Thursday, June 21, 2012

SCUBA Julie, Part Two

Some of you will remember that I completed part one of my open water SCUBA certification back in February as part of an effort to start checking things off of my bucket list.  After six weeks of lessons , we still needed to actually go driving in something a bit bigger than a high school pool.  We're required to complete these four open water dives before we can get our certification cards.  For that reason alone, I found myself shivering on the shore of Lake George in the rain on the first weekend of July.  At 7am, fifteen of us were milling around trying to remember how to set up our gear, find a safe dry spot to stash some sweats, and dreading the initial shock of getting into the water.

Hearthstone Campground, Lake George
I had forgotten my weight belt.  I remembered every one of my lead weights but forgot the thick strip of nylon that allowed me to sink below surface and had to ask my instructor for a spare. At that point, I was really wondering if the whole SCUBA certification was worth it.  A couple hours later we took advantage of a break and the rain to suit up and start our first dive.  SCUBA gear is deceptively heavy. The weightlessness of neutral buoyancy is awesome but hauling everything necessary to maintain neutral buoyancy in the water column and live to tell the tell takes work.  After the waddle to the shoreline and balancing act to secure mask and fins, I was anxious to get on with the dive and feel less like an overweight penguin.  What I wasn’t ready for was the chill of 55°F water.  Instant chill.

Prepping for a dive
I was pleased that all of my required skills came back to me fairly quickly.  Every movement would let new cold water flow into my wetsuit so I didn’t want to move anymore than I had too.  There were a few interesting things about our two dives that day.  We saw the body of an airplane with the wings removed which had been sunk specifically for the divers.  There were a handful of fish and the thrill of staying underwater.  By the end of the second dive I was so chilled that I was mistaking fish eggs on water weeds for ice crystal coatings.

One of the hardest things about that day was waiting the necessary amount of time before I could take a hot shower.  Exposing yourself to hot water too quickly after diving can cause the residual nitrogen in your blood to be released too quickly causing the bends.  We were told that we could take “warm” showers but I didn’t trust myself to have that kind of control when I was that cold.  I bided my time by eating piping hot soup and watch shows about tropical coral reefs for several hours. Finally I was able to drain the hot water tank and raise my core temperature back to normal.

 Sunday morning came far too early and dreary.  As I made my way north to Lake George, my ears blocked due to some minute change in altitude.  When I arrived at our dive site they were still blocked.  Not good.  Until my ears cleared I couldn’t dive for fear of rupturing my eardrum or worse.  There were five other students who were nursing discomfort from the previous day too.  Three other students plus me were out of the water for at least the third dive,  I settled in to watch at least the first dive from land and quickly became bored.  There was a family of ducks that could keep my attention for a few minutes at a time.  Most of my time was spent watching everyone else’s bubbles raise to the surface.  Have I ever mentioned that patience isn’t my strong suite? I immediately went to work at getting my ear cleared.   

Navigating back to shore
 By the time my group came out of their open water dive three, I was pushing to try getting in the water and completing the course that day.  The top layer of water was slightly warmer thanks to the lack of rain that day.  My dive three was a quicker one to get me caught up with the rest of the group.  This time I wasn’t immediately frozen and found that I had an easier time controlling my buoyancy, making the dives much more enjoyable.  The fourth and final dive was trouble from the get-go.  As soon as we descended enough silt had been kicked up that it was impossible to see two inches in front of your face.  I couldn’t see my dive buddy and only saw the instructor when he suddenly appeared directly in front of my mask to test my mask removal skills.  I was so happy to move away from the cloud and then we started going deeper.  Deeper water always means colder temperatures.  It was interesting gliding along the bottom of a lake but the cold was getting to me.  At one point I realized that I was pulling my upper lip up to try to protect it from the cold and causing my mask to leak.  Not fun.  However, the knowledge that we were on our last dive made the frigid cold slightly more bearable. When we finally surfaced I was so relieved.  I had finished my PADI open water certification! Yes, stubbornness and impatience when it came to watch everyone else finish played a large role in it, but it was done!  I was also never so happy to be wearing sweatpants in June.

Certified Open Water Diver - only partially frozen
I think I’ll focus on warm water diving next.

Exploring San Juan: Tales from the Back of a Trooper

Our Spring Break adventure did not get off to the best start.  Within a couple hours of landing we had cancelled our hotel reservation and were homeless with 4 days to go before our return flight to NYC.  Thankfully one of the girls had family just outside of the city so we were quickly rescued by our adoptive Aunt and Uncle and swept away in their Isuzu Trooper.  The Trooper became the main method of transportation for the six of us. Being the oldest and very stubborn, I rode in the trunk, which slowly became more like a flying carpet with blankets and throw pillows.  I had unique view of the city with strong reminiscence of riding in a woody station wagon.  While I was never able to get my bearing, literally going through San Juan in a different direction meant I was less distracted by traffic and could see more details of the city.  The major advantage of this set up was we had Aunt Rita as a knowledgeable tour guide who was also set on feeding us until we nearly burst. So after filling us up in chicken, black beans, flan, and breakfasts that would put diners out of business, Rita managed a trooper through the streets of Old San Juan and showed us to places off the well-worn vacation track.

Action shot on the way to Isla Verde
Isla Verde Beach - Out of the three beaches we went to this one blew the rest away.  It came close to surpassing every beach I’d ever been to before.  There was well over a mile of clean sandy beach lines with coconut trees.  The surf was a beautiful clear blue and had minimal seaweed especially compared to the thick beds of weeds we found at the beaches along the main strip of hotels.  There were gazebos, showers, and bathrooms available to beach-goers.  We were all far too anxious to defrost and absorb as much sun as possible before returning to the chilly northeast that we were all scorched to varying degrees by the recent sun storms.  Workers came to groom the coconut trees as we were getting ready to leave the beach.  They cut down branches and maturing coconuts so unsuspecting sunbathers aren’t knocked out when the dense fruits fall.  Some of the girls ventured over to the truck and came back if fresh coconuts so we could drink the water and munch on the fresh meat.  As a rule I don’t like coconut, but if I have to eat it, crack open with a machete on the beach is the only way to have it.

Lifeguard station on the beach
Mid-morning snack
Río Piedras - This neighborhood was several incredibly cramped blocks of stores that opened straight onto the street.  It was not the stores we would see in Old San Juan.  These were convenience stores, accessory shops, and everyday clothing.  I wouldn’t say that it was locals only but it was starkly different than any street close to the big hotels and cruise port. Honestly those four blocks are probably where I stood out the most but were the most familiar to me.  Elements of the market street kept taking me back to similar streets and stores I had seen in Europe, or NYC, Chicago.  The wares were a little bit different.  Understanding the labels was hit and miss.  But I still felt far less intrusive and out of places than I did walking past the big hotels full of vacationers.

Fort San Cristóbal in the distance
Old San Juan - Crazy transportation encounters are the theme of this trip.  We got a tip from Rita tthat we could take a free bus from Isla Verde to Old San Juan.  Turns out it was one free bus and one overcrowded, change only bus, whose drivers stopped and threatened to throw everyone off the bus for disrespecting him, to the bus terminal at the base of the hill of Old San Juan.  This is your classic colonial center with narrow cobblestone streets leading to different squares, often with fountains, in a slightly wandering fashion.  I can’t count how many old centers of town I’ve visited over the years.  That being said, the restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, and vendors found throughout the area are worth facing the public transportation or cramped parking.  While the rest of the group shopped, I wandered with another girl to see La Forteleza.  La Forteleza is made out of two fortified buildings, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, along a sheer cliff lined by an impressive stone wall.  The lookouts now serve as prime vantage points for point-and-shoots rather than riflemen.  We were there at dusk and running late so we didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked.  The setting sun and spring breeze looking out at the horizon felt like a scene from The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Lookout between San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal
Fort San Felipe del Morro