conversation took place. As it is a nature reserve and not particularly easy of access from the shore, we were the only people in evidence upon our arrival.

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Even though the reefs are ten feet or so below the surface, you can easily tell where they are — the light blue water is over sandy bottom and the darker water covers reef.

The first mate gave us our snorkeling speech, including offering snorkeling lessons to anyone who needed them. She assured us that at no place did this particular reef break the surface; so we could swim safely wherever we wanted without worrying about committing the severe (and illegal) faux pas of actually touching the reef. The only exception was that we weren’t to go past the end of the little peninsula two or three hundred yards away (the little hill right of center in the next picture), “because there’s a strong current there that you won’t be able to fight. Get in that current and the next stop is the Bahamas, and we aren’t going to go that far just to pick you up. So if you hear a whistle, check to make sure you’re not too far from the boat.” Still, as you can see, that gave any reasonable person plenty of room to wander.

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I had every intention of going snorkeling and had bought an underwater camera so that I could provide pictures of the fish and the reef. This camera, and the pictures taken therewith, ultimately came to a sad and inglorious end to be explained later, and so this post will be rather more visually-deprived than I had expected – it is all well and good for me to tell you about the barracuda that was hanging out under the boat, but I sure wish I had the nice picture I took of it as we stared at each other. Helen, who doesn’t swim, was perfectly happy to stay on the boat and make like a pirate with the rum; after this trip she could say “Yo-ho-ho” with a lovely Spanish accent. “Jo-xho-xho, me hearties!” (Obviously I am not serious about the rum or the Spanish accent. In five years of marriage I have not even once been able to get Helen so much as merely to join in celebrating Talk Like A Pirate Day, much less to convince her to wave jugs of rum about while singing off-color songs and twirling the ends of her moustache.) I, however, had never in my life been snorkeling and was rarin’ to go.

We who are about to snorkel salute you

I hopped happily into the water, which was slightly cooler than I had expected but still eminently tropical, launched out, stuck my face down into the water, breathed out, and then…

PANIC PANIC PANIC PANIC CHOKE CHOKE CHOKE SPLUTTER!!

As I had never in my life been scuba-diving or snorkeling before, I had never in my life taken a nice deep breath in, while underwater. What I had not realized until that very instant was that while my brain understood the concept of a snorkeling tube, the rest of my body absolutely knew for certain that if you try to breath underwater you drown. The moment I started to breath in, my entire body from head to toe completely locked up in a spasm of pure panic, and I could not help but open my mouth desperately and gasp for air. Since opening your mouth in mindless desperation breaks the seal between your mouth and the snorkeling tube, causing half the water in the Caribbean to hurl itself joyfully into your mouth and down your windpipe, the panic was self-fulfilling. This did nothing to lessen the degree of panic on my second try.

After a few disastrous attempts, and much graceless (and, to observers, no doubt amusing) floundering about in the water yanking my head out and coughing and spitting out salt water, I accepted the fact that a change in strategy was in order. This was particularly true since every time I put my head underwater, water got into my nose, which I was pretty sure the mask was supposed to keep from happening. So I swam back to the boat and asked young Morgan, one of the crew, about the problem with water getting into my nose.

“Oh, sorry, that’s our fault,” he said. “It’s your moustache. We should have warned you. Your moustache breaks the seal. So hang on a second, I’ll get you some Vaseline. Then you smear Vaseline all over your moustache before you put on the mask, and then you’ll be fine.”

Duly Vaselined up, I returned to the bottom step of the boat, which by this time was free of traffic, since everybody else who wanted to snorkle was well out over the reef already.

Snorkelers

Here I spent the next few minutes sitting on that step, which was about a foot below the surface of the water, and practicing putting my face into the water and breathing in. For the first two or three minutes I couldn’t do it. Then I managed one breath before panicking. Slowly the stretches got longer and longer, and finally I pushed myself out from the boat and started floating, and slowly kicking my way, toward the reef. I had to yank my head out of the water a couple more times and reset myself, but finally I had myself under control, as long as I concentrated very carefully on breathing in and breathing out.

I had remembered the waterproof camera, and had attached it to my wrist, after making the surprising and unwelcome discovery that apparently there are a few camera factories in the world that still manufacture cameras that use…you’re not going to believe this…film. I had to cast way back into the mental mists of the past to remember how to advance the film in a camera. Also I had no idea how many pictures one roll would take. But eventually I seemed to have it under control; and now it was attached to my wrist…by a cord so short I couldn’t get it all the way into picture-taking position without hitting the end of its leash. So I had to pull it off my hand – remembering to keep breathing in and out – every time I wanted a picture. Still, I got several very nice shots of brilliantly colored fish swimming over suprisingly drab-colored coral. Breathe in. Breathe out. Sl-o-w-l-y pull camera off wrist. Breathe in. Point camera. Breathe out. Click button. Breathe in. Where the heck is that…breathe out…winding handle. Oh, there it…breathe in…is. Breathe out. Advance film. Breathe in. Sl-o-w-l-y pull camera onto wrist…

The alert Gentle Reader will note that in this routine, which I concentrated on intensely for quite some time, there is no point at which I included any step of “lift head out of water to see where you are and listen for a whistle.” At last it occurred to me that I had been snorkeling for quite a long time without having to yank my head up out of panic and start over. I lifted my head out of the water slowly, calmly, in complete control, very proud of myself for my Triumphant Accomplishment – and found myself staring at the point of the little headland we weren’t supposed to go past, which was about thirty yards from me. Now my airheadedness frequently results in comic results; but that was WAY too close to being not funny at all. At any rate, I got myself turned around in a heckuva hurry and started swimming purposefully back in the direction of the boat until I was reasonably sure I was out of getting-whistled-at range. And after that, “lift head out of the water to see where you are, you moron” found its way into the routine.

In due time, after lunch and quite a few drinks of rum in various guises, the boat was backing its way toward Flamenco Beach.

Flamenco Beach

It had not been made clear to us before we left Fajardo that there was no wharf at Flamenco Beach at which to disembark, and that the plan was for the boat to get thirty yards or so from the beach and then stop, allowing us all to leap overboard in ten-foot-deep water and swim to the beach.

Arrival at Flamenco Beach

This is all well and good unless you are a five-foot-four Chinese girl who can’t swim. But Helen spent a lot of this Puerto Rico trip being brave – she had already, you remember, kayaked Bayou Bay in the dark – and she steeled her nerves, strapped a life jacket onto her torso, clutched another one in both arms and put it under her chin, and eased herself into the water. Then I pushed her to shore. There are no pictures or videos of this process. I don’t believe any were taken to begin with. If there were, Helen has long since tracked them down and destroyed them.

Not only that, but she took snorkeling equipment with her. In fact we took several things with us, including a camera, though we didn’t think of them all at first. I made two or three trips to get things we had at first forgotten, including both of our hats. These came ashore in one trip, both perched atop of my head, Helen’s floppy floweredy hat proudly astride my own weatherbeaten brown broad-brimmed affair, while I dogpaddled so that I could keep my head above water and keep the hats dry. There are no pictures or videos of this process. If any were taken to begin with, I plead the Fifth on what might have happened to them subsequently.

At any rate, eventually we were settled on the beach, and I played in the surf some and Helen took some pictures (all pictures in this post were taken by Helen, by the way).

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This one in particular is interesting:

Bird puzzle, Flamenco Beach

Helen posted this picture on her WeChat feed and asked people to see how many birds they could count. There was a remarkably wide spread in the answer sample, and one of the reason that the spread was so remarkable was that a few people not only found all the birds that were there, they even found (apparently) a couple that were on their way to the party but hadn’t landed yet. I’m not quite sure how you manage to count MORE birds than are actually there, but more than one person did so. (The correct answer, by the way, is postponed to the bottom of this post, for those who want to play too.)

But I have strayed from the topic of the snorkeling equipment. After an hour or so of cavorting and picture-taking and walking along the beach, Helen summoned up her courage, strapped on the mask and snorkeling tube, walked on trembling knees out to where the incoming waves came up to her shoulders, took a firm grip on my hands with hers, and began to snorkel. Her snorkling consisted of doing the dead-man’s float while I held her in place, but she was snorkeling all the same. Which, given the psychological degree of difficulty, was a much greater accomplishment than anything anybody else on that beach did that day.

By the way, I may say that Helen was very embarrassed to be the only person on our boat who couldn’t swim. But in later conversations with the crew we found out that they thought none the worse of her for that, and actually appreciated her good sense. We were assured that it often happens that an entire boat is rented by a single group of tourists from this country or the other, as tourists come to Puerto Rico from all over the world. And whenever the crew members check their boat’s passenger list for the day and see that one such boatful consists of people from a certain culture that discretion forbids me to name (I don’t want to get the crew into trouble for their candour), they weep and gnash their teeth and rend their garments and steel themselves for a VERY long day. This is because persons from that culture (a) usually don’t know how to swim and (b) usually just jump into the water anyway, very often without life jackets. Then the crew has to keep them from drowning, despite their evidently suicidal intentions – and despite the fact that from time a time a whole such family will jump in at once and then panic en masse. So our crew thought highly of Helen, because while it was true that she couldn’t swim, at least she had the sense to KNOW (a) that she couldn’t swim, and (b) that jumping blithely into ten-foot-deep water when you can’t swim is unwise.

By the time the horn sounded, both Helen and I were tired, though happy. Helen allowed as how she had been pretty freaked out on the way in from the boat because, even though she knew I was behind her, she couldn’t SEE me, and she felt very alone. So Crew Member Morgan splashed ashore carrying a nice long floatie for her to rest her arms and chin on, which floatie was attached to a rope and a shoulder harness. (As I say, East Island Excursions is an experienced and professional outfit and Helen is very far from being the first non-swimmer they’ve taken to Flamenco Beach.) Morgan towed Helen to the boat, there in front where she could see him the whole time, while I swam behind carrying all our gear and wearing our two hats, no pictures or videos being taken. Then we secured seats in the open-air aft seating for the trip back.

And here we made our only real mistake (I don’t count forgetting to lift my head while snorkeling as a mistake because I didn’t reap consequences from it). I have never taken Dramamine in my life, because I have never been seasick. (Helen hates flying with me because whenever we hit turbulence I begin grinning with delight, to her intense annoyance. But if there’s no turbulence to enliven your plane ride then you might as well be riding a bus, is what I say.) I remembered something about “every four to six hours” on the Dramamine box, and I didn’t want Helen to get seasick; so I gave her two more Dramamine – not remembering (a) that the box said “one or two” and I had given her the full dose the first time, and (b) that Helen had had a long and stressful, if enjoyable, day, and was now exhausted.

I am not entirely sure that Helen remembers the rest of that day, which she passed either sound asleep on my shoulder in the aft of the boat, or else dragging herself around the apartment feeling very drugged and very unhappy. Insofar as she remembers anything about it, what she remembers – as she has informed me flatly – is that she will never ever again in her life, under any circumstances whatever, take Dramamine.

But other than that, hey, a great day, even if the Sunday evening family devotions we originally planned to have in the apartment were doomed by Dramamine. And if you go to Puerto Rico, I give East Island Excursions a big thumbs-up.

Oh, and as for the picture with the birds: there are twelve. (The highest WeChat guess was fourteen, by the way.)

P.S. By the way: the rum, it is gratis. The beer, it is three dollars a can. Beer-drinking Gentle Readers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

P.P.S. We originally planned to go on another of East Island Excursion’s trips. This one is a pure sailing trip, which goes to a couple of the small islands just offshore from Fajardo. The agenda is similar — snorkeling at a nice reef, a few hours at a nice beach, drinks and lunch included. The boats are somewhat different, in that at least one is partially glass-bottomed and another comes complete with a water slide. And the bar is differently stocked: the Culebra boats are rum-and-beer-only boats, but the sailboats have lots of bourbon and Scotch as well, which like the rum and unlike the beer are free. I cannot tell you why East Island Excursions are happy to pass out as much hard liquor as you can drink but don’t think they can afford to give you beer without charging for it. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the beer, with its high volume-to-alcohol ratio, takes up too much space?

At any rate, we had left the sailing trip until fairly late in our stay, and wound up prioritizing other things ahead of it and saving it for our next trip. So if you go before we do, let us know how it works out.

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