One Small Step For Man, But Where Do We Leap From Here?

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Amidst all the running around from here, there, and everywhere that I do, I have a tendency to allow certain news and current events slip by unnoticed lately. This leaves me completely unaware that I’m missing out on something that doesn’t directly affect me at the moment.

Wednesday wasn’t very much different as I was going about my day just doing what I do (and doing it awesomely). But through a twist of fate, and scheduling, I got to be face-to-face with a turning point in our history as a nation.

I was on a flight going to Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport when some salt’n’pepper-in-a-suit asked me midflight if the Discovery was still on the ground at Dulles. I just gave him a deer in headlights look with a shrug of the shoulders saying “I dunno”, while thinking “Mister, I have absolutely no clue what the hell you’re talking about”. For months now, I have been well aware of the scaling back of our American space program and the NASA budget cuts. Hearing about it upset and concerned me. So many advances in technology and innovation have been brought about through the work done by NASA and their affiliates. I have personally experienced the effects of a shaky economy and understand spending needs to be cut here and there, but how are we supposed to stay a technologically advanced nation when we don’t support those who cultivate the knowledge that keeps us on the cutting edge? But besides all that…why is that dude asking me about a space shuttle?

As it turns out, on April 18, 2012, I discovered that there actually was something of importance happening that day, besides the fact that I had to work. And since I’ve neglected my one-on-one time with Wolf Blitzer for quite a few weeks, I was completely unaware of it.

It’s Wolf Blitzer Time!

After my encounter with the suit in 5A, I started wondering “Isn’t the space shuttle in Florida? How would they even get it to Dulles?”

Well….funny I should ask. Cause I got my answer once we landed.

As we were pulling into our gate at Dulles, our captain announced that the space shuttle Discovery was on our left…sitting on top of a 747.

A SPACE SHIP WAS SITTING ON TOP OF A PLANE!

I repeat.

A VEHICLE THAT HAS LEFT THE GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF OUR TERRESTRIAL SPHERE AND MEANDERED ITS WAY HERE AND THERE WITHIN OUR GALAXY IS STRAPPED ONTO A BOEING 747…. And awaiting its gallant entrance into the Smithsonian for a well-deserved retirement.

I have to say it was indescribably surreal to see in person.

As we gawked through the windows of our miniscule Embraer 190 at this product of human ingenuity that’s been ferried over from Florida, I found it ironic that we were sitting in our fickle Brazilian aircraft that is well known for her “temperamental days” which tend to produce maintenance delays (clearly not a product of NASA) while glimpsing upon something that’s been to space several times.

The rain droplets on the windows and the overcast clouds almost seemed to be placed there for dramatic emphasis as we observed the scorch marks still on the shuttle attained from its screaming reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. What will the retirement of the Discovery and the cutbacks at NASA truly mean for America’s capabilities of being a technological powerhouse? So many things have come out of the developments made through the space program that benefit our everyday lives. Artificial limbs, LED technology used to improve localized blood circulation and decrease symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, and even Parkinson’s disease, enriched baby food, your Temperapedic mattress (which I am personally not a fan of…sorry NASA), and even your car tires! Agriculture has also benefitted from NASA’s work along with environmental advancements in reducing pollution, water purification, and let’s not forget the ingenuity that brought us freeze dried pizza! (For those of you that have taken grade school field trips to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago…You know that was the best thing a $5 could buy you at the gift shop) Here is a laundry list, which is by no means exhaustive, of the benefits we’ve enjoyed thanks to the innovations of our space program. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spin-off

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of Captain Law, who took it upon himself to coordinate with ground control, we got to do a drive by and pull our plane right  up next to the Discovery to take some pictures and pay homage to one of America’s last space chariots (only for now I hope).

Last night I looked up some facts about the Discovery and found that her career started the same year I was born, 1984. This makes me feel even more sentimental and contemplative about witnessing the end of the era of our space shuttle program.

Here’s some quick facts about our retiring starlet:

First Flight: August 30, 1984

Flown 149 million miles in 39 missions

Completed 5,830 orbits

Spent a cumulative 365 days in orbit during her 27 year career

Flown more flights than any other Orbiter Shuttle

After the Challenger and Columbia disasters, it was the first shuttle to go back to space each time afterwards

It launched the Hubble Telescope

And it’s had many more milestones that helped contribute to our knowledge of what’s within and outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Hotel Review: Presidente Intercontinental Cozumel

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Hotel Review: Presidente Intercontinental Cozumel

That’s right~ I took this!!!

Swinging in a hammock surrounded by blossoming red hibiscus bushes. A private beach lined by trees decorated with wicker lanterns just steps from your patio door. An expertly crafted towel armadillo left by housekeeping to guard your room. If these images conjure up a vision of paradise for you, then the Presidente Intercontinental in Cozumel does deliver.

As one of the top hotels in all of Cozumel, this is the place to stay if you desire that relaxing tropical atmosphere portrayed in those vacation getaway commercials. The ones that blind you by the bright white beaches and vividly electric blue skies as you desperately try to adjust the color contrast controls on your remote attempting to protect your retinas. The Presidente Intercontinental is a high end hotel, so the price you pay for paradise may be a bit more than you usually spend, but it is definitely worth it.

The driveway itself makes you feel as if you’re entering a tropical hideaway while you roll past a hallway of trees guarding the path to the hotel entrance. Occasionally, your driver may have to give right of way to pedestrian iguanas. Keep in mind, the iguanas are on island time.

The Presidente’s Lusciously Green Driveway

Beacons of Light Welcome You at the Steps of the Presidente’s Entrance

And Your New Neighbor

As you pull up to the entrance, you’ll discover that a majority of the hotel is open air which allows for more opportunities to enjoy tropical breezes. Honestly, it’s hard not to feel giddy just standing in the lobby as you take in all the wicker fans, decorative ferns, and tropical fish floating on flat screens behind the front desk. After checking in with the super cordial staff, you’ll follow the adorable lanterns leading you through a thatched roof hallway and directing you to your room. If you are lucky enough to have booked one of the suites (also known as Reef Rooms), which I would HIGHLY recommend, you will be navigated down what I’d like to call “the Jungle Book hallway”.

Lanterns Leading the Way!

Jungle Book Hallway

Once the door opens, feel free to gasp with delight. “Why yes, that is an outdoor shower you’re seeing!…Robes are always fun to lounge in…How cute, housekeeping leaves flowers everywhere…This feels like the most comfortable bed in all of Mexico!…Wow, my own hammock!!!” Clearly, you see what grasps my attention.

The Reef Rooms offer either a pool or ocean view. With an ocean view, we were literally a coconut throw from the beach. Every morning we opened the curtains to another gorgeous morning and were a short stroll from breakfast, the beach, and the onsite dive operator~ Scuba Du!

Don’t Worry. No One Can See You.

Luxury in Linen

Primo Paradise

Here’s a rundown on the basic things you may want to know:

Location: The Presidente is about a 15 minute ride from the airport and a short cheap taxi ride from downtown Cozumel. Even though there are restaurants at the hotel, I’d still very much recommend checking out some of the local establishments downtown for dinner on occasion. We found some places with embracing atmospheres and wonderfully indulgent food. And a great deal more wallet-friendly.

Food: This is not an All-Inclusive hotel so you’ll have to work meals and drinks into your vacation finances. Since it’s one of the best hotels in Cozumel, you’ll be dealing with higher prices.

There are three locations for nourishment: the beach bar and grill that has a lunch menu, the larger open air restaurant which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with a full service bar, and their gourmet restaurant Alfredo Di Roma.

Open Air Restaurant By The Beach

We luckily booked through our dive shop, so we had the breakfast buffet included in our stay. The breakfast buffet was the typical egg dish, fried potatoes, fruit, a trade off between pancakes and french toast, etc. There is a dessert table with these chocolate filled pastries that go well when paired with coffee. I was of the mindset that they’d taste better warmed up and followed the advice of a fellow diver to use the Mexican rolling toaster to heat it up. DO NOT DO THIS….My pastry got stuck in the back of the toaster. I was stricken with a momentary fear that I would become known as “that American girl who burnt down the majestic Presidente Intercontinental”. But one of the cooks helped me fish it out. So my reputation was no longer in danger.

By far, the best lunch I’ve enjoyed was a chipotle sauce smeared mahi-mahi sandwich (or they’ll call it the mahi-mahi torta) along with a bottle of Sol beer.  You can get it at both the beach bar and the open air restaurant, but I thoroughly enjoyed the casual atmosphere watching the waves at the beach bar. Receiving complimentary chips and salsa also makes it awesome. Side Note: With the shrimp ceviche, you get A LOT of shrimp. They give you SO much shrimp in fact that you lose sight of what exactly makes it ceviche.

Beach Bar & Dive Shack. By The Beach Of Course.

Room: As I mentioned before, the suites are very welcoming and comfortable. They’re what you imagine for a tropical getaway. You get plenty of towels, which are large enough to mummify yourself in. Not only do you get an outdoor shower to test your adventurist side, but you do also get an indoor shower. If you get a room with a king sized bed, it is accommodated by a small couch.

But let’s talk about the bed for a second. If you’ve stayed in Mexico before, then you are familiar with the discomfort of sleeping on the thinnest and hardest mattress you’ve ever paid for while trying to enjoy paradise. And the sheets usually leave much to be desired. But the beds at the Presidente Intercontinental are pillowy soft and perfect for sinking into after a long day of beach bumming.

The rooms are always clean and the housekeeping staff does a high quality and thorough job. You get the regular tidying up midday while you’re most likely out enjoying paradise and they swing back around in the evening for a thoughtful turn down service to lay out the robes for you. This staff definitely deserves to be tipped for the wonderful work they do keeping paradise clean. And have I mentioned the daily decorative hibiscus flowers everywhere?

Scuba Diving: Our main reason for even being there. The Presidente has an onsite dive operator, Scuba Du, that is just a few steps away from the beach bar. If you’re in a Reef Room, you have the luxury of just rolling out of bed and being at the dock within seconds ready to hit the reefs. Scuba Du’s staff is very efficient, conscientious, and fun to be around. One of the many perks is you won’t have to worry about lugging around or cleaning your gear. Scuba Du takes care of all that during your stay! All you have to do is show up and your gear is all set up on the boat ready to whisk you away to your underwater adventures.

You even have the luxury of waddling a few feet from the dive shack and into the water for some shore diving. There’s pieces of a wrecked barge and some small reefs you can check out from right in front of the hotel beach!

After having lost too much vacation time in the past on excursion tours that stop at 8 different hotels before getting you to your destination, a boat waiting for you at your hotel beach is the best amenity ever. The price you pay for the convenience pays itself off in allowing you to enjoy every moment of your vacation the way you want to instead of being trapped for hours on a bus.

Overall, this hotel was the location of one of the best vacations I’ve had to date. Everyone on the staff was very helpful, kind, and accommodating. The quality of the property puts you at ease and you can take the place of those actors you saw in the tropical vacation commercials. Can’t think of any real negatives about the Presidente Intercontinental , but I’m sure our wallets can come up with a few. But the money was well worth the great experiences we had and the gorgeous images we can now call our own memories.

Living La Vida Agua: A Chronicle of Kicking @ss in Cozumel- The Dives (Part Dos)

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Dive 5: Cedar Pass~ “Am I seeing things or did that fish just change colors?”

Dive Time: 50min     Max Depth: 52ft

Cedar Pass was like Paradise Reef, but with an upgrade. It was just as delightfully brilliant with cheerful colors and even more active of a dive with a great deal of aquatic traffic. The visibility was so astoundingly clear, that the only tell-tale sign you were in water were the bubbles…aside from the fish swimming aside you. But anyway. There were parrot fish, tangs, and filefish bouncing around all over the place leaping from coral to coral. With the intense clarity, you’d think they were in the air flying around like peculiar looking sparrows.

Gently gliding over the low lying coral, I saw a small cluster of fish trying to look busy above some orange and fleshy looking anemones. There was an interesting black fish that caught my eye. Once he noticed that he was being watched, he politely excused himself and swam away from the group. As I followed him, his black coloring seemed to have slipped off as if he had bodypaint on that was melting. Next thing I knew, I was staring at silvery-blue scales. What the hell?! Did a fish just change colors in front of me?! Or am I actually experiencing nitrogen narcosis at a mere 40 ft? Fortunately, I have a tendency to be susceptible to attention deficit disorder on occasion while diving, because all it took was someone finding an enormous moray eel to distract me from my hypochondria. That sucker was HUGE!!! It was basically an aquatic anaconda with a less attractive grill and an unsightly brownish pea-green coloring that he was not pulling off at all. Looks like Ursula lost one of her pets.

We crossed a stretch of sand to get from one part of the reef to the other. As I glanced to my left, I saw a barracuda within 5 feet of me and freaked out. Let’s just say I sucked up a bit of my tank trying to give him a comfortable distance of “personal space”. As I kicked myself far enough away from him, I saw Bill, one of the gentlemen in our diving group, pointing to the barracuda and then swimming right up to him with his camera. The needle-toothed fish appeared to be more lost in thought than developing a taste for homosapiens, so Bill was in no danger.

As we swam to the deeper part of the reef these mysterious bubbles started coming out of the coral. I had never seen that before. Coral breathing air? Maybe some sort of critter under the sand stirring things up? Then I looked ahead into a crevice within the reef and saw other divers swimming within the cavities under the reef. That answered my questions. As I exhaled as much air as I could from my lungs to lower myself on the side of the reef for a better view of things, I noticed the Dive Master and Bruce seemed to be actively investigating something in the underside of the reef. I look over to the Boy who signals me by taking one hand flat with fingers together and stationing it on top of his head. “SHARK!”

All of a sudden everyone is fighting against the current to get to hole at the top of the reef looking into the crevice. I didn’t care if I went through the rest of the air in my tank. I wasn’t getting out of the water till I saw that shark! After putting as much thrust as I could into my outdated fins to station myself between colliding divers, I peered into the hole. There was a nurse shark sleeping against the coral, as we so rudely stared down at him during his daytime snooze.

Each time the story is told, the nurse shark apparently gets bigger. The traditional phenomenon of most fish tales I guess. Later that night we were looking at a giant fish chart on the hotel wall and one of the divers in our group told us about a fish, called the bar jack, that changes color while feeding. So that confirms that I was not in fact hallucinating.

Dive 6: Paradise Reef~ ”Yup! Back to Paradise. But this time at night!”

Dive Time: 56min     Max Depth: 38ft

Now I thought that I would be a bit more experienced before I had attempted my first night dive. But from what Bruce and everyone else was telling us, we felt inclined to try it out. Now I didn’t know what to think. How dark was it going to be down there? Will it be hard to stay close to everyone? Will an octopus pull some ninja moves from the darkness behind me and attached itself to my face trying to wrestle with my over my regulator? (If you can’t tell I tend to have an overactive imagination) What actually happened was I had the best dive of my life! (Pending further dives of course)

We rolled backwards off the side of this tiny little boat into the darkness equipped with little handheld LED flashlights. As we descended into the water, the Dive Master was already at the bottom so we could have some perspective as to how deep we were going down. Once I descended near the reef and realized that it wasn’t completely pitched black, I got psyched! Right off the bat I started going off on my own scavenger hunt trying to be the first one to find something cool for Bruce to film with his searchlight equipped camera. Unlike the first boat dive off of Tormentos Reef, I found it much easier to keep track of everyone standing out in the darkness with their tubes of light. So I felt free to wander off on my own and explore the shadows of the reef. Apparently this freaked out the Boy seeing me always go off on my own. (Guess he might’ve had some concerns about nighttime ninja octopuses as well)

It was all a game to me. Octopus near the brain coral- 200 points. Splendid toadfish in the small crevice- 325 points. Larger Octopus exiting stage left- 275 points. Squid! 500 points. (My scoring methods can be considered subjective) There were crabs out for an evening stroll. A few eels, one of which was fittingly situated in an elongated tube coral. Another barracuda was discovered in deep contemplation until he was blinded by the stage production light Bruce brought down with us for his camera.

“If James Cameron is missing one…we may have found it”

Just as there are gnats on land to provide a certain degree of annoyance, on this dive we had these silly little worms that were attracted to our lights and swarmed us. Eric, one of our more adventurous divers who was adding to his 870+ dives that night, attempted to rid himself of the nuisance by directing all the worms attracted by his flashlight over to the sea anemones who proceed to eat them! This is one of the cool things about diving with pros, you learn all kinds of tricks.

Now with all of the excitement of the dive, I would occasionally check my air gauge to ensure I still had time left to play ghost-in-the-graveyard on the reef. As my air got low, I let the Dive Master know to see if he thought I should surface. He gave me the “OK” signal leading me to believe he felt I still had enough air to stay down a bit longer. But as my air got lower, my tank got lighter, and I became more buoyant. I was spending more time fighting to stay down than looking around for critters. I got to a point where I felt I wasn’t going to get much more out of the dive, aside from exercising my thighs to keep from floating to the top, so the Dive Master signaled me to ascend.

Now before you get to the surface, you’re required to do a Safety Stop, which is hovering at 15-20ft for 3-4 minutes to allow for the nitrogen bubbles to work themselves out of your blood stream. We were diving with dive computers that were wristwatches to indicate how deep we were in the water. Normally when you ascend, you multitask watching your dive computer on one hand for your depth and releasing air from your BCD with the other hand. On this dive I also had to negotiate a flashlight to shine with one hand on my dive computer…but that’s the same hand I’m supposed to use to release the air. And on top of that my tank was so light that I started ascending too rapidly. One look at the computer I was at 23ft. The next second I had shot up to 8ft! I still had to do my Safety Stop! Before I knew it I felt the top of my head break the surface just as my flashlight had gone out. Next thing I knew, I saw in the gleam of everyone’s light from below, my LED light was falling back down towards the reef! I instantly zipped down after it, determined not to be “THAT diver” who lost a rental light. (I still had to retain my diver cred after all) Fighting against the pressure progressively pushing against my ears and the aluminum balloon strapped to my back, I was able to snatch that damn light at about 15ft. The Dive Master witnessing the dramatics gave me his light, checked to make sure I wasn’t freaking out. (Which I wasn’t), and helped keep me in place to complete a proper Safety Stop. Once we all got back to the surface, instead of being freaked out and full of anxiety of the last few minutes of drama, I was exhilarated! Who cares if I had a made a less than graceful ascent? I had a blast through the whole thing! And I had allotted myself an extra 500 points for skillfully chasing down my flashlight.

Dive 7 & 8: Santa Rosa Wall & Columbia Wall~ “Scenic and serene”

Dive 7 Dive Time: 53min     Max Depth: 75ft

Dive 8 Dive Time: 64min     Max Depth: 53ft

The last two boat dives weren’t as action-packed as the others. They were just nice sightseeing drifts past towering reefs and spotting many of the same fish that we’ve come across on other dives. My main goal before this trip was over was to save my air long enough to have at least one dive over an hour. After days of getting more and more control over my tendency to fidget away my air supply, we had lasted a whole hour on our last dive at Columbia Wall. The Boy and I did our Safety Stop together just hanging out at 15ft when heard the Dive Master bang on his tank to get our attention while pointing to the surface. There, casually riding the waves on top of the water was a relaxed sea turtle! He just happened to be enjoying some rays while bodysurfing right above us. It was definitely the most entertaining Safety Stop we’ve had while watching the turtle, who had slowly become suspicious that he had retained an audience, dive down and swim past Bruce filming the majestic finale. Once he disappeared into the blue depths (the turtle…not Bruce), we swam to the top and climbed back onto the boat. With wetsuits dripping and mask indentations on our faces, we smilingly relived the appropriate ending to our boat dives together as a group. And yes, I did have stings on my arm too. A parting gift from my underwater nemesis.

Dive 9: Shore dive from hotel beach~ “Finishing off my fish wish list”

Dive Time: 62min

Max Depth: 23ft.

After days of diving with a group, the Boy and I thought it’d be fun to do our last dive together. Thanks to the convenient location of our hotel and the awesome onsite dive shop, we were able to waddle into the water with our gear on right from the beach. When we first arrived in Cozumel, I had a list of things I wanted to see on this trip. Parrot fish, splendid toadfish, octopuses, turtles, and lionfish. The Boy had already seen a lionfish on his training dives with Bruce, but that was still the one thing I hadn’t seen.

Now lionfish are not native to the waters of Cozumel. They’re actually a predatory nuisance. Rumor has it that the grandiose Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which is known for its obscenely ornate and extensive collection of aquariums, are to blame for the punk rock looking fish making itself comfortable on the reefs of the Caribbean. It’s believed that when they flushed their tanks for cleaning, some of the lionfish had made a break for it into the open water. There’s even a campaign promoted by restaurants and various groups to “Save the Reef, Eat the Lionfish”. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38632799/ns/us_news-environment/t/do-your-civic-duty-eat-fish/#.T0-cYof2aSo

Despite the lionfish’s evil reputation, it’s still crazy to see one in person. On this dive we swam back to the broken pieces of the barge, and we came across a large one just chilling underneath a piece of rusted metal. With all of his zebra striped spikes, he did look like a badass of the sea. I couldn’t help but think of what a stark contrast he was to the serene blues, greens, and yellows of the graceful queen triggerfish, smiling tangs, and queen angelfish, who liked to play in the bubbles of scuba divers.

“My Bubbles!”

I could only hope that this won’t be another situation in which endangered species are pushed out of existence by the folly of us humans thinking we “know what we’re doing”. After using up the remaining pictures in our disposable underwater camera goofing off, the Boy and I decided to head for shore. Along the way, he seemed to spot something within the sand. As he got closer I saw the outline of a prickly fish expertly camouflaged against the beige granules. I recognized it as some kind of poisonous fish mentioned on the Discovery Channel. The next thing I know, I see the Boy waving his hand right in front of it. OH MY GOD! WHAT IS HE DOING?! The rock-looking beast made a dash underneath a nearby rock. That thing was later identified as a scorpion fish. And yes, it is poisonous.

The Boy & The Barge

High Traffic Area

“Sebastian is that you?”

Living La Vida Agua: A Chronicle of Kicking @ss in Cozumel- The Dives (Part Uno)

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Year 7 away from diving seems to have proven to be the golden year to bring out of retirement my black cherry SeaQuest Thruster fins. Little did I realize that they are now considered “retro” in the diving world. Still a classic and useful, but without the high-tech “zazziness” (in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper) which allows for the gentle grace of split fins or the high performance look of well-jointed Slingshots from Aqua Lung. But I still regained my Scuba Diva status, further reinforced by the fact that the BCD I rented (buoyance control device…basically an inflatable vest) was in fact called “Diva”. Coincidence, I think not!

Split Fins

The Boy’s New Slingshot Fins

My Fins

Diving Diva

I must say that going down to Cozumel with a diving group from the local dive shop proved to be a great experience. Granted, me and the boy were the youngest ones in the group and affectionately deemed “the kids”, but we had the benefit of diving with pros who had 870+ and 3,000+ dives under their belt. Dinners were full of tasty margaritas, useful tips on conserving your air, and a great deal of adventurous stories about filming sharks for Shark Week (that’s right!) and getting “narked” at 130ft. wreck diving (basically going so deep that you start feeling a curious mixture of euphoria and confusion from breathing compressed air at such depths).

It’s true what everybody says, Cozumel is definitely a diver’s playground. No matter how excruciatingly exhausted we were every night from the combination of diving, eating sensational Mexican cuisine, and tossing back a few bottles of Sol (the wizened divers of the group definitely put us “kids” to shame), we always woke up at whatever the boat time was ready for more playtime under the sea (cue theme song to Little Mermaid…I know you were singing it in your head already).

And no matter how often I found myself getting stung by some stupidly translucent tiny relative of the jellyfish (stupid stupid whatever the hell those things were…they have pretty much guaranteed a sale for a full exposure wet suit to Underseas Scuba Center in the near future…Bruce you now know who to thank) I still developed an addiction for trying to increase my time underwater and seeking out the coolest specimen first. Bruce, the owner of Underseas Scuba Center in Villa Park, IL (www.underseas.com), set up our whole dive trip. His travel companion for the week was a GIANORMOUS underwater camera that looks as if he snuck it off the set of Titanic. This gave us even more of an edge to try to show off and find the coolest things for him to catch on camera (and attempt to build our underwater scuba cred).

Here’s Part 1 of our diving adventures:

Dive 1: Shore dive from hotel beach~ “I feel something on my hand…I don’t know what it is”

Dive Time: 28min     Max Depth: 23ft

We had just arrived at the hotel only to be shellshocked by the beauty of it and its location. I’m sure waking up at 3:30am for a travel day amplified our reactions a bit as well. Right away the boy was recruited to start his first training dive to finish up the Open Water portion of his PADI diving certification. Bruce of Underseas was the Obi Wan Kenobi to the boy’s Luke Skywalker. While I had fully intended on laying around and catching some rays to come back to the Midwest a bronzed beauty, I started getting excited seeing them prep their gear. Before I knew it, I was zipping up my wetsuit and prepping my gear too. It was a nice easy shallow dive, deepest point being a whopping 25ft. We floated by some broken pieces of a barge that had wrecked near the hotel and had further splintered off during the hurricane in 2005. Some fish here, anemones there, evidence of an octopus crushing up seashells nearby; a nice gentle reintroduction to diving…except my hand stung for some reason. I looked at it, some weird spots showed up, and I wasn’t quite sure how to react to it. So I kept swimming. Stinging sensation persisted. Usually if something weird is going on underwater you signal people and let them know, but I didn’t feel like it was quite as pressing of a situation…and what hand signal do you use for stinging? And besides that, I had to keep up the appearance of having experienced diver cred. I aint no newbie! (Says the chick with only 6 dives under her belt)

Dive 2: Tormentos Reef~ “Also known as the Drift Dive of Terror”

Dive Time: 40min     Max Depth: 51ft

Now I preface this with saying, I dove in the Bahamas, I dove in the Great Barrier Reef, but I have never dove with a current or drift. This was a LEARNING EXPERIENCE, also a lesson in listening. Now we had a short brief about the dive on the boat. But once we got in the water, confusion seemed to be the theme of this dive. We all went down. “Oh how pretty the reef is! Look at the fish!” I think to myself. We all float near the bottom and I naturally expect someone to lead the group, but everyone seems to be doing their own thing. And I seem to be floating down reef. Seeing as how I don’t know the natural terrain and am a great deal less experienced, I wanted to be able to keep an eye on everyone. So I would try to have a higher vantage point to locate the other divers. But I kept finding myself being carried even further and faster down reef from everyone. Now this being the boy’s first boat dive and first time on a real reef, he also experienced some confusion. He was closer to the bottom, closer to the reef, and closer to the group, but we were buddies, and he felt conflicted about his devotion to the Buddy System when he saw me being carried off into the distance by the drift. So most of the dive was composed of me trying not to sail away from the group and the boy, fearing I might become lost at sea, signaling me to come down. Once back on the boat, it had been brought to my attention that if you stay lower and closer to the reef it prevented the current from carrying you away. Minus diver cred points for me there.

Dive 3: Paradise Reef~ “The name says it all”

Dive Time: 54min     Max Depth: 40ft

Very fitting name for this little garden of delights. Barely any current made for a much less dramatic and anxiety inducing dive. It was shallower so there was more ambient light from the surface brightening the pinks of anemones, blues of passing parrot fish, and the yellow highlights on the foureye butterfly fish. This time I easily stayed close to the boy. We glided along pointing out fun stuff. Then the boy pointed to a hole underneath some coral. Damn his newbie luck! He was the first to find a splendid toadfish! Two actually! Right next to each other. And he didn’t even know what they were! They’re only found in Cozumel. Apparently, if you make a sound at them they’ll respond to you in a toad-like voice, but they also may respond by coming out and biting you.

Splendid toadfish

While enjoying the activities of being an underwater explorer, I also experienced more damn stinging sensations. I looked around and didn’t see ANYTHING. I was keeping my distance from all of the wildlife. So what the hell was going on?! Was my air bad and slowly poisoning me? Did I have some mysterious genetic predisposition that made me exponentially more susceptible to decompression sickness?! These are the thoughts that were going through my head. And yet, I still did not signal anyone and kept on diving in Wonderland. Once on the boat, the boy started complaining of some peculiar hives on his arm (God bless him for always speaking what’s on his mind, otherwise I may have continued thinking I was falling silently victim to a mysterious underwater illness). Turns out, there’s the potential of coming in contact with hydroids, stupid tiny jelly-like see-through things related to the jellyfish. Luckily more of an annoyance than their larger, more visible relatives.

Dive 4: Palancar Gardens~ “More stinging than fish, but still pretty”

Dive Time: 40min     Max Depth: 84ft

This was our first deep dive, about 85ft. Fun areas to swim through, lots of interesting coral to see, but not as much marine life as Paradise. The local Dive Master alerted us to a long jelly-like ribbon sashaying through the blue atmosphere, you bet your ass I steered clear of that sucker. Then literally 5 minutes later I felt the tell-tale prickling of my aquatic nemesis again. What the hell?! As I gently propelled myself along trying to allow the splendor of my surroundings overshadow the itching of my arms, I looked down to see a large majestic queen triggerfish dancing along the sea bottom. “Wow! That fish has hot pink lips! Never saw that before.” as that thought crossed my mind, the Dive Master was making a mad dash towards Queenie and took the hot pink ear plug someone had lost out of the royal beauty’s possession. Lesson learned: Queen triggerfish don’t have hot pink lips.

Note: Does Not Have Hot Pink Lips

Vixen Meets Badass: My Run In With The Infamous Anthony Bourdain

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It’s Sunday morning at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I’m hungover. The effects of my delicate condition seem to be increasing as the day progresses. And it’s only 11am…still plenty more hours to “enjoy” the day. The wisdom of ordering doubles is slowly dawning on me… Maybe it was not that wise.

I attempt to multitask checking the flight board for the gate of my Boston flight, trying to Facebook a friend from my phone to see what gate her flight’s going out of, and trying to fight the growing urge to find a shaded corner for a catnap. While doing all this, my natural inclination was to lean against the large pot containing a small tree for indoor greenery…Such effort was taking a lot out of me.

Sundays usually aren’t too congested at O’Hare, so passersby were few. As I glanced up from my smartphone noticing two gentlemen passing by, my brain instantly processed a familiar face. Not just recognizable, but familiar. Familiar in the way that you happen to spot a friend and your brain registers favorable memories of them. Then those memories initiate whatever neuron transfers are required to create the feeling of joy at seeing that individual. But I’ve never seen that face in person. So why would I experience joy at seeing that particular familiar face? (Which was accompanied by a very severe case of bedhead) Striding within feet of me, in all his tall lanky glory, was my hero of the travel world, Mr. Anthony Bourdain! Hanging out with a colleague, whom I also recognized from his show on the Travel Channel. And Mr. Bourdain looked like he was hurting as bad as I was.

The gentlemen walked by me and sat themselves down at a table in the little make shift indoor patio of the Wolfgang Puc restaurant within the terminal. Clearly the best accommodations Terminal 3 has to offer. As is pretty much required when you’ve spotted an internationally recognized entity, I did the traditional “double take” to ensure that I was not just experiencing the delusional effects of dehydration. Target confirmed: Authentic Anthony. I looked around to see if anyone else was recognizing him. No one even turned their heads. “Fools!” I thought to myself. “You people don’t understand what kind of intellectual endurance it takes to produce high level witticisms on a daily basis! Or the impressive metabolic anomaly which must exist within him that maintains such a slight figure while hosting a show about eating food all over the world.” In my state of being overly susceptible to mood swings, due to lack of complete control over my mental faculties, I was appalled by the lack of respect being shown. Following that emotion, I was instantly overcome by the enormity of a decision I had to make. What do I?!

I’d like to think that I’m an interesting enough person. That people who meet me like me and would think it worthwhile to enjoy my company while getting to know me further. I’m always friendly, funny, and courteous. But at that moment, I was also pretty hungover…While he looked VERY hungover. When I’m in such a state, talking and entertaining strangers is not on my preferred list of things to do. Breakfast, water, and the interchanging napping with lounging on the couch ARE. I was struggling with thoughts of not wanting to be a rude intruder upon the time with his friend while acting like a typical star-struck fan asking for pictures, autographs on napkins, and gushing all over him like an idiot. (I’m sure if I had a few drinks in me I could pull off being a lot smoother) But this is the Sultan of Sarcasm! I didn’t want to find myself in a paragraph in his next book referred to as “that crazy chick that accosted me while post-bender at O’Hare”. But I have great admiration for this guy and his career. I’m taking an amateur leap into travel writing with him as part of the inspiration. I will always regret NOT saying something!

So I quickly zipped over to his table, focusing more on my actions than my thoughts, because if I allowed myself to focus on my thoughts I’d most likely only hear “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” over and over in a merry go-round through my head. I approached the table, sensing the beginnings of an adrenaline high (or the beginnings of a fainting spell), and leaned over saying “Excuse me, Mr. Bourdain. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I couldn’t pass by an opportunity to say ‘Hello’ to you” and then I went on to tell him that I am a fan of his shows, enjoy his writing, and have admired his career. He thanked me for the kind words and gave a very authentic, if yet very tired, smile in appreciation. Then I said that I would leave them to enjoy their meal and that I very much appreciated having a chance to meet him. And turned heel and skipped away.

As soon as I turned the corner, I began mad texting anyone who would care! My hands were shaking SO bad! And autotext didn’t even know what to do with me so it took a lunch break. I was overcome with joy, elation, and disbelief at the turn of events this morning! Then I started regretting not asking for a picture, but I reasoned with myself that my main purpose was to be short and respectful, not a crazed fan. BUT I REALLY WANTED A PICTURE!!! Then I started considering even more possible regrets. I should have told him about my fledgling website. Maybe he’d reach out and offer some worthwhile advise? Maybe he’d offer to mentor me? MAYBE HE’D HAVE ME ON THE SHOW! (clearly rational thought wasn’t completely winning out under the circumstances). Maybe I should have said something more memorable?! He’s just going to forget about me and file me under all of the other random people that approach him. Then I came to a realization…

I should have just said “Hey I’m hungover as shit too. Mind asking the server for a third glass of water?”

Backpacker Diaries: Episode 1

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Backpacking: What It Is~

I love swapping travel stories and tips with people. After years of recalling my previous adventures abroad and daydreaming about future endeavors with others, it hasn’t even occurred to me that when I discuss “backpacking” as a method of travel some individuals may have a completely different idea of what I’m even talking about. I was caught off guard when someone thought that I meant hoofing it from city to city with a giant backpack on while thumbing down a ride.

That is not precisely what I meant.

Although I do enjoy a casual stroll now and then; cabs, planes, and public trains suit me just fine.

I’ve even recently asked my brother, whom I’ve dragged through six European countries by force, if he still had our pictures from when we went backpacking. His response, “…when did we go backpacking?” Apparently, he was under the impression that backpacking had to do strictly with hiking. Apparently us traveling around with something very similar to this strapped to our backs,

(see below for image which is obviously a backpack)

Backpacking=Having Backpack

did not count. Then he went to Wikipedia and found this description

Backpacking is a form of low-cost, independent international travel. It includes the use of a backpack or other luggage that is easily carried for long distances or long periods of time; the use of public transport; inexpensive lodging such as youth hostels; a longer duration to the trip when compared with conventional vacations; and an interest in meeting the locals as well as seeing the sights. It is typically associated with young adults, who generally have fewer obligations and thus more time to travel. They also have less money to spend on hotels or private vehicles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backpacking_(travel)

I’m not quite sure what he thought we were originally doing, but this picture might clarify how he may have overlooked the obvious.

The Burren (Ireland)- Think he knows he’s playing his PSP in one of the most geologically unique spots in Europe?

So after these encounters of confusion, I thought it might be beneficial to start up a conversation on the various types of backpacking and what goes into them.

When I hear the word “backpacking” I don’t necessarily think of hiking. Although that does count as well. To me, backpacking is a form of travel that allows you to be nomadic and get a taste of multiple places at your own pace. You can have a general itinerary established, divvying up a number of days for each place, but you never know which city you’ll bond with that offers you more to marvel at. If only two or three days won’t do it, you can always extend your stay as you please (as long as you have available accommodations of course). It’s also convenient to be flexible in case unexpected events occur that may make it more beneficial to move on to the next destination. While in Ireland, I was supposed to spend four days in Dublin. But with the daily deluges I encountered, I opted to cut it short to hop over to London instead. And, because the fates choose to weave in a bit of irony into the fabric of life here and there, I got to personally bear witness to the biggest flooding London had experienced in years. …“Mind the Moat.”

Why Do It~

It’s a unique way to get to know various destinations and experience the unexpected. I was staying at a hostel in London that offered a free walking tour of the city. If I hadn’t been on that tour when the heavens opened up to give London a good washing as I attempted to make out the silhouette of St. Peter’s Basilica between raindrops, I would have never been forced to seek shelter in the nearby Dali museum. There I got to gaze within inches into the surreal dreamworlds trapped within the masterpieces created by the hand of one of my favorite artists. Lots of unanticipated things, both good and bad, come up while backpacking, but that’s what makes it adventurous. And produce the best stories!

With some vacations you book a hotel, show up with your guidebook, have a list of sites you wish explore, and enjoy some authentic meals around the city. These vacations are great if there’s just one area that is the main focus of your trip. But if you want something a little more spontaneous that covers more ground, backpacking allows you greater flexibility to explore multiple destinations. You get to enjoy a city more on the “ground level” so to say. Meaning you’re more likely to use public transportation, stay in hostels, and meet other fellow travelers or locals that can provide you with some valuable advice. Of course, you’ll still be hitting up the items on your “To Do” list as well, but you are also more likely to stumble upon some hidden gems in places that the guidebook hasn’t highlighted.

 How It’s Done~

I’ve traveled throughout parts of Europe, Australia, and The Big Island of Hawaii in various ways I’d consider “backpacking”. While bouncing around in Europe, I backpacked in the traditional sense. I had all of my possessions strapped to my shoulders and moved around using planes, trains, and buses to skip around from country to country. No hitchhiking, but there was still a good deal of walking.  Can’t really say that I was complaining when I came back a few pounds lighter.

In The Land Down Under, I had enjoyed the luxuries of living out of a coach bus with about 30 something additional people for a period of two weeks. Most of us still remain good friends despite sharing the cramped quarters in our hotel-on-wheels. A true test of friendship on the road.

Hawaii was a very unique adventure. We showed up with backpacks and tents, rented a car, and drove around the entire island while spending our nights camped out on beaches right on the ocean. Permits to camp on the beaches of the Big Island are $5 a night! You can’t beat that rate for an oceanview. But let me put you on notice, the showers are outdoors AND cold. Some people discover they have a limited capacity to survive without hot showers. I discovered mine was 4 days. Either way, there is little that compares to the surreal memories of falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, waking up to a breakfast of hot pink dragon fruit, and going for a morning of snorkel with sea turtles right outside of your tent.

There’s lots of different ways to tailor your backpacking trip to suit where you’re going, what pace you want to do it at, and what kind of an experience you want to enjoy. This series is going to focus on my personal adventures, what I’ve heard from other vagabonds, and tips I’ve picked up on. Please feel free to comment with your own knowledge and stories too!