Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Different Lattitude, Same Attitude

Different Latitude, Same Attitude

As a four year old I had no words for it, but I knew that something big was happening. It was a hot summer evening and I felt weird – some odd combo platter of emotion…dread…excitement…fear? I couldn’t tell. But I knew that my six brothers and sisters were thrilled, and that my mom, though she was smiling, was feeling something else, something much more sinister.

Around 6pm my dad burst through the door with a puffed up chest and a mischievous smile. “Pack up the kids Doris” he bellowed, “We’re going on vacation.” It was a Friday in late August, commission check time for feed salesman in small town Southern Minnesota, and it had been a good week. My brothers and sisters were jumping and hollering. “Whoo Hoo! Vacation! I get Mom’s lap.” “Hugh-ungh you got it last time.” My mother got this odd look on her face – something between fear and homicidal mania.

You see vacation to our family was not some rustic, cozy cabin in the north woods on a lake – or even roughing in a tent with a camp stove. Our vacation home was an old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a cricket-infested field in southern Minnesota. It had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no bedding, no dishes – and my mother was to pack up seven children, supplies, equipment, and food at 6 pm on a Friday night so that we could arrive before dark. How she went 55 years without smothering that man in his sleep I will never understand.

Packing the car was an exercise in advanced geometry and triangulation. Nine people, food, sheets, towels, supplies, and Poncho – the nervous, incontinent, motion sick terrier were all to fit into the midnight-blue Buick Roadmaster. We were lap-sitters, the lot of us, four in the front and five in the back. As the baby of the family, I got to ride in back window of the sedan along with Poncho, and it was my job to yell “CAR” whenever I saw one approaching or trying to pass.

What would turn out to be our very last visit to the abandoned shack began just as all the others had, with frenzy and excitement and undeniable dread. And now it was nighttime – dark as pitch. I was curled up with my sister on an army surplus cot built for one. We were a tangle of clammy arms and legs, sweaty brows and musty old blankets, waging a sleep-war for the only pillow. It was a hushed symphony of cricket chirps and sleep murmurs. Then everything changed.

At first I could only hear the huffing. This was not the rhythmic familiarity of my dad’s snoring. No, whatever was breathing like that was definitely not human and it smelled horribly of musk and mold and decay. Satan’s perfume. I heard my mother’s voice.

“Ellis” she whisper-screamed “there is a BEAR in here!”
“Just go back to sleep. It’ll leave” my dad replied.
“GET IT OUT OF HERE!” She was no longer whispering.
“How in hell am I supposed to do that? I don’t have a gun.” He said.
“You want me to chase a bear?”

Muttering curses like Yosemite Sam, my dad hurled himself out of the bed and made all the noise a 5 foot 4 inch, 145 lb man could make. He shouted and flailed and banged on whatever was near him, completely blind in the darkness. My nine year-old brother Jimmy took an inadvertent cuff to the ear and howled out in pain. This started a chain reaction of screaming and falling to the floor from seven children and a very small, very frightened terrier.

The commotion died down when Mom lit the gas lantern and we looked around the cabin. No bear, no boogeyman, just that unholy, lingering odor.
The door was standing wide open and we held our breath as Dad bravely advanced on the door, and beyond it, the wild, ferocious animal that had nearly massacred his family.

There at the bottom of the steps sat a very confused, very hairy golden retriever, panting and huffing with his head tilted a little to one side. “Well there’s you bear Doris, there’s your damn bear.” My father shook his head, quenched the light, and went back to sleep.

Fast forward 35 or so years and I am in a lovely hotel with my husband and three kids. We have a pool, a beach, a kitchen and air conditioning. “C’mon you guys, this will be an adventure.” I coaxed. I had met a man named Christian who was building a resort on one of the undeveloped outer cayes in Belize. His resort wasn’t open for guests yet, but would be very soon. He was looking for someone to market the resort in the US, and I, being a travel agent who was already marketing a hotel on another caye, I was a natural choice. He offered free accommodations for the weekend.

We packed a boat with provisions and took the two hour ride to Long Caye Resort. As we docked the boat and unloaded, I noticed that my husband had this strange look on his face. He didn’t seem nearly as excited for this adventure as I was. “Jeez” I thought. “Where’s your sense of fun?”

The cloud of mosquitoes descended on us almost immediately. I’d never seen anything like it. They were as thick as fog, buzzing and biting like the frenzied vampires they are. At once they were in my eyes, up my nose, in my mouth and ears. Choking and swatting, we jumped into the ocean to escape.

“Careful of the stinging jellyfish ma’am.” Christian, our host announced. “They’re everywhere.” We snatched the kids out of the water and put on long sleeves and pants, hats and bandanas. Trouble is, it was about 106º and humid. Everyone was miserable, sweating and itching like crazy. “Quick – inside the hotel” I offered.

Christian showed us to our rooms – a 10x10 box with no cross ventilation, no screens on the only window and gaping holes in the unfinished roof. It did have a ceiling fan, and I was hoping that after the sun set the mosquitoes would abate and the breeze of the fan would keep us cool.

“You have electricity right?” My husband accused.
“Yes, of course.” Replied Christian.

And he did. Except, he forgot to mention that the generator was turned off every night around 10 pm - turning the 10x10 hot box of a room into a sweltering, buggy oven. We passed that hideous night taking turns trying to cool off in the shower down the hall – fully clothed.

The next morning we were up and out of there before our host was even awake. I was appropriately contrite about my mis-adventure. However, on the way back I asked my husband if we could stop at another island just a little further south. I had heard about a resort that some American had built and then abandoned. Apparently he had been in trouble with the law and had to flee country. “We should stop and take a look.” I said. “I guess it’s brand new and just sitting there empty for anyone to use. We could stay the night. It would be an adventure!” He just looked down and shook his head.

How that man has gone 22 years without smothering me in my sleep I will never understand.

Word Count 1248
Julene Nolan

Life Lessons in St. Lucia

Long about load number sixteen of the pre-trip laundry piper-paying , I wonder. "Is this going to be worth it?" How much fun will this trip have to be to justify the weeks of sock matching and grocery hauling, necessary to leave 3 children for 8 nights. "A lot" I think. "One hell of a holy lot".

But the moment I round the corner of the MN-5 exit and the Lindberg terminal bursts into view, I am in love. Yes, the obnoxious long lines, the crabby, clueless travelers, the slow, confused, elderly man in front of me in the security line, who stinks of mothballs, garlic and Efferdent, and has to be prompted to remove every single personal item, "And your belt please sir...and your jacket please sir...and your hat please sir...and your phone please sir...and your shoes please sir..." I love them all. Ditto the self-important business man talking into the collar of his expensive shirt, sporting a star trek, blue tooth, headset, and shoving me with his $1400 alligator briefcase as he cuts ahead of me...okay, maybe him I don't love.

But I do adore the delicious anticipation as the seatbelt glides across my lap and I hear that satisfying click. And I always, oddly, feel a trifle self satisfied if I need to cinch it in just a tad - that means I am thinner than the last occupant. I poke the earbuds in my ears and Springsteen wails "Baby We Were Born to Run".

"Yes Bruce. Yes we were."

The plane starts its jerky rumblings down the runway. It relaxes me so much that I often fall asleep just then. While nervous flyers are white-knuckling their armrests and jamming their heels into the floor all around me, I am off in dreamland, head lolling, probably drooling, pleased with my good fortune. But this time, awake, I turn and catch my reflection in the window, and I am changed. I am a woman on a trip. That's what travel does for me.

And this trip was to be better than most. My husband and I were off on a second honeymoon of sorts (though I contend that 3 nights of watching my husband fish in northern Wisconsin does not qualify as a first honeymoon). We were off to St. Lucia - an island deep in the Caribbean West Indies. This island is said to be for lovers - very popular with the honeymoon set. I had heard it offered lots of adventure, diving, sailing, jungle treks and great food.

St. Lucia has a romantic, if violent history. It is called "The Helen of the Caribbean" for its great beauty and desirability. In fact, it is so beautiful that the powerful rulers of France and England each saw fit to allow their soldiers to die in battle over her, not once but seven times. But it was a battle of a different sort in which I would find myself embroiled here. It was a battle of intuition and trust.

On a dive boat we met Stuart, a Canadian man traveling alone. He seemed a rather nice guy - and the fact that he said "a boot" when he meant "about" made me giggle. Perfect traveling companion. He was also interested in finding a private charter sail around the island.

"But" I asked "Aren't there catamarans that do group sails much cheaper?"

"Oh sure" he answered. "They have those eh? - 150 sweaty drunks, jammed elbow to knee on top of each other trying to get to the buffet first. And speakers the size of refrigerators that blast rap music and scare the dolphins halfway to Cuba. Here comes one now. Look at that tall bloke peeing off the starboard. Charming bloke eh? And what's it called? The S.S. Chlamydia?"

But that meant we had to find someone who would do a private charter. To travel like this you need to be either astoundingly rich, or willing to trust people you don't know. I am not rich and so I must trust. "See that fellow over there with the blue toque?" Said Stuart. "That's Robert. He's supposed to be the one to hook us up". I saw that he was referring to a very shaggy looking island boy, whose dreads were gathered up in a blue stocking cap. "Oh dear" said mid-western sensibilities.

Robert met us on the beach under a palm tree. "You like-a my office mon?" He smiled gesturing toward the sand. "Friends are callin' me Doctor Feel-Good." Now either he was a licensed Doctor of mind-body holistic medicine, practicing on the beach for the connection it offers to the earth, or he was a drug dealer. Everyone knew Robert, greeted him by name, and he assured us that he would be able to hook us up with anything we wanted.

"Well Robert, we want a sailboat, a nice one. And a captain, also nice, to sail around the island tomorrow. What would that cost?" Stuart asked.

"You are my friends, and for you - good deal" Robert replied. We agreed on a price and made plans to meet the next morning.

That night I awoke with worrying dreams. What did I really know about this guy? Sure he had water-taxied Stuart around for a few nights - had looked after him at the local festival, but what was I doing? Was I being naïve, irresponsible? Or was this feeling of uncertainty a racist response to a person who looked different than me? In the creaky, rusty hours of the night, my paranoid fantasies had me believing horrible things about this young man, and alternately about myself.

The next day was cloudy and rainy - an ominous sign if you believe in such things. Robert and his pal Frederic arrived right on time to pick us up in the water taxi. Robert assured us that the weather at the south end of the island would be better. I looked at him with uncertainty on my face as he held out his hand to help me into the boat. "Do you trust me?" He asked. And at that moment, for better or worse, I did.

This story ends well, with a beautiful day of sailing, another glimpse of the S.S. Chlamydia as it passed to our port side, with too much noise and too many people, confirming the wisdom of our decision. But it also ends with a lesson in trust - a lesson for both Dr. Feel Good and me.

We had just started our sail - beautiful weather, beautiful boat, when I realized that my formerly predictable feminine cycle was betraying me, and arriving a full two weeks early. I had nothing in the way of feminine products. NOTHING. There was nothing on the boat, and we had sailed out of the only populated area for miles We were hours from anything but a tiny village with no stores. But I could see women there on the beach and I know where there were women there are feminine products.

I had my husband ask the captain to find a mooring here, and ferry us into the beach for a little while. The captain said that while we could moor here there was no reason to go to the beach. "There is nothing here to do. No snorkeling, no restaurant, no stores. I have a much better place up ahead in one or two hours."

But my husband insisted. Suspiciously the captain moored the boat and ferried us in the dingy. We walked the beach for awhile trying not to look so conspicuous. I went from one group of women to another asking for a "favor". Finally a very bohemian-looking young woman nodded. She had the "stuff" I needed, and we ducked behind a palm tree to make the exchange. She didn't want to take money, but I insisted knowing that supplies like these, in places like this are neither inexpensive nor easy to come by. She had saved me.

My husband told the captain that we were ready to go back to the boat. I noticed a distinct chill coming from both Robert and the Captain. I wondered if they were embarrassed to have to deal so blatantly with a woman's issue and I began to get indignant. I was ready to show these men a little American Feminism.

I asked, "Is there some problem?"

"Yes" Robert said. "That stuff is not legal here on the island and is not legal on the boat. The captain is afraid he will have big trouble from this and be fired from his job."

"What is not legal?" I asked incredulous.

"What you bought from that girl" Robert said.

"You mean these?" I replied and opened my hand to reveal half a dozen tampons.

Robert's eyes grew wide. He covered his face with both hands and doubled over with laughter and embarrassment "No," he said "No, not that."

In the end both Robert and I learned a little something about trust, about making assumptions, and about what all women really want at one time or another. Who knows, maybe Dr. Feel-Good carries them himself now.

Word Count 1528

Julene Nolan