Monday, March 30, 2020

Building a Community

Burgees with the group's logo, the outline of the Castillo that is a symbol of the town and has never been taken in battle.

In late January 2012, a small group of cruisers who before this had only known each other on line met in a pub in town to match faces to screen names. We tried to develop a strategy to help people make real life connections and create a sailing community.  Different than a yacht club, we wanted to focus on cruisers who would be passing through, staying a day or a month or a season, and then in this nomadic lifestyle, moving on to explore new places.

With physical gatherings, virtual gatherings, happy hours and educational lectures and a morning VHF net (like a conference call that covers weather, winds, tides, welcomes newcomers and provides information about local services, general assistance, and fun events), the group now has a robust membership of over 2,000 people. What makes it feel totally different to me than any other sailing group I'm in, is that this one doesn't just include boaters although there are plenty of those. Marina managers, local marine trades and shop owners, even the local SeaTow operators and local law enforcement, marine sheriff and fire department, are all members. The community isn't just the people who play and live on boats, it's the entire breadth of maritime support people and industries coming together with the common interest in making the town a good place for boating.

I wish I understood how we made this happen, because I'd love to replicate it in other places as we travel. But even though I was there from the beginning, I have no idea how we got so lucky as to make this community coalesce. Must be some ancient St Aug city magic, I guess.

That first meeting in 2012 had only nine people -- plus an idea!

And look at us now, 8 years later! (photo from Mark & Suzanne Einstein)

Are We Done? Not Exactly the End of Cruising

Great blue herons remind me of Maryland. And also of patience, which they have and I do not.

There's a truism in cruising, that you make plans written in the sand at low tide, or plans are firmly cast in jello. Two summers ago, after an interesting but horribly hot stay in a lovely marina in Jacksonville while Dan healed from hip replacement surgery, we promised ourselves that we'd never again voluntarily spend a summer aboard in north Florida. Plan A for summer 2020 was to work another season on El Galeon; Plan B was to sail Cinderella to the Chesapeake; Plan C was to buy a van, fit it out for camping, and do a western US road trip.

But here we were, the word "voluntarily" in that vow came up thanx to the virus and quite suddenly all those options evaporated and it looked like we were going to be spending another summer aboard in north Florida after all. El Galeon was out -- we certainly weren't going to be attending lots of crowded tall ship festivals this summer. Sailing back to the Chesapeake was out too -- too many marinas are closing or closed, and we have too much uncertainty, to sail north, not to mention needing to be in a stable place where we have solid infrastructure while Dan continues to heal from his scuba diving accident. Not really game for a road trip, either, under the current circumstances, long distance travel just isn't in the offing. It looks to be an active hurricane season coming up, and Plans A, B, and C won't be available.

I had a bit of a meltdown last week, without thinking blurted out, "I want to go home!" And then, stunned -- what truth had I spoken?  I can't remember when I've had so much fun, or met so many people I liked all in one place, as St Aug. And the community we have here has been tremendous -- the fabulous people who've been helping us during Dan's recovery, and the support of the marine community in town is like nothing else I've ever known. But still, I realized "home" was not here. (Or, necessarily, anywhere.)

"Home" in the truest sense, is Cinderella, wherever she is docked. We still want to live on the boat -- but maybe not do the lengthy East Coast snowbird slog twice a year with the seasons. We've done the southeast coast 4 times south and 3 times north on Cinderella, and 3 times each way on El Galeon. Time for something different. I doubt that we're done with cruising, and definitely not done with living on the boat. The Chesapeake is calling; I want to try a place where we can sail more locally, just few hours sail and you can anchor in a different small town or deserted cove every day.  To get there faster, maybe we'll fly or drive to fun places for vacations. So, when things are stable again, probably next year, we're northbound again.

(image from here)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hadn't Expected THIS at All!

These flamingos are not social distancing!

Right? No one here did. After we got back to the States we were going to spend a few days in southern Florida before returning to Cinderella. I suspected, rightly, that those days were going to be my last feeling of normalcy for, how long?

There were a few days in a grimy hotel outside of Fort Lauderdale where we did our income tax paperwork and took cellphone photos of the resulting documents to email to our accountant. Dinner at a Thai restaurant with recently-engaged friends Phil and Kay. Overpriced pizza and nice microbrewed beer. A much nicer hotel, this time with a bar where the bartender poured extremely stiff rum drinks, and after we'd had our limit a stereotypical big spender who had done well in Vegas bought another round. A visit to our dermatologist. Then, because the boat was completely empty, a big stock-up shopping trip to Trader Joe's.

Back in St Augustine, we early-voted, bought more groceries, wine, dropped our things off at our storage unit ... and dropped off the planet, it seemed, into total isolation as the scale of the crisis became apparent. We were just slightly ahead of the curve; as events started being cancelled and pubs shut down the following week. The weather was beautiful, we had a rental car, but couldn't go anywhere, do anything, or visit anyone!

In a sense, the isolation is no different than a long sea passage. As long term liveaboards and cruisers, we're better prepared for it than most. We've had lots of experience entertaining ourselves and keeping our relationship harmonious, just the two of us in our tiny fiberglass bubble on the big empty ocean. We started discussing how to get some purpose to our days, otherwise we'd end the isolation as experts in nothing but playing computer games, overweight and alcoholic. The original plan was to commit to one hour each day doing: something practical, something physical, something educational, something creative. We deep cleaned the boat, went for isolated walks, sorted photos and music. Dan studied sign language and Jaye studied meteorology. We spent a lot of time reading the news and social-media-ing with friends. We read a lot, and went for drives to nowhere in our little rented Spark.

For me the most surreal was a comment my friend H made on Facebook. She was watching a movie and a character came into a crowded party and hugged another character. "Only a week ago," my friend mused, "this seemed normal; now it's impossibly quaint."

Our friends and neighbors have been awesome, buying our groceries and running errands and other favors to keep Dan's contact with the outside world as minimal as possible while his lungs continue to heal from the diving accident. And I'm enjoying the quiet, unpressured and unstructured time. I don't know how long this will continue, but we'll get through it, together -- separately.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Grocery Carts

This bit of social engineering just fascinated me. A very simple way to keep from stray grocery carts scattered around the parking lot when lazy people don't bother to return them to the cart corrals.

Rows of grocery carts, neatly organized and returned to the cart corral. How do they do it?
Simple, but elegant. See that little dangle hanging in front of the cart? The carts are effectively chained together. To get the cart out, you put a coin in the handle (a quarter, or an Arubian florin which is about the same size.) That pushes out the chain holding your cart to the next one, so you can take it shopping. But don't worry, you get your coin back when you're finished. All you have to do is return the cart to the corral, then use the dangling key on the cart in front of yours to push out your coin and lock your cart to the next one. You've effectively put a 25-cent deposit on the cart, which is returned when you return the cart. Elegantly simple, and simply elegant. Remarkably effective, too!

Putting a coin in the slot releases the cart for your use

When you're finished, returning it and inserting the key to lock your cart to the stack, returns your coin.
This was my favourite store on the island anyway because I like their products so much, but even if that weren't the case, I would shop there just for this!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Road Signs

There's lots of micro-scale cultural differences that remind me that even though we're in a European-style First World country here in the southeastern Caribbean, and the streets are safe and you can drink the water, we're still living island style. Check out these road signs: 

In some cases, the meaning is fairly intuitive:

It's a pedestrian crosswalk, yes?

Others, less so:

Rocket launch area? (Actually, this signals that the road you are on is the one that has the right of way; side roads are subsidiary and must yield.)

I got pretty darn good at roundabouts. I like them, they are self-adjusting and use intersections more efficiently than traffic lights; hence, less congestion. But there's one by the airport that is 3 lanes. I tried it a couple of times when traffic was very light to see if I could learn it. That made it better but once I did change lanes wrong and heard tires squeal behind me as I forced an oncoming vehicle to brake hard. Another time I ended up trapped and going around the circle 2-1/2 times until I finally got in the correct lane to exit!

Roundabout ahead! But at least the road directions are clearly labelled. 

But sometimes, they are just plain weird. I've never before been in a place where there's an actual road to "other directions." Must be an island thing.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Not Exactly What I Had In Mind

Okay, I did say I was hoping to do new and different things, and have more adventures, in 2020 but "unexpected encounters with the health care system overseas" wasn't exactly what I had in mind!

It started out like an ordinary dive. Pretty day, and a favourite reef we have visited before. Dan was looking forward to diving in his new wetsuit, warmer and more comfortable fit than his previous one. It was the one he'd worn during our manatee encounter, and we had already gone for one dive just the previous week, and he had been very happy with its performance.

Dan is an experienced diver; here celebrating his 100th trip a few years ago.

About halfway through the dive, things began to go wrong and he was unable to keep control of his buoyancy. Perfect storm, a combination of stronger than usual current, unfamiliar equipment (not the wetsuit, but the rented BCD and weights), and just plain bad luck, and quite suddenly he was at the surface with a lot of seawater in his lungs.

There's a gap in both of our memories and things were a blur, but an ambulance ride was involved, and for me, hours by his side in a very air conditioned hospital emergency room while wearing a t shirt and shorts over a wet swimsuit.

Really high-tech health support

The hospital and staff were excellent. Language wasn’t a problem as almost everyone had English (fortunately, because while we can get by in Spanish we can’t have conversations on complex or technical subjects). He was on a positive pressure breathing machine with 100% oxygen for about 12 hours, which helped drive the water back out of his lungs and reabsorbed by his body. This was followed by canned oxygen for another 24 hours. They kept saying his blood saturation was too low, and were getting worried. But they were measuring saturation at his fingertips and he has terrible circulation and cold hands so the reading was artificially low. Clever doctor measured it again at his earlobe and learned that his recovery had been going much better than the fingertip measurements led them to believe! He had been fine for quite some time.

There was one disorienting but delightful moment when a man I met in a hallway looked at me, stared at me, and then said, "Why are you here?" Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out if I knew him ... turned out I did! He had rented us an apartment several years ago. So after I told him why I was there, I got to ask him why he was there -- he and his wife had sold the building and left the island after the winter we stayed with them. Turned out he was back doing a temporary stint at the hospital, so it was nice seeing a familiar face.

One other thing that struck me was that visiting hours were kept pretty strict, especially in ICU where he was the first 24 hours, but also in the general ward where he was the second day once he was out of immediate danger. I was given a lot more flexibility than most of the local folks, however. The explanation was that he was far from home and the situation would be far more stressful for him. While that was probably true, I'm sure everyone is stressed when a loved one is in the hospital. I was simultaneously grateful for the VIP treatment, and a bit embarrassed by my privilege as I walked past the other waiting people.

The afternoon shift in A-2 really liked him ... and really liked sending him home!

Two days later, Dan was home and feeling quite well. We rested for a day, then the next day went for a hike at our favourite spot, Ayo Rocks. We walked slowly but he had no shortness of breath. He was also able to go for a snorkel at a very calm beach (kinda like getting back on the horse) and no problems there either. We know he’s still weak; he gets shivery chills in late afternoon or early evening if he’s tired but less so every day. He’ll be fragile for a couple of months. Very thankfully no decompression injuries or lung expansion injuries or they would have airlifted him to CuraƧao or Miami. As is it was bad but not that bad.

Follow up visit with the pulmonologist occurred a few days later. Dan had no permanent damage and his lungs sounded excellent. After the medical details were covered, the conversation meandered a bit. We talked about universal medical coverage (more on that below; our doctor was involved in its implementation here); about politics (we both shared a disdain for Trump and a fondness for BBC News); about Amsterdam's history of pirates and prostitutes. Diving is off the table for a long time, maybe forever, but that's sort of okay -- at least we can say "forever" again.

= = = = =
From a U.S. perspective it was interesting to see the health care differences. Here on Aruba, universal health care came about for economic advantages, but also for social reasons. The former system had a combination of private insurance for the rich, and the equivalent of Medicaid for everyone else, and the difference in quality of care was very very major. Now, people pay for their health care by a small percent deduction from their paychecks (3%, compared to, when we were working, 7% for Medicare); employers pay another 9% of payroll, and another 3% of sales tax on goods and services, all support health care. Total 15%. For staggering comparison, we pay about 15% of our income for health care now, in other words the same percentage, but that is just our portion, with my former employer, and Medicare, both picking up the greater portion of the total cost.  It totally brought home to me that statistic I read several years ago, that we spend an amazing 42 cents of every health care dollar on non-health things, mostly administrative like figuring out insurance billing codes, but also advertising and profit. The total hospital bill, for ambulance, ER, a day in ICU and a day in a regular ward, xrays, blood tests and medication, was about half what the deductible alone would have been for a similar stay in the US.