Monday, March 15, 2010

Final thoughts

A lot of people have asked us what we thought about the length of the trip. Was it too long? Were we dying to get home? Didn't we get bored?

The trip was long, as far as vacations go... the longest we've ever had... and I did miss friends and family. However, if we could rent the whole place out and include our closest friends and family, and have the ability to deal with work obligations as needed, I could easily stay there a month or more.

And no, we did not get bored. I think the inclusion of day trips to other parts of the island spattered in amongst beach days did help to break up what could have been a long stretch of only staring at white sand. In addition to that, though... it was actually a relief to have a real vacation, with no detailed agenda... no electronic distractions (save for a little blogging) and just total immersion into the surroundings. Even G - having the attention span of a typical 8 year old - never said "Mom, I'm bored." When we were at 3 Dives we talked with a couple who were there for a long weekend, and they had commented how nice it would be to have a longer stay, because just as they get in and settled into the laid back nature of the area, it was time to pack everything up and go right back home. I knew what she meant almost immediately... as around day 3 or 4 I had noticed a distinct change in the way I carried myself.

I recall at the beginning of our trip we were walking past a gift shop on the road, and I had gone back to it a little later to pick something up. The clerk inside asked me if I was late for the airport, and I said "No, actually we just got here. Why?" and she giggled a little and said "I saw you earlier, you were walking so fast, I thought you were late." By the end of the trip I had reduced my pace considerably, to the point where our first day back to the bus stop it felt like the neighbors were running as I meandered my way back to the house.

For this trip, for this time, I believe the length was just right. We were able to get in the tours and exploring we wanted to, with a sense of ease knowing that we'll likely be back in the coming years. We were able to be lazy on the beach and truly kick back without a care in the world. And we were able to enjoy the time together with new friends, and the time alone... just being.

Nicknames from the trip...

When we told one of the staff at Tensing Pen G's name, he said "Oh Gayle, like the wind!" and from that moment on, she was known as "Gaylewind" at Tensing Pen.

On our way to the Black River Safari we were talking to Tyrone about wanting to get photos of real crocodiles in the wild, and as he described the river and talked about how we'll find D a crocodile he said "We'll get one for you mon... we'll call you Crocodile Dan. Oh! Crocodile Dan D.! That's your name!"

I was not given a specific nic-name, however many of the vendors we repeatedly spoke to tended to call me "Baby", and when I did give my name the response was "Oh... that's like a boy's name here!" Yes... it is in America too.

What I take away from the trip...

I have not yet fully adjusted back into "regular life", and I'm hoping that I never really do. The relaxation, the sense of "don't worry about it, there's time... and if there's not time today, there's time tomorrow" is something that I would like to keep with me on a day to day basis for all the little things... house work, yard work, work-work. Life happens, speed bumps appear on what you thought would be a smooth ride - you can freak out and race over them, or take them for what they are... take a moment to slow down and get over the bump, and back onto smooth pavement.

Yet at the same time, I walk away from the trip energized to take on more. We have an 8 year old daughter who not only travels well, but is eager to explore and experience life - and we need to take advantage of that while we can. I want to get through the "have-to's" that are necessary in day to day life, and get out to the "want-to-do's" more often. As the weather turns better I want to be out more - hiking, boating, exploring. I want to continue to push through my limits and fears and do more kayaking, and learn rock climbing.

And I want to shoot more.

Which reminds me of a funny conversation I had with one of our new friends about photography... we had discussed camera types, styles of photography, and film vs. digital. I mentioned I had brought a 16GB flash drive with me to back up my SD cards, just in case anything happened to the camera itself. He told me about this online storage that would save me from having to bring a flash drive, and talked about how quick and easy it is to use.

"Yes, but the internet here is pretty slow," I said.

"It's not that bad for photos," he said. "How many photos do you have?"

"Over 8 gigs so far," I replied.

"No no," he responded... "I don't mean total. I mean just for this trip this week, how many photos do you have?"


"Over 8 gigs so far."

(For much of the scenic stuff, I shoot RAW format - in case you were wondering - hence... it takes up a whole lotta space.)

Back to my goals... I not only want to shoot more, but I want to make a concentrated effort to finally put a book together. It has been a goal of mine for many, many years... but I never felt I had the quality or quantity of material to put something publishable together. However, given the relative ease of self publication on the web these days, I feel it is a worthy and attainable goal. And fits in nicely with my desires to just be out living more life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 5 - bumpy journey home

Oooohhh... the journey home.

I began my day around 4:30 a.m. east coast time, when I woke suddenly and was entirely unable to get back to sleep. I tried, but gave up around 5:30 and decided to get moving on the packing. The night before I had gathered items into categories thusly:

Pile A) MUST go in checked luggage
Pile B) MUST go in carry-on
Pile C) Fill in the gaps

This method seemed to work pretty well. After a couple hours of careful consideration, we managed to arrange everything to fit reasonably within all our bags - using our spare shoulder bags as new carry-ons, and having to check a couple of our rolling suitcases.

Having our bags lined up and ready to roll, we headed down to Chill Awhile for a last breakfast. I had a quick bowl of porridge, D ordered ackee and bacon (which he shared with me) and probably two pots of coffee between the two of us. After breakfast, our friends walked us up to the front of the hotel, where Tyrone was loading our bags into the van. I checked us into our flight on the hotel's computer, and we gave hugs to the staff at Idle Awhile and our friends, and piled into the van.

The drive to the airport took roughly an hour and a half. G and I watched the countryside whiz by while D talked to Tyrone about foods, cooking, other places on the island to visit. Ty invited us to come to his house the next time we visit, we'll have a day where we hang out and cook good food and just chill.

Just after we had hit the road in Negril, D started getting calls on his cell phone. He didn't check the voice mail until we were within reliable cell coverage, about 5 minutes outside of the airport. It turns out the calls were all from the airline. Shortly after I had checked us in, and verified our flight information was up to speed, our flight had been canceled.... and we were now scheduled for a flight 4 hours later. This would put us into Charlotte sometime around 10 p.m., possibly staying overnight before flying on home.

Though I've never actually had a flight completely canceled like that on me, this is one of the reasons I was glad we were coming home on a Friday. Even if we were delayed overnight, we'd still have the weekend to recover before jumping back into routine. It's not like we weren't going to make it home... it was just going to be delayed and reworked.

As we approached the line for the ticket counter, the airport guy unloaded our bags for us up next to the front, where I stood to wait while D went to the back of the long line. Many people in line were looking tense - we had all been scheduled on that flight, and the employees were scrambling to get us all home in some other manner. D wasn't in line for more than two minutes before he was approached.

"You are flying to Seattle? Come with me, we need you at the front of the line to get you on a flight right away."


Most of the American's we've encountered in Jamaica came from the east coast. Jamaica is a quick jump for them - a hop down the coastline to paradise - so it is a popular vacation destination. We have yet to meet anyone from anywhere further west than Chicago on that island. As such... the long line of people in front of us were all waiting to be booked on later flights, running up along the east coast in various combinations of connections through east coast ports. We, on the other hand, were the only people from the flight trying to eventually get out west, so they had a different option. Rather than wait 4 hours to get a flight to Charlotte and stay overnight, we can put you on a flight running through Phoenix that leaves in 30 minutes.

All in all, it would put us in Seattle about 2 hours ahead of our original schedule, which was fantastic... but it meant a mad dash through security, down the hall, and directly on to the plane. No time for planned lunch or last minute shopping. No time for a bathroom break. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Luckily, security had light traffic, and we got through and were waved past the secondary "paw through your bags" search, and onto the plane.. where we discovered there were only 38 passengers total.

So we were now getting home 2 hours early, with the longest leg of the flight on a plane that was so empty we had the option of each having our own row to stretch out and sleep in. On the surface it sounded ideal... but I've seen too many disaster movies... Our flight was being switched at the last minute - not even enough time to alert family and friends to the change of plans, one of the flight attendants had never been on that route before... and the headline began to flash in my mind:

"We didn't know they were in the crash until days later... they weren't even supposed to be on that plane"

I didn't want to alarm D or G with my paranoid thought tangent, but I did quietly insist that he PLEASE text someone in his family about the flight change, so that someone would know. Somehow that made it much better for me.

The flight itself was turbulent at times, but in general was quiet and laid back. The plane was so empty that snacks were served immediately, and we were given full cans of drinks at a time. G and I played games, curled up and napped, worked on her homework... and once we were over land I spent a good amount of time watching the landscape change out the window.

We touched down in Phoenix at gate B25. Our connecting flight was at gate B27. We were ushered through the doors, down a ramp, to an underground area of the airport to go through customs and immigration.

This airport was laid out differently than Charlotte. Though the process is the same: Immigration for passport stamping... pick up checked luggage... customs for passport check and questions answering... recheck luggage... security... gate: the stretches of walking in between processes were vastly different. In Charlotte everything is located in one narrow area - once you get through immigration and customs, you are brought through a tiny security area just for incoming international flights, and back into the airport. In Phoenix, we wound our way through underground tunnels, hitting every stop along the way, and once we had rechecked our luggage we followed the hallway where we were led OUT of the airport - to the parking garage - and had to come back in through the main security area. The lines for security were extremely long, and once we made it through that we hoofed it all the way back through the airport to the gate for our next flight... D stopping for airport pizza on the way, because it was the only thing we had time for as a dinner.

The funny thing was, we sat to eat our pizza not more than 5 feet from the doors we walked in through... and it took us nearly 2 hours to get to that door.

The hop from Phoenix to Seattle was relatively short, and we landed home at last... a couple hours ahead of schedule, luggage all accounted for. We had arranged for a shared van shuttle to take us home, which we piled into and G fell asleep on my shoulder almost immediately.

Once home, we stepped into the freezing cold night... greeted by the bright lights of the house, the smell of pine trees in the air. G went right upstairs to bed while D and I lined up our bags and checked things over, pull out the items that might need to go in the fridge, and hit the hay ourselves.

It was a long day of travel - but we made it home safe and sound.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Thursday March 4 - The Last Day (dum dum duuuuuuummmmm)

On our last full day in Negril, D had one more breakfast spot to check out... Selina's, a good clip of a walk down the road. We woke early, slathered on the usual layer of sunblock, and hopped out for the 20 minute trek down the road.

Selina's is an open air bar/restaurant with some high bar stools, a handful of tables, a few bamboo benches, and a couple of resident cats (who are very entertaining to watch as they try to catch lizards) I decided to go light this morning, ordering toast with jam and the fruit plate.

I love the tower of pineapple.
The oranges were super juicy sweet, and the papaya was good when mixed with the banana or pineapple.

After a great breakfast we made our way back down the road to the hotel, to set up our beach chairs and soak up the sun and salt air for one last day. The water was a bit too rough still for G to swim, but we did play in the waves lapping up on the shore, dig in the sand, search for shells, and generally laze away the morning into the afternoon.

As lunch rolled around, D went across the street along with our new friends, and picked up a few foil pouches of jerk chicken from Best of the West. We ordered some side dishes from Chill Awhile and gathered a couple tables together for a picnic lunch.

The afternoon was much like the morning. We wandered the beach seeking out shells and visiting the Waves market, took a trip down to the store for some coffee to bring home, and played in the sand and water. D spent a bit of time at the bar with King playing dominoes.

G loved collecting these "shakers" - they are large bean pods that grow on trees around Negril. They shake like maracas, but unfortunately as they are technically an agricultural item, we were not allowed to bring them back to the states with us. We took this picture of G with her favorite giant shakers.

For dinner we decided to stay on the grounds of the hotel, as we needed to begin the sad job of packing up to head home. We ate dinner with our friends, the kids lined up at the bar and us adults around the nearby table. I ordered a seafood "platter" - a half lobster tail, grilled, along with shrimp rundown and some rice and peas and veggies. I had my last Jamaican rum punch for the trip, and we stayed up into the night discussing all sorts of fun things from photography to day trips to other potential vacation destinations. In the end, though, we had to call it a night... and begin to put my years of Tetris to use finding a way to condense all our belongings into the luggage for the journey home.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

More Movie Times

Still trying to recover from the travel home and get my brain and body back on west coast time... but for now I've managed to use my super speed connection at home (read: 5 minute upload vs. 2 hours in Jamaica) to get the other videos online :)

This is my attempt at capturing the middle of the night thunder and lightening storm from our balcony. It's mostly dark, but I caught a few good flashes and a boom of thunder. The white noise in the video is the massive downpour of rain.

Here is a video of us loading up for our day trip around the southern coast of Jamaica. You can see the front parking area of Idle Awhile as well as our friend and driver, Tyrone.

This is a longer bit, showing the last ten minutes or so of our boat ride on the Black River safari, including egrets and a big ol' crocodile. Woo!

On Friday nights Chill Awhile includes a buffet and live band - D captured of a bit of the evening.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Small computer glitch, and much time in the water and sand, kept me from updating the last couple days... so I'm playing catch up with a 3 day post.

Monday dawned with puffy clouds in the sky, a bit of wind, and wavy water. We made our way next door to Coco La Palm for breakfast... the vegetarian plate again for me, and fresh squeezed orange juice. After a good breakfast and a bit of wandering through the gift shop, we settled into our chairs. The waves didn't look too bad from shore so I attempted to get myself out past the breaking point... however my timing was off. Logically I know when a wall of water comes at me I'm supposed to dive *into* it, and I tried, but I unfortunately leaned back to launch forward too late, and the wave managed a good smack in the face hard enough to shove the mask right off. I did recover my mask, but that was it for the water for me that day.

As I emerged from the water one of the beach vendors was passing by and asked me if I wanted to try a jet ski... I laughed out loud and said "oh HELL no!" He laughed back "waves to big for you today?" I nodded, still sputtering.

D was fearless, swimming straight out to the buoy line and floating along with the current, while I stayed busy on the shore jumping over incoming waves with G. We jumped for a solid hour, if not longer, which was great fun for us (though tiring)

The morning passed to lunch time, which had us wander down to Niah's again - this time I tried the ackee and calaloo patty, which was excellent and filling. I also glanced over the tables of crafts again, determined to find some kind of crocodile carving. As luck would have it, D found a necklace with a crocodile carved out of shell which was absolutely perfect for me.

As the day progressed the waves calmed enough to play in the water a bit more, and we decided to stay on the property and have dinner at Chill Awhile. I had what is called a "Shrimp Rundown" - which is shrimp in a papaya cream sauce. Excellent - amazing flavor. I'm not a fan of papaya by itself, but blended with other ingredients it really adds a great element of flavor.

A family from New York checked in late Monday evening, two kids ages 4 and 10, staying right below us. The kids bonded immediately and decided the had to sit at the bar together for dinner.

Here I am with my new crocodile necklace.

Tuesday morning we woke to blue skies, sunshine, and calm water. We spent literally all day on the beach, either in the water or snacking by the chairs. After a quick breakfast at Chill Awhile we just parked ourselves in the water, with the kids flipping and snorkeling and buzzing about.

About mid-morning I bought a "jelly" at the bar - which is a big chilled coconut with a straw in it - incredibly refreshing cold coconut milk. When you're done drinking the inside, they'll split it open so you can scrape out the coconut as a snack. It's called a jelly because the coconut on the inside is still soft, like jelly, as opposed to the hard dry stuff we get in the states.

In addition to that, I picked up some hard coconut from one of the beach vendors. Hard and broken into pieces, the coconut is similar to eating a very large almond.

For lunch we headed up the beach to Chances again for a quick pizza lunch. About mid afternoon we walked back down to Waves to check out the vendors. D started talking to one of the woodcarvers.

Later in the afternoon the tide began to shift and pull seaweed up the coast - the water was still calm enough to play in, but we had to run through about 2 feet of seaweed to get to the clear part. We heard great things about Charela (the hotel on the other side of ours) so after getting our complete fill of sun and salt water, we cleaned up and slipped next door for some dinner.

D and I shared an appetizer of shrimp natural - which is extremely peppery peel-and-eat shrimp... and for dinner I ordered shrimp in garlic sauce (I know... I'm eating my weight in shrimp on this trip, hu?)

Sometime around 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday we were woken by the pitter-patter sound of an incoming rain storm. The wind picked up and we listened to the wooshing rain and water hitting the roof. The skies were dark as we made our way down to the deck for breakfast, and we figured today would probably be a day for finishing up our shopping agendas. Walking up the beach one direction we found some guys working on fixing the buoy line in the high waves.

We also ran into a vendor selling independently roasted coffee on the beach. It smelled really good, so we decided to sample some and get a picture with him.

The clouds had burned off quickly, and the temperature was really nice, but the waves were still too big for me to play in. I was content to wander the property a bit and look for photo ops.

Just off the deck here at Chill Awhile there's a hole in the wooden step. Most of the holes are filled with sand, however this one is hollow and is the home to a giant crab. I've seen him poke himself out just to the edge of the hole, and then scurry back into the depths of his caves whenever I aim the lens at him. Today a much smaller crab was hanging out (literally) on the little hole, while the larger guy tried to play peek-a-boo with us. I managed to lay on the deck and get right up close to the little critters.
(you can see the giant claws of Mr. Crabby in the background if you look closely)

For lunch we took a cab into town and picked up some Juici Patties and brought them back to our porch for lunch. For the afternoon we wandered up and down the beach, checking out some tables and visiting gift shops along the way. The wind still had some good gusts now and then, which allowed for some nice pictures.

For dinner we joined the neighboring family for a trip back to the cliffs to try Xtabi. I had... (wait for it... wait for it...) Shrimp! This time shrimp scampi, which was prepared with onions and those Jamaican green peppers that are nowhere near as vile as the ones we have in the states. D had some grouper that was described by our waiter as "blackened, but not the way you think of it in the US". The coating on the grouper was more like a BBQ sauce than the blackened rub we'd get in the states, and had kind of a sweet smoky flavor that went very well with the fish.

Here's a shot of my shrimp - with potatoes and veggies.

Though we have another day at the beach, we knew the next day was Needle's day off, so we hung out at the bar until closing, chatting and getting a few pictures.

Here I am with Needle (on the left) and Kingsly (on the right)

I really don't understand why Needle insists on crouching, I assured him that everyone knows I'm short. :)

Monday, March 1, 2010

February 27 and 28 - Beach Weekend

As the weather improved, and Friday had been so packed with adventure, we decided to take the weekend to stay mainly on the beach.

For the last few mornings I've made a routine of waking up first and swinging in the hammock on the deck, enjoying a small pot of coffee and watching the birds in the treetops as I work on the laptop. I'm not naturally a morning person, and it's highly unusual for me to be the first to rise without an alarm clock... I suppose my body's idea of "island time" is a little strange.

Once everyone else is up, we head down to Chill Awhile for breakfast. Eric, one of the groundskeepers, has already been busy cleaning up leaves and seaweed from the night before, and setting up chairs for the guests.

Here is our view from the breakfast table.

As we enjoy breakfast, the vendors start walking the beach. The women selling fruit tend to balance their offerings on their heads as they walk.
(sorry for the lighting on these shots - not a lot of editing I can do here to clean them up)

The storm had washed up an enormous amount of seaweed, so we poked through the piles of seaweed on our afternoon walk down the beach to find lunch.

D found a sea cucumber. eeeeeewwwwwwww....

There were several starfish washed up along the shore, and a few craftsmen collecting them to clean them out and dry them to sell. I spoke to one who emphasized the importance of preparing them, not just taking them as-is off the beach, and I said I was just interested in photos anyway, so he stepped back and made space for me to shoot before picking the rest of them up.

There were many conch shells rolling up as well - a couple whole empty ones rolled right up on the shore in front of me! D found a couple shells with the gua'old looking creatures still inside, their claw-like feet stuck out and wiggled around, trying to dig away from D. Super creepy looking. He gave them to the man working on the starfish.

Here is the underside of another starfish.

We walked through a marketplace that had a lot of tables set up more towards the beach. I recalled this area having the more aggressive vendors and I was right - they were the same this year as they were last. As we walked down the beach they would call to us, ushering us in to see their tables, see what they make. As I do a lot of my own beading for fun I'm not generally interested in beaded necklaces, but I've been looking for some kind of crocodile pendant or carving, so I'd stop to look for that. Not seeing one on one table, I'd move on to the next.

What I didn't like about these vendors is that they would try to put things on G - "Let's try it on the baby, see how nice it looks" and I had to continually shake my head. The vendors in the Waves marketplace never pushed more after one "No", but the vendors right on the beach would reach out for her as if they didn't hear me. I finally took her hand and said to D "Let's go... I'm hungry and I need to eat" and walked away.

I'm grumpy when I'm hungry anyway, so that didn't help matters... but in general I'm more inclined to buy something if I'm given the time to look without being hounded, and far more inclined to pass up things that I might even want if I don't like how I feel looking at the tables.

Today we opted for Bourbon Beach for lunch - jerk chicken with super spicy sauce. On the way into the restaurant we noticed a fresh fruit stand on the beach.

Fruit stands with a variety of offerings are fairly typical.

On to the super spicy chicken...

Jerk chicken and sauce, rice and peas, and "festival" - which is a fried bread-like side dish made with cornmeal.

Last year I ate the sauce straight on my chicken, and drank about 3 liters of water through lunch. This year I opted for the wimpy way and mixed a bit of ketchup with the sauce to dilute the spice.

Wandering back down the beach to the hotel we cleaned up and spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the sand and reading. As the sun set I wandered down to the water's edge to shoot some photos.

Dinner Saturday night was not worthy of writing about, but for the sake of the journal I'll make a couple quick notes. D had read about a buffet and live music show going on at the Sea Star on the cliffs (across the street from Tensing Pen, actually) They offered a shuttle and we managed to get in on a ride within 5 minutes of calling. Unfortunately, we shared a ride with an asshole American "tourist" (in quotes because he's actually been living here for a while, so it's not like he's fresh of the boat, but he's still not a citizen) After the ride and listening to his assholishness from Assholeville we decided he must have been on something (crack or something equal) The driver was eternally patient and apologized to me as we got out of the van. The buffet was meh... the customers were so messy that half the offerings were contaminated with an egg-containing sauce, and we were just no into the type of crowd that was there anyway. We ended up turning almost immediately around - and though the shuttles out weren't supposed to leave for another hour, the driver offered to take us back. I supplemented my dinner with some left over pizza - which was fine and actually sounded good that night anyway.

Sunday morning dawned with dark looking clouds, so I settled into the hammock with my coffee and camera card. The wind picked up and I noticed this pigeon-like bird clinging to a palm leaf, riding it like a roller coaster up and down. After some time in the wind he hopped down to the berries on the trunk and began to snack. I've been trying to get a shot of one of these guys since we arrived.

He's a bald something-or-other, I need to look it up when we get back. (Tyrone told me the name of these birds, but I only remember "bald" and he also said they are seasonal)

The dark clouds soon blew out, and by the time we were ready for breakfast the sky had pretty well cleared. It was still a bit on the windy side however, and the waves were too big for me to swim, so we settled into the chairs to let G play in the sand. This morning we opted for chairs under a different tree, closer to the sign, where we could pop forward into the sun when we wanted to.

One of the fruit vendors came by as well, so we picked up some honey bananas and coconut to snack on.

G in her Chiquita Banana pose.

Not only do we have vendors walking by throughout the day, but every so often there are musicians who will come by and sing a few songs.

For lunch we walked up the beach to "Chances", both to check out the vendor booths in that direction, and to add a little variety to our pizza testing on the trip.

Chances has a bobsled out next to the gift shop where you can climb in for a photo op.

Later in the afternoon - after more fun in the sun sand play and book reading, we are visited by the ice cream vendor. G hopped over for some pineapple mango swirl ice cream.

We cleaned up and headed out for dinner prior to the sunset, so that we'd have the time to walk on the beach side. Dinner tonight was at Kuyaba Resort. The front of their place looks fun (similar to Adventureland in Disneyland actually, complete with a tree house look-out spot with a dining table, bamboo ceiling fans, and a couple of resident parrots in gigantic cages) The interior was just as pretty... large gas lanterns lighting the pathways, swinging rattan chairs at the bar... we can tell a lot of time and money has gone into decorating this place to be an island oasis. After ordering dinner we played some with the camera.

(Is it obvious I've been drinking rum punch? A very strong rum punch? *grin*)

D and I ordered the same thing - the snapper with coconut milk calaloo, rice and peas, and vegetables.

The pile at the bottom of the plate is two fillets of grilled snapper smothered in a calaloo made with coconut milk. It was AMAZING - best fish of the trip thus far. Cooking with coconut milk adds an amazing amount of flavor. We discovered that last year when we learned how to make rice and peas, but I hadn't thought about using it in other applications. We have several Jamaican cook books at home that I'm going to need to dig into for the summer. I'm looking forward to trying to imitate some of these recipes when we get home - perhaps I can mix spinach with swiss chard to get a calaloo-like flavor going on.

We walked back to our hotel on the street side. It was a very pleasant night, perhaps 72 or so degrees... the coolest night we've had on the trip, but my light blue shirt has worked as the only "jacket" necessary.

OK at this point we were just being silly... the position of the arrow on the sign really cracked me up. I thought it was just the rum, but I still snicker when I see it.

Only 50 US dollars a day!

(I just need to photoshop out the "car" on the sign)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Friday February 26 - Adventures in the Jungle

We had planned ahead of time to spend today on a tour of the southern side of the island, and it turns out it was the most perfect day to do so. The morning dawned with mostly clear skies and nice sunshine, but cooler temperatures and high waves, which made the beach not as fun for swimming anyway, but meant that inland would be a nice day with low humidity and no rain.

We started our morning with an early breakfast. This is what I have just about every morning here on the beach... oat porridge, toast, and coffee.

After taking in our fill of breakfast, we loaded up our stuff and climbed into Tyrone's van for the day. The plan... Black River Safari, YS Falls, and a tour of the Appleton Rum Factory.

Traveling with a familiar driver made the tour feel more like a personal hang-out day with a friend, rather than a formal tourist ride. As we rode along he told us about where he grew up, where he hung out as a teenager, his time in the States, and peppered in little facts and trivia about the island... who lives in which village, which city had electricity first, where to get the best peppered shrimp. We zipped along the southern stretch of the island for a while, then turned inland towards the hills, and he described the circle we'd be taking to hit all 3 attractions in one day.

First stop - Black River Safari.

This trip had been on my personal agenda on our last journey to the island, but we ended up not being able to squeeze it in. I'm actually kind of glad of that now, because the drive was so much better with Tyrone taking us, and the weather last year was miserably humid on the day that I had wanted to go.

There are several companies that operate on the Black River (named so because the pete moss on the banks of the river make the water look black) The main tour company has large flat pontoon boats, the interior is very similar to what you see in the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. There are smaller pontoon boats that can go further upriver as well, and it sounds like there are even canoes you can take with a guide (though I personally would not opt for that) When we arrived at the front office, Tyrone set us up with the tour guide for the next large pontoon ride, and we headed down to the dock to load up.

Immediately as we set off, there were snowy egrets just about everywhere...

... They seemed to mostly be on the opposite side of the boat from me, but there were a few on my side that I managed to capture on film.

These birds seem to be pretty common around major waterways... there's a river in Negril where the bushes along the banks are absolutely covered in these birds, though the bridge is by a busy intersection so I'm reluctant to hop out into traffic to snap a shot.

The captain of our boat stayed slow and steady through the beginning passageway, pointing out birds and plants along the way, and then we headed further up river. I settled into the front with G next to me, opting to sit on the floor of the boat with my lens sticking out under the railing. Here is the point where three rivers come together.

As we slipped into more dense vegetation, the captain had us keep an eye out for crocodiles. I spotted this guy sunning on the banks to our right, so he steered the pontoon boat towards the bank and held us there long enough for everyone to get a turn photographing the beast. I stayed sitting on the ground and snapped away happily.

This image was my other major goal for this trip (the first goal being the leap into the ocean) I wanted to shoot a live crocodile, in the wild.
And I did it! WOOT!

I really don't know what it is about reptiles in general, but I find them absolutely beautiful, and fascinating to look at. I always have (even though they creep me out just a bit) This amazing beast was resting amongst the mangrove trees.

Side note: one of the greatest compliments I've received on this trip was when a couple of the tourists next to me asked if I worked for National Geographic, because I kept switching lenses and shooting just about everything in sight. I answered "I wish" - and one of them said "You just watch... you're going to be published and we're going to say HEY! I was sitting next to her on that pontoon boat!"

This was our view as we meandered upstream, mangroves on either side of the bank.

Our captain called this the "rasta trees" because the roots look like dreadlocks.

There was another crocodile sighting - a wee "baby" - and then we stopped upriver for a little drink break. (there are many, many more photos to share... I can hardly wait to get back and properly edit them!) Heading back down the river at a good clip, we came up close to the dock back into where the egrets were buzzing back and forth.

This guy zoomed right in front of my camera. As I followed his flight path, my eyes landed on the bank across the river - to where this guy lay out sunning himself.

He opened and closed his jaws several times while we all pointed our cameras, and the captain patiently held the boat steady for us.

Just as we pulled in, I managed to catch this elusive heron hiding just out of view in the bushes along the bank.

While we were on our safari, Tyrone had kept himself busy visiting people he knew in town, and picking up some fresh fruits from the market. This is what ackee looks like when you buy it fresh - the bag on the top is the "garbage" (the outside of the fruit) You can see the outer shell as well as the black seeds. The bag on the bottom is the fruit itself, picked out of the skins and put in a separate bag. You can see how the shape of it wraps around the black pits and tucks into the odd shaped skin.

The combination tour of Black River and YS Falls usually includes lunch, but Tyrone had them leave that off the price - he had a better place to stop along the way.

This is a fairly common sight here - roadside stands with food cooking over an open fire. Here we are hopping out of the van to go take a look at what they have to offer.

This is the outdoor kitchen, several pots of food to choose from. There is almost always rice and peas, and some kind of boiled or steamed vegetable mix, and a couple of meats. This stand also offers a pea and pumpkin vegetarian soup (which is why Tyrone likes to stop here) Here is the chef serving up a cup of soup.

I opted for curried shrimp - which came with rice and peas and the veggies. This was an amazingly flavorful and filling lunch. I swear, these little stands on the road consistently have the best tasting food on the planet.

Back in the van and up into the hills further, we came around to YS Falls.

Now - on our trip last year we went to Mayfield Falls which was described as a "hike up the falls" and was literally a hike up the middle of the falls. All water, with some points being deep pools to swim through - so I could not bring my camera. YS falls is quite different. YS falls are steeper steps of falls up the river, so instead of hiking through the water you actually take a gravel path up to a staircase that runs along the bank.

Had I known this prior to getting out of the car, I would have brought my big camera and my Holga... but looking back on the day, I realize I also would have spent too much time shooting, and we would have missed out on the rum tour - so it all worked out for this trip... but next time I would dearly love to spend an entire day at the falls with my camera and tripod shooting. But I digress. We did have the waterproof camera with us, so we have some shots from that.

We walked up the steep steps to the top of the falls. Along the way there are several places to step off the staircase and swim in the pools of fresh spring water. This is the uppermost pool, though it was closed for swimming today due to a strong current from the storm just prior to our trip.

The next level down was an open pool, so D and I stepped in and waded around. D took off to the deepest part, just under the waterfall.

I didn't feel comfortable swimming into the current, so I found a nice sturdy rock to lean on instead.

At the bottom of the falls is a freshwater spring pool that stands about 4 feet deep. The bottom is all gravel, like the bottom of a fish tank. We swam around here for a while, enjoying the fresh cool water.

We were cutting close to closing time at Appleton, so we quickly dried off, changed clothes, and caught the tractor shuttle back down to the parking lot. From there we were on our way to the last stop on our journey... Appleton Estate (aka D's Mecca)

Appleton was accepting it's last tour group at 3:30... we arrived at 3:45. The parking lot was full but quite... the front gate was locked. As we approached a security guard came out, and Tyrone started talking to him rapidly in patois. I understood very little of what he said, other than "buy some rum"... the guard walked into the building and emerged a few minutes later, opening the gate and allowing us onto the grounds. In the main lobby of the building Tyrone walked back and forth between two people, and within about 5 minutes he had us set up on the last tour of the day.

Have I mentioned that Tyrone rocks?

D started to lift his left leg into the Captain Morgan pose, but stopped just as I started shaking my head. Wrong rum company.

I found the position of the barrel with the most signatures underneath this sign to be highly amusing.

The aging house is a huge cavernous which the public is locked out of, aside from this front shelf of barrels. Apparently on a hot day the interior of the aging house feels cooler and cooler as the alcohol evaporates. It's also possible to get drunk by hanging out inside on a hot day for about a half an hour, just from the absorption of the vapors.

There were signs throughout the property - this one talks about Blue Mountain coffee. I learned that there is a difference between "Blue Mountain Coffee" and "High Mountain Coffee" (the latter still being from the mountains, just not *the* Blue Mountain)

One of the many pretty scenes on the property of Appleton Estate.

The tour was entertaining - they talked us through the manufacture of rum, how it used to be made, and how they make it now. I was amused by how often D would ask a question just before the tour guide was about to explain exactly what D was asking about. In between stops on the tour, D walk alongside the guide asking specifics about the coconut rum - where is it made, how is it blended, do you make your own coconut extract here or buy it somewhere? In the end we did not come out with proprietary information, but we have a better understanding of why Coco Mania is the best coconut rum in existence.

The tour winds down back into the main lobby, where there are tasting rooms. As D enjoyed his taste tests and decided on what to bring back with us, I wandered the grounds outside with G looking for photographic opportunities.

Appleton has a few resident peacocks and peahens wandering the grounds and as I followed G around the lawn she found a large male who was fond of showing off his feathers. He turned this way and that, shaking his feathers and looking extremely important. I managed several shots with my Pentax and Holga alike.

Fully supplied with rum to take home, and some to enjoy at the hotel, we piled back into the van for the ride back around the island to Negril.

Part of the journey included driving down Bamboo Avenue.

Tyrone pulled off the road to let me hop out and shoot a few pictures, and before getting back in I turned and got a shot of one of the sugar cane fields behind us.

It was a very long day, but full of adventure and fun. G was a real trooper, enjoying all the tours, talking with the other tourists and guides alike, and generally just going with the flow and soaking it all up. About halfway back to the hotel she laid her seat back and zonked out, bouncy and squirrely drive be damned.

Friday nights at Idle Awhile now include an all you can eat buffet and live music, and we arrived at the hotel just in time for the music to start. D grabbed us a table and we settled in - ordering a regular dinner for G and D and I making several trips to the buffet.

This was possibly one the best buffets we've ever been to - mainly because it included lobster. Tails and tails of lobster perpetually on the grill, along with curried shrimp, rice and peas, vegetable mix (green beans and carrots this time) a potato dish of sliced potatoes and onions, and grilled beef. The only thing on the buffet I had to worry about with my allergies were a couple of salad dressings, which were well contained in bottles. I've rarely been to a buffet where I was so free from worry, so I indulged.

What I loved, too, was that after we had our fill of dinner we were still able to enjoy the view of the live music from the hammock on our balcony throughout the rest of the night.