Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Diving for Expats, and Everybody Else

As a way of life, scuba would leave a lot to be desired. As a hobby, though, it’s brilliant; it anchors the experience of a new place, whether you’re on a quick visit or diving in as an expat.

I didn’t always feel this way. My husband, Rick, and I started diving together on our honeymoon ten years ago in Fiji. I was a novice, and nervous. And the dive boat left at 7:30 in the morning, for the love o' Pete. So scuba felt more like an obligation than a raison d'etre.

Now, though, I’ve experienced shore diving. I’ve gazed upon a forlorn little seahorse, and hovered in rapt fascination as a silver army of barracuda barreled by on their way to war. Or lunch. Or something. Not exactly a whale shark sighting or a friendly swim with dolphins, but I live in hope.

And I know how useful a dive itinerary can be to one’s social dance card. I traveled alone to Cozumel but was quickly adopted by a group of hard-core divers from Buffalo who later shooed away some incorrigible policía surrounding my rental car. In St. Eustatius, Rick and I were treated to an unforgettable Caribbean view by the owners of Dive Statia on their spacious patio overlooking the sea. And in Bonaire, our B&B hosts, who doubled as divemasters, pointed out not only the best dive sites, but also everything the guidebook hadn’t told us about a possible future expat existence on the Dutch Antilles island.

Seeing a new destination through the diving community's lens brings different perspectives: the local leaderships' vigilance as environmental stewards; options for health care (especially as they relate to bites, stings, and nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream); the best spot for a cold beer. All the important stuff. And, of course, what's going on beneath the surface (aka How's the diving?). The diving's always good for a story.

In Sharm el Sheikh, the corals were Williamsburg blue. Blue. I’d never seen such a thing. And the morays weren’t hiding in holes, as is their habit. The six-foot monsters were free swimming.

But why hide, really, when one is long enough to wrap one’s snaky self completely around a bubble-blowing human, if one were, say, looking for a diversion? And then continue on up the quivering air hose to smile real pretty into the petrified diver's mask just before sinking one’s pointy, bacteria-laden teeth into…um. Oh, sorry. What was I saying? Right.

Even the quality of light in the water seemed different there in the Red Sea, like an old home-movie kind of blue, with the fish set in bold relief against it, as if they were dropped into a 3-D computer animation. It felt like we’d descended into a slow-motion Cousteau film, with the bubbles sounding a slow wah wah wah, and our limbs moving at a turtle’s pace through the very salty water.

It was spectacular diving, right up until the moment the Lone Single Guy dropped in out of nowhere and finned my face. One second, I’m communing with a lipstick-wearing parrotfish; the next, I'm backing up, squid-like, from a Speedo-ed spastic with a disposable camera.

And that’s pretty much my diving experience in a nutshell – moments of wonder followed by musings on mortality, interspersed with mild hallucinations and the occasional blow to the head. Kind of like tequila. But more expensive.

For me, the scuba learning curve has been a little steep and sometimes scary – underwater I still keep my hands to myself and my tank banger within easy reach – but the benefits are pretty robust. And if you’re a single woman, it’s a great way to meet guys. Just sayin’.

Photos (c) www.RickCollier.com Take a look at Rick's site for more pics of Bonaire, Egypt (including Sharm), and Statia.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Barbados, Mount Gay Rum and the Caribbean Reconnaissance Mission

As a rosy glow comes up over the Caribbean horizon, a man on a sailboat settles into a deck chair, sips his Mount Gay rum with soda and a splash of lime, and finds serenity.

Next night, same thing. Ditto the night after that.

By the time I’ve finished reading the book about the man and his wife and their expat island-hopping journey, I can taste that drink. When I crave a crazy-day-at-work rescue, I picture that man on that boat with that drink, and I’m there.

So when we landed in Barbados (home of Mount Gay) for New Year’s, naturally I was thinking:

Fish. Flying fish, mostly; the Bajan Big Mac. Can’t drink on an empty stomach.

And I’d heard that Barbados cooks some fish. Most famously, the Friday Fish Fry at Oistins, a charming seaside village. (Which, I have to say, is quite like the dozens of other charming little villages along the scenic coast, creating a 20-mile ant trail of rental cars.) Flying fish, blue marlin, dolphin, and barracuda are all on the menu at Oistins.

Crowding the plate are carbs that called to me for months from the pages of Fodor's Barbados: cou cou (similar to polenta, just as uninspiring), “pie” (a dense mac-n-cheese), breadfruit fries (yee-um), peas and rice, and paw paw (papaya) pie.

The fish fry was all that and more – the “more” being bottles of the local Banks beer for US$1. (A dollar! Why, that frees up a few bills for some of that sweet potato pie…)

And the rum?

The Mount Gay distillery/tour facility was locked up tight at 2:00 on a Tuesday during high season (maybe the 1,000-plus rum shacks on the 21 x 14 mile island were fully stocked?). But I finally managed to scare up a bottle from one of the thousands of mini marts, gas stations, doggie day cares, Chefettes, and shoe shine stands that stockpile it like malt liquor in a 7-Eleven. (Kidding. Never saw a shoe shine stand in Barbados.) I picked the best of the best – Mount Gay Extra Old golden rum.

Andy at RumReviews.com awards this special liquor the coveted RumReviews “Ten Bottles” rating, noting:

“This is one of my absolute favorite rums. Oh what I wouldn't do for one right now.”

His partner, Adrian, is a tad more circumspect, awarding only nine bottles, but giving perhaps an even more heartfelt recommendation:

“After trying it with Coke, I really think I could drink this off the floor.”

Back at our idyllic B&B, the Rosalie, on our final evening, Rick and I sat on the beach, tumblers in hand, as a rosy glow made its way across the horizon. Barbados was the last planned stop on the Caribbean Recon Mission we’d started five years earlier; a semi-serious look into which island could claim our affection, if and when we leave our work-a-day lives in Virginia for fabulous new work-a-day lives in the tropics. A perfect drink could tip the balance in favor of this pink- and blue- and caramel-colored charm of the West Indies.

I lifted the Mount Gay with soda and lime to my lips, closed my eyes, and said,

“Uh, we got any of that wine left?”

So the search continues.

And we’ve been hearing that Grenada has some kickin’ yellowfin tuna…

Photos (c) http://www.rickcollier.com/ Take a look at Rick's site for more pics of Barbados.