Friday, January 26, 2007

This morning I accidentally almost shaved off half my beard. There is a reason for this. On Tuesday night, I returned from 10 days in Barbados with my parents, siblings, assorted in-laws and two nephews. I took the electric trimmer I use to maintain a consistent length to my beard. Normally I leave it set at 4 and the length is pretty much where I like it to be. Anyway, this morning was the first time I have used it since returning and I didn’t notice that in flight, the dial that determines closeness apparently was pressed against something else in my bag and it shifted from a setting of 4 to 1. I failed to notice this until, blithely trimming away, I noticed that the remnants that the trimmer’s little vacuum failed to pick up that were falling into the sink were larger than usual. It took a few seconds for me to have one of those “oh shit” moments. I stopped and checked the dial which clearly said “1”. By that time, I had done the left side of my face. It should be back to normal in a couple weeks. Meantime, I look stranger than usual.

All this, by way of introduction to my January posting, provides some excuse for why this post is a little late. I been gone.

December finished with the flurry of lunches, dinners and parties that inevitably accompany the holidays. The frequency of these is made even worse due to my birthday occurring on the 23rd. I now have enough friends here that, like when I lived in Sacramento, I get invited to a whole bunch of events. I think I need to learn to turn down some of these. By the end of the month, I felt like I couldn’t fit into my pants.

In early January, my friend Risa Ogroskin came for a visit from San Francisco. Risa is an old friend whom I met in the late 70s when my architectural practice was still new. At the time she worked in an interiors showroom I frequented. Over the years, Risa has gone on to repping individual lines and now represents Bernhardt Furniture. Because Bernhardt is headquartered about an hour east of Asheville, when Risa had a trip schedule to visit the mother ship, she contacted me about spending a couple days here on the way. She blew into town on a Friday night a week before my scheduled departure for Barbados, and she stayed until mid afternoon on Sunday when she had to head down to Hickory with a Bernhardt colleague who had also come to Asheville a little early. Seems they all have friends who used to rep the line in Florida who moved here a year and a half ago so much cross visitation occurred. Risa’s visit was, as you can imagine, very hectic but fun. I told her she needs to come back with her husband Joey sometime when the pace can be more leisurely.

So Risa left, and I started doing laundry. I have to keep my trips a secret from Abner for as long as possible. He becomes depressed and sulks if he sees me putting anything in a suitcase. Over the years, I have gotten better at last minute packing jobs and also hiding the luggage from him in parts of the house he rarely visits. On Friday the 12th, however, Cassandra Beaver, the new housesitter, arrived from Charlotte for a trial run/orientation session with Abner. I familiarized her with the house and with Abner’s various rituals and even went on a walk in Biltmore Forest with Regie and Spencer so they could get acquainted as well. By the time that all had finished, I really needed to get onto the packing whether he saw me or not.
I took 10 days worth of undies and t-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, minimal socks, jeans and sandals, and let it go at that. Since my family has been doing these wintertime tropical trips since 1974, and also due to my many trips to Puerto Vallarta during and after the construction of John’s house, I have gotten to the point where I realize that no matter what I take, in the end all I wear is t-shirts and shorts. I usually wear a reasonably decent pair of slacks on the plane just in case we end up eating somewhere that requires a slight upgrade of attire, but that’s about it.

On Saturday morning, I attempted to say good-bye to Abner but he was pouting in the living room and wouldn’t get up for love or money. He also wouldn’t look at me. I got down on the floor and petted and kissed him good-bye, feeling as guilty as he wanted me to feel, and jumped into the car at about 7:30 for the drive to the Charlotte airport. Why I was flying from Charlotte is another story that can be summed up very briefly. Goddamned Delta Airlines. If any of you are planning a trip to Asheville, do not come on Delta even if their schedule looks good and their rates seem to be the best. They cancel more flights than they fly.

I arrived at remote parking in Charlotte after a 1 hour and 45 minutes drive from my house and was on the shuttle to the terminal by 9:20 AM. Since this was an international flight, I had to check in inside the terminal, get a boarding pass, and check my luggage before heading for security. Even with all that, I was at the gate by about 9:45 for my 11:30 flight. I had brought the Saturday New York Times with the week’s most difficult crossword puzzle though, so I figured I could kill the time prior to departure. What I hadn’t figured on was the flight leaving more than an hour late.

I had a long layover in Miami that was shortened considerably by the late departure from Charlotte, and spent what time I had there purchasing food for the flight to Bridgetown. American Airlines has stopped providing any food in Coach even on their international flights, and since I was scheduled to arrive at the Bridgetown airport at 9:45 PM and still would be facing Customs and Immigration, I figured I would have to provide myself dinner on the plane. American will sell you a pathetic bagel with one slice of turkey (the processed reconstituted unrecognizable kind) and once slice of completely flavorless white cheese for a mere $5 if you would rather not purchase your own food at one of the multitude of fast food establishments that have sprung up in the concourses of airports since the conversion to disgusting inedible overpriced slop from the airlines. I choose a porta-salad. . .not legendary, but not bad.

We got into Bridgetown pretty much on time, but then stood for an hour in the immigration line while a single officer checked each and every passport of the people ahead of me. After 45 minutes, a second one showed up speeding things up a bit. I can’t even imagine how long the people who were last off our plane waited. I was pretty close to the front of the line. Barbados has an economy that is almost entirely based upon tourism and yet they had 4 immigration officials for passengers carrying Barbadian passports and only one for the rest of us. Even when the line for locals disappeared, the 4 would sit and wait for the next plane to arrive and never once did one of them offer to take over some of the hundreds of people in the visitors’ line. It was one of the worst experiences I have ever had arriving in a country. Making it worse was my position in line, in front of a pretentiously dressed American couple who talked loudly about how awful the wait was and how worldly they were. I knew as soon as I saw his outfit (try to envision a yachting commodore in a Hollywood movie from the 30s. . .blue blazer, crisp white dress shirt and conservative tie, yachting captains cap—no kidding—and deck shoes with no socks) that I didn’t want to get ensnared in a conversation with them. I almost succumbed when they were babbling about the construction of the new airport terminal, which he deemed to be based on classical Egyptian themes, but I resisted. As we got closer to the front of the line, they started bitching about how the air conditioning in the building was insufficient (I guess wearing a cashmere blazer might make you a trifle warm). Every time the line would move, I would leave about 4 feet or so between me and they Rasta-guy in front of me but they never got the hint and would move to a position about 4 inches behind me. Every time they would move up she would bang her carry-on bag into my back and chirp out a brief “scuse me”. I was so tempted to point out to her that if she weren’t so close to me she might, a) not bang me in the back of my leg repeatedly with her bag, and b) might have enough air around her that she and the Commodore would notice that the air conditioning was, in fact, working just fine. Still I resisted.

Eventually I got through the line and found my bag, which had long since been removed from the now inert baggage carousel. Customs was a non-event and I was in Barbados but it was about 11:00 PM. My driver was there so my only other wait was while he went to whatever lot he had parked his van in, and then we were off. I got to see Barbados late at night but even then it was apparent that much had changed in the 15 or so years since my last visit. Roads are being widened, buildings are going up everywhere, and it just looks like a whole lot bigger place.

We got to the condo in a little over a half hour and the only ones still up were my parents and Jan. After quick hellos, everyone went to bed.

In the morning I got to see the assembled group for the first time and it was just like old times. There is a certain familiar comfort level that has evolved over the years of taking these trips. Several of us went into Holetown, the closest burg to the condo complex in which we were staying, and had lunch, hit the ATM and did a little shopping (mosquito repellent for me) before heading back to an afternoon of sluglike behavior. I taught my sisters, my brother-in-law, and my nephews to play Hand and Foot, the canasta based game that I have been playing with friends in Asheville. While there was a little resistance at the beginning, soon they were all completely into the game. We ended up playing pretty much every day. I can see that this could become a feature of future trips.

One day 6 of us went out on a fishing charter courtesy of Lisa’s husband Dave. What he didn’t know is that in all the years of going on these trips, no one has ever caught a fish. This excursion kept the record intact. We had two nibbles in a four-hour excursion and all they did was eat the back half of the baitfish. The guys who ran the charter said that they could tell that the fish were barracuda from the way they were getting the baitfish. Other than that, though, it was just a quiet afternoon on the water. We had been promised beverages and snacks. The snacks consisted of a can of Pringles. Not exactly what I had expected but it is convenient the way you can stack a bunch of them in your hand while you eat them.

Most of the week that everyone was there, we hung around the condos, and read, swam, walked the beach and played cards. We went into Bridgetown one day to tour the Mount Gay Rum distillery (or at least the small facility they have in Bridgetown. . .the larger facility is in the North of the island and is rarely visited) and had a tasting at the end of our tour. I have now determined that I don’t like rum. We even tasted product that they age for up to 14 years before bottling, but I didn’t really care for that one either. They have a relatively low alcohol (64 proof) mango flavored white rum that wasn’t bad, but I think I just am not a rum kind of guy.

The condos are in a small 8-unit complex called Merlin Bay. Each unit comes with a cook and maid. They each have 3 bedrooms and baths, living, dining and kitchen, 3 terraces and a 12-foot long plunge pool in which you can cool off privately. Each unit has steps from one of its terraces down to the main pool which is a 25-meter free form extravaganza surrounded by coral stone paved terrace and waterfall. From this terrace, there is a walkway and stairs leading down to the beach. Since Merlin Bay is on the west coast (Caribbean side) of the island, the water is warm and calm. Breakers are small and it is easy to swim or float in the sea. The beach is immaculate. The only thing you see besides very fine sand is the occasional piece of broken coral. This is not a beach where you see shells. Between ½ mile and 1-1/2 miles off shore is a precipitous drop off. This is the edge of the coral reef that surrounds Barbados. Since the shellfish that do inhabit the reef are mostly out near the edge, and the sand that extends a long way out to the drop off isn’t a good host for animal life, you simply do not see shells.

We went out to dinner a couple nights at lovely restaurants with sensational food and astoundingly high prices. Do not go to Barbados thinking this will be the bargain of the Caribbean. It may not be as expensive as St. Barts but it is sure up there. Dinners can easily top $100 per person before wine. The food at both The Tides and The Cliff was excellent. Both restaurants were gorgeous with The Cliff having the more spectacular setting and architecture.

Most of the family flew home on Saturday the 20th. I stayed until the 23rd so I could have a few days with my parents, and they are heading home tomorrow.

I bought a snow globe for my collection at a duty free shop at the Barbados airport and got quite an education in the procedures of getting home with purchases from duty free that include liquid. When you get to Miami (or any other port of entry I presume) and go through US Customs, you exit outside of the secure zone and have to go through security again. If you have purchased anything at duty free (like booze or a snow globe) that has more than 3 oz of liquid in it, you had better put it in your checked luggage after you get through customs but before you hand the bags over to the rechecker for your onward connections. No one warned me about this so I showed up at security for my flight to Charlotte with a snow globe in my carry-on bag. The TSA people were very nice about it but said there was no way it was going on the plane with me. I had to put it in my checked luggage. When I went to the American counter (three different locations as directed by three different employees) the verdict was that there was no way to retrieve my already checked bags and that my only choice was to buy another bag at one of the multitude of vendors who have set up close by for exactly this kind of situation, and to check it separately.

With much annoyance, I bought a the crummiest smallest nylon bag I could find (and it still was huge for a small snow globe to be its only occupant) and begged gobs of tissue paper from the sale clerk so I could pad the rest of the bag around its precious cargo. Then I went back to American to check the bag only to be told when I got there that because I already checked two bags in Bridgetown, I would have to pay extra for this one. At this point I was about ready to throw the snow globe against one of the American Airlines signs and let the offending liquid run down onto the floor and explode if it was going to. I explained to the guy who was trying to hit me up for more money than the snow globe and bag were worth together, that the only reason I was in this mess was that the airline had failed to announce to everyone on the flight that liquids purchased at duty free would have to be put into our checked bags as soon as we got our hands on them. He agreed that this whole mess was really their fault and let me check the new bag without additional charge. While waiting to get on the flight, all of us passengers could see the bags being loaded, and I spotted a limp nylon bag of the same color and shape as mine, being loaded onto the flight and clearly completely saturated. Great, I thought, they have already managed to smash the show globe so now I own a useless soaking nylon bag with shards of glass and a fake pirate head inside of it.

As it turned out, it was someone else’s bag. They had apparently put a bottle of rum they bought in the duty free into their newly purchased cheapie bag, but had neglected to add the tonnage of tissue paper to protect if from the abuse of luggage handlers and it never even made it onto the plane intact.

The flight back to Charlotte was uneventful albeit another hour late in leaving. Much of the delay was made up in flight and I got to my car, paid the charge for parking 11 days and headed home.

When I got home, things were largely unchanged. The temperature has dropped more than 20 degrees but that only means they were closer to normal. It is sunny and beautiful today and I am planning on taking Abner out for a short excursion this afternoon between errands. I have a couple weeks to myself before my friend Beth Kiyosaki arrives from Abiquiu, NM with her friend Irenka for a mid-winter visit. This will be Beth’s first time here and will be the first time we have seen one another since I left Sacramento.

Germane to that, on January 17th, while tanning my ass in Barbados, I celebrated 2 years of life in Asheville. I am still looking to improve my housing situation with a view and more space to hang my art collection, but on balance this has been a great two years. Any of you who contemplate taking the plunge and trying a new place after spending what seems like a whole life in another, I can tell you now from personal experience, it can be really great. Of course, you have to pick a place like Asheville for it to be as wonderful as my experience has been, but you can’t imagine how stimulating a big change can be. I highly recommend it. Wakes you up. . .that’s for sure.

I will be here for a little less than 7 weeks before I head off to Puerto Vallarta with Judy, Jean Ann, Jim, Greg and Nancy. I will try to get in one more post before that trip. As always, visits from all of my old friends are welcome and encouraged. Just try to give me some advance notice so I don’t end up with more than one visitor or group at a time, and of course just be sure that you don’t come when I am moving to my fantasized new house.

Photos will follow.

Our beach was very clean and calm. The waves rarely made more of a break than you see here.

Mom and Dad got dolled up to take me to the very fancy Cliff restaurant for my last night in town.

This last photo is of the whole bunch of us.In the back row is my sister Jan, Chris Fong, my brother's wife, my brother Michael, Dad, Mom, my sister Lisa and her husband Dave, and in the front are my nephews Ben and Jon. I am the grey-haired old fart in front on the right, but you all know that. Posted by Picasa
Ruined windmills seemed to be everywhere we went in the North.

This is what the view was from the deck off my room. Many card game took place in this exact setting.
Lots of party boats came and dropped anchor right off our beach. It seems that this is one of the more popular spots to snorkel or just float in the calm water.

The townhouses were really lovely the way the wer clustered around the pool in lush gardns. Posted by Picasa
The East Coast of Barbados, particularly up north, is wild and reminds me a little of Scotland. The hills are hillier and the Atlantic is much rougher than the Caribbean. The beaches are still quite beautiful but the only people in the water are surfers.

Dad and I took an excursion one day and explored the Atlantic coast and some of the little villages in the North. This was a high point on a hill right before a historic (17th Century) Great House that was buried in a dense forest of Mahogany. This alley cut through the trees was almost like a tunnel. Posted by Picasa
Mom and Dad tend to relax a lot on these trips.

On occasion, they can be persuaded to go on an outing. Here they are walking toward the bakery in Speightstown with my brother Michael and his wife Chris in slow pursuit.
Jon looks awfully comfortable here himself.

The windmill is one of fewer than 100 that remain of the original 506 that used to dot Barbados. Sugar cane has been the big cash crop there for centuries and made Barbados very important in the 18th century. There was a time when Bridgetown was the second largest English speaking city in the world next to London. Posted by Picasa
Barbados is not one of those mountainous Caribbean islands that you see in pictures from the water. It has lovely rolling hills that at one point in the northern part of the island, reach 1100 feet high.

In the current construction boom, an old hotel on a great site was torn down and last year Hilton opened this large and grand beauty. Posted by Picasa
This is the view you get of the marina in Bridgetown as you leave at the crack of dawn to go fishing. As the charter assistant pointed out, it is called "fishing" not "catching". We fished but, as usual, we didn't catch.

Lisa looks pretty comfortable on a deck chair in the early morning sun. You can see how rough the Caribbean is off the West Coast of Barbados.

Cruise ships large and small visit Barbados. This one was tiny compared to a big Carnival Cruise ship that was also in port. We guessed that this one was half the length, two decks shorter, and probably at least a third narrower in beam than the big ship, and the big one wasn't even one of the monsters that routinely prowl the Caribbean searching for bargains on china, crystal and wristwatches.

Dave, Ben and Jonothon looked pretty relaxed most of the boatride. I guess with no fish biting there wasn't much to be concerned about. Posted by Picasa
My Brother in law, Dave Post, actually is a pretty bright guy with a good job where people respect him. . .or so he would have you believe. This is a picture of Dave turning himself into Bugs Bunny with the aid of only two Tic Tacs.

There seems to be some photo obsession on these trips. This is Dave, my sister Lisa, and my nephew Ben at lunch one day in Holetown, Barbados.
Serious money seems to have made it to Barbados judging from the size of some of the yachts moored off Speightstown. The last picture in this group is of a church that is rather typical of some of the older structures on Barbados. They used to build extensively with coral stone quarried locally. Now there is a huge concrete plant at the north end of the island and most newer buildings are concrete block with stucco finish. Posted by Picasa
Winter still persists in being sunny and bright here much of the time. The solar industry is promoting itself heavily here right now with a statistic about how Asheville has more than 300 days of sunshine per year. I believe it.

 Posted by Picasa
Here's Risa with himself. As usual, he took advantage of a new person in the house and worked her for all the attention he could get.

Regie, Spencer, and Abner have a brief rest stop while I have a more private one.
The estate deer seem to have moved this winter. Last year they were mostly visible in the rolling area immediately below Biltmore House. This year we haven't seen any there but there are dozens loping around the woods about 3 miles away in the area behind the Inn. This one was particularly curious about what Abner and I were up to. Posted by Picasa
I guess we are sort of having winter. This was the heaviest snow fall I have experienced in Asheville in two years. I am still hoping for something really impressive one of these days.

Abner loves it. One thing about snow is that he doesn't look as white when he is in it. Most people still think he is a polar bear. Posted by Picasa