Monday, February 02, 2009

OK. So I haven’t posted anything in two months. It isn’t like I haven’t been doing anything. December seems to have flown through in a flash. Among other things, I turned 60. For those of you who haven’t passed this milestone let me give you some advice. Ignore most of your younger friends. It really isn’t that big a deal. One day you are 59 and the next day you are 60. I looked in the mirror both the morning before and the morning of my birthday and I swear I couldn’t see any difference. I have observed, starting with my 30th birthday, that in the years that the age you become ends in a zero, your friends tend to try to make a big deal out of how old you are. . .you know the line, “tonight is the last night of your 20s” or similar. Like you are going to wake up at 30, 40, 50 or whatever, having grown a second set of big flappy hairy ear lobes. Doesn’t happen.

The danger of being razzed to death is increased if you agree to a part in celebration. Usually these turn into tease fests for anyone younger, and involve way too many people. I ruled this out early on. I made it clear to my friends that I didn’t want a party and certainly had no tolerance for surprise parties. The last time I had one of those I was turning 16, and when the bus arrived at our house loaded with people my parents deemed to be my friends, I was on the toilet. Surprise!

This birthday, I had intended to be very low key. You know the kind. You stay home, cook something you really love for dinner and later, after dinner settles, you watch a great movie and eat popcorn. For reasons I cannot imagine, Peter Alberice and Sandra Stambaugh (aka Sandolina) invited me upstairs to their condo for a home cooked meal. It was just going to be the three of us plus Abner. Peter had decided he was in the mood for a rib roast (Sandra is primarily vegetarian, so I provided a good excuse for meat). I brought a 5-year-old bottle of Roederer Brut Premier and a 1985 Lynch Bages. It was one of those perfectly lovely evenings that are the kind that make you remember the good birthdays. 60 is definitely one of them for me.

Christmas involved a Christmas Eve dinner and gift exchange at Jim Rogers’ house followed by a leftovers meal on Christmas Day. I was gearing up for leaving for Jamaica on the 28th so, while this annual event was fun, as it always is, my mind was multi-tasking with thoughts of what I needed to pack for 10 days in the tropics during which I had the ambition of doing nothing but reading and chatting with family members. As devout readers of my journals will remember, I cannot actually pack anything in Abner’s presence or he gets sulky and depressed immediately. Consequently the complexities of getting as much as possible into a single checked bag (the airlines now charge for checked luggage) without exceeding the 50-pound weight limit, dominated my mental packing.

On the night of the 27th I dropped Abner off at Eric and Regie Walburgh’s house where he would stay for the 10 days I was gone. I then returned home to pack without his sad eyes looking up at me. The problem is that I miss him the second I leave him. This business of having your closest relationship with a dog whom it is impossible to take on airplanes has substantially lessened my enjoyment of travel. I really wish there were a way to drive to Europe.

Anyway, I managed to pack a sensible amount of clothing into a smallish roller bag to be checked, and got backup clothes in the event of lost luggage, plus critical toiletries, my laptop, and my bi-pap machine into my two allowed carryon items, and was at the Asheville Airport at 6:15 in the morning on December 28th. The weather was ridiculously warm. . .60 degrees and the sun wasn’t even up yet, but I had to wear a jacket in case it was actually winter when I returned. To save you the suspense, I regretted that decision later.

The flight to Charlotte, all 26 minutes of it, went without a hitch. People had told me that USAir is as bad as Delta but that certainly wasn’t my experience on this trip. The flight to Charlotte was in a small regional jet that carried 40ish passengers. These planes are tiny but are not bad at all for short flights. This one was clean and reasonably comfortable, the heat worked, and the flight attendant was pleasant. I cannot remember a flight on Delta where any of those things was true.

In Charlotte, I had a couple of hours to kill before the departure for Montego Bay. The only real problem I had with the airline at any point was a minor one. In the in-flight mag it says that you can buy a box lunch or dinner on any domestic flight or those to Mexico and the Caribbean. Naturally, I assumed that I could do this and planned to have lunch on the plane. Unfortunately, for some reason, they aren’t offering any kind of food on the flights to and from Montego Bay. By the time I arrived in Jamaica, I was pretty hungry. After a brief and oddly hostile conversation with the operators of the shuttle service pre-arranged for my transfer to my final destination in Jamaica, I sat on my luggage for about 40 minutes and waited. Seems that if you aren’t at a very specific location when the driver arrives, you run the risk of being left behind.

Almost every year for the last 34, close to the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season, my parents have hosted the rest of our immediate family and assorted spouses, children and some other relatives, to a vacation usually at some tropical location where they can escape the rigors of the Northern Indiana winters they have weathered for more than 60 years. These trips have been to a variety of locations where we have encountered accommodations that ranged from truly beautiful, to comfortable but forgettable, to downright squalid.
This year, we are on the North shore of Jamaica for the 3rd time and I would have to say that, while not squalid, the condos at Sea Pines, 10 minutes east of Ocho Rios are certainly a lot closer to that end of the accommodations spectrum than the other. To begin with, it takes every bit of an hour and a half by shuttle to drive here from the Montego Bay airport. I should mention that in the 20 years since the last time we stayed on this shore, the road has improved dramatically. It is no longer the bone shattering death ride that precipitated my father broadsiding a cow in the middle of the night in a beat up VW Bus 20 years ago and having an imprint in the front that was a perfect impression of the side of a cow.
Nonetheless, when you have arisen at 5:00 in the morning to catch the short flight to Charlotte, killed two hours there and then flown to Montego Bay in less than 2-1/2 hours, then spent another hour and 45 minutes on your feet shuffling along in the world’s slowest passport control line, the prospect of 90 minutes on a minibus with cheery families whose children require the bus to stop to so they can take pictures of every goat grazing beside the road from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios (did I mention that they had to name the goats and speculate on their various relationships?) is most unappealing.
When I was finally dropped off at the Sea Pines and escorted into unit A1 I realized pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be a good experience. The condo was clearly in very poor condition although it would take several hours to discover in detail just how bad it was. According to the onsite manager, who couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding, the buildings are 20 or so years old. I would have to guess that she is off by 20 to 30 years. Even in a salt environment and with virtually no maintenance, it would be hard to imagine buildings degrading to this level. I didn’t actually count but I would have to guess that at least half of the shutters (functional when installed) have fallen off the building and are nowhere to be seen. The exteriors are all fading pink stucco, with much of the paint peeling away. Balcony rails are missing pickets, shades hang sadly missing their cords and ladders, and in general the place looks pretty dumpy.
Our particular unit had a master bedroom that was smallish with a large King bed in it. The bathroom was tiny with serious construction defects. Water drips in from the ceiling along a 30-inch long line that meanders across the vanity area. It is beginning to form some very attractive mildew on its sides. The outside wall has a frightening bulge and is in the process of shedding its tile, no doubt from the pressure of the water building up behind it. All the toilets require a bizarre multiple step flushing ritual which, if you don’t get it exactly right, accomplishes little other than to alert everyone within about 500 yards that you are trying to get rid of a persistent turd and that you are getting desperate.
The second bedroom resembles the master other than that it has no bath of its own. Big bed, little else, and a serious lack of lighting.
The really depressing room though, is the front bedroom. It is painted a color of brown that can only be explained by there having been a deep discount at the paint store since no one could have possibly wanted this color. It is, mercifully, peeling profusely. The lamps are so dim that I had to use my climbing headlamp to read. There are two tiny twin beds that surprisingly weren’t back killers although they weren’t exactly deluxe either. The beds are so short that my feet hung completely off the end when I lay down to go to sleep.
The window blinds are broken so once the maid has them set up in the position where they will prevent people outside from looking in (unit A1 is on the ground floor), you are advised not to touch them. This means that you could grow mushrooms in this place during your stay it is so dark.
These bedrooms both share the miniscule bathroom at the end of the hall. While its layout was similar to the master, in other respects it did differ. For one thing, the door will only stay open if you prop it in that position with the wastebasket. The medicine cabinet is missing most of its shelves, but the nadir of my experience in this place was the shower. It is actually a tub/shower combo but the stopper has been removed from it causing me to assume that it is now only used as a shower. Silly me. I stepped in for my shower and was somewhat unhappy to see several dark brown bugs scurrying about looking for a safe location. The dead ones didn’t move. That is, they didn’t move until I turned the water on. Since the drain allowed very little water out, the tub filled rather rapidly around my feet with a population of dead and living insects swirling about like refugees from Noah’s ark.
The showerhead in all these units appears to have been installed by the Munchkins. I am 6 feet tall and my chin clears the top of the showerhead. This was of relatively little consequence in the hall bath in unit A1 since the diverter handle came off in my hand when I pulled up on it to send the water to the shower rather than the tub spout. I was able to pull the tiny remainder of a stem up part way so a trickle of water was able to escape the showerhead but the majority still was flowing from the tub spout. So with bugs swirling about my ankles, I took pretty much the fastest 3 or 4-minute shower I could manage, rinsed my ankles thoroughly, and got out. It took more than 10 minutes for the water that had accumulated to drain. Clearly, one could bathe without the stopper, provided one possessed a certain comfort level with insects sharing the bath.
Later, my brother and I also discovered that the ceiling fan in the dining area didn’t work. The kitchen is also very meager although as it turned out, that was of little import.
On my first morning here, after the somewhat harrowing night in unit A1, but still before my parents’ anticipated arrival, I suggested to my brother that we make an executive decision and attempt to get moved as soon as possible. Michael is either more tolerant of these inadequacies or more loath to confront them, but reluctantly agreed that we needed to deal with things before squandering two weeks of our lives in this place.
So in the morning, I had a nice chat with Melone who seems to be the queen bee of on-site management. I should say that at no point did she dispute the problems although she didn’t think too much of the darkness issue. The lamping couldn’t have exceeded 10 watts in the brown bedroom but she seemed to think that was the fault of the unit owner and could be overlooked. She also explained that nothing could be done about the water dripping from the ceiling of the master bath and slow demolition of the tile due to the source being a leak in the unit above, which apparently belongs to another owner who has no interest in fixing the leak. How’d you like to live with that condo agreement?
Ultimately, Melone I think correctly concluded that she was going to have to move us rather than try to fix the myriad of problems present in A1, so by Monday afternoon, shortly after my parents arrived, we transferred everything upstairs to A5. While this is also a somewhat tired unit, it is in far better condition and even has an additional bathroom and lots more space. The tub drainage issue as well as the absurdly low height of the showerhead reappeared here, and some of the lights seem to be less than cooperative, but on balance, this unit is at least tolerable.
The housekeeper/cook for the upstairs unit is a woman named Ione who lives here when she is working. By here, I mean in a bedroom at the far west end of the condo. It opens onto the deck where we sit and chat. The door through which she enters her room and I presume also hears every word of our conversations opens directly off the living room. At a certain level, Ione is kind of nice. She is smiley and laughs at my quips, but is bossy and leaves little doubt as to who is the decision maker in this household. There are lots of rules. My favorite is that the sliding door to the deck that faces the sea cannot be left open more than a foot because she thinks the salt air will damage the TV set in the living room. She seems less concerned by the live wall light outside her room on the deck that has fallen off the wall and is dangling with wires fully exposed to salt air, rain and any other element. One would think that an exposed wire in a rainstorm might cause her greater concern than the potential salt corrosion of the TV. There are loose floor tiles all over the place, and generally the bathrooms are missing various sink or tub/shower parts, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem either.
One day Ione accused my brother of having damaged the control of one of the stove burners and informed him that she was calling the repair service to fix it and that he would have to pay. He fixed it himself that night in about three minutes.
The condo is filled with the most bizarre art collection you can imagine. Much of it consists of primitive vaguely island scene prints and paintings hung on every available surface in the condo. The tables and counters are covered with carved, usually wood tshatshke and there are some larger sculptures strewn about as well. Much of this art seems to be breast themed, and we are talking large here. There is a glamour photo of a woman we think is the owner hanging in one corner and her breasts are positively bursting out of the top of her dress in it. They look ample. Once you start to look though, she is just the tip of the iceberg. There are carvings, paintings and prints of large boobs all over the place. Some also have their female figures in very provocative positions with legs spread and hands dangling in front of crotches. Fun stuff.
We were told that there would be laundry facilities in each unit (not) and Internet access as well. At no point has there ever been access in A5. In D8 where half of the family is staying, you can log on in a single bedroom, and then carry your computer to another location in the condo and keep a connection but mysteriously cannot log on anywhere but there initially. For several days this week, the service disappeared completely. Melone claimed that the entire ISP was down and that no one had any, and that she hoped it would be up real soon. Today, however, we had a power failure for an hour or two and when the power came back on, and their router restarted, miraculously access had reappeared.
I could go on and on about this place but won’t waste any more of the reader’s time. I will not be staying at Sea Palms again and would advise against it for others considering renting a condo near Ocho Rios. In general, the people who work here are nice, but the place is in an unacceptable state of disrepair and certainly isn’t worth the money.
One day several of us decided to drive to Mandeville, on the other side of the island, to tour a rum factory and see some other sights mentioned in the guide books. Distances are comparatively short here, but the roads, other than the one from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios (and slightly beyond) are rough, narrow, pitted decaying deathtraps, and the one we set off on was no exception. In addition, not one of us has ever seen a road sign telling you what highway you are on, or where to go when compelled to turn at intersections. People in each little village were very helpful and always kept telling us just to go straight, but in each case we soon arrived at a point where we had to go left or right. . .straight was rarely an option. What at the outset was promoted as a 90-minute drive in each direction clearly wasn’t going to be. We made it as far as Brown’s Town, a little less than 1/3 of the distance to our destination, in 1-1/2 harrowing hours and collectively decided that this was an ill-advised excursion and turned around. We drove back to Ocho Rios, ate lunch, and went to Dunn’s River Falls for the afternoon, where I got pictures of Jan, Chuck and Chuck’s kids climbing the falls with a guide. It was the closest thing to an actual excursion that has happened on this trip.
On my last day in Jamaica, I managed to convince my nephews Ben and Jon to do a jungle canopy zipline tour and it was worth it. We got to the headquarters of Chukka Tours where we discovered that the group we would be going with was remarkably large. I never did count but I have to guess that there were about 40 people who rode up to the top of the mountain with us in a tour bus that was way too big for the road. The road up starts out as a smallish paved road but degenerates rapidly as it climbs. At several points it was barely wider than the bus (which considering that it is two-way was a bit unnerving) and the pavement is badly decomposed. There are enormous potholes and deep ruts that only get worse the higher it climbs. You pass a couple smallish town/villages with some businesses that I cannot imagine how they can make money, but eventually the bus arrives at a mountainside shelter where all the guides and equipment are.
After the guides fit everyone with climbing harnesses and helmets, we were given very brief instruction in how the ziplines work and basic safety info. I was definitely one of the older people in the group but was spared the embarrassment of being put in a chest harness. Two of the guys in the group who had the whole “man boob” thing going had to be fitted with them in order to prevent accidentally flipping upside down in the middle of one of the ziplines.
Once we started the series of 9 lines, it was remarkable how quickly the group spread out and had little waiting. Ben, Jon and I were the last ones to go on each line so we got to see other people on each line. 6 of the lines zigzagged across a gorge with a beautiful waterfall in it. The jungle was quite lush and beautiful and the experience of flying through the treetops was great fun. Two of the lines were short but very steep. One was probably about a 70 or so degree drop and the other was dead vertical. In both cases the guides provided braking so the descent was controlled and while exciting, not too scary.
The final run was a 660 foot line that parallels the river and brings you back down to a national park where there are some other facilities and activities, and where the bus met us to take us back to the Chukka headquarters. The whole experience was a lot of fun, took two hours, and was well worth the cost and time. For anyone who has a chance to try this out, I strongly suggest going for it.
The trip home was somewhat uneventful. . .at least for me. The shuttle service picks people up at Sea Palms 6 hours before flight time. Since the drive to the Montego Bay airport is 90 minutes, this is pretty generous. In my case, we stopped at the Ocho Rios location of the Sandals Resorts to pick up several young couples. On the drive from Sandals to the airport, I had a very pleasant conversation with a young couple named John and Lynne who were also flying to Charlotte on their way home to Myrtle Beach, SC. We stayed pretty much together through the check-in and passport control processes and continued to chat at a table in the international zone of the airport while we waited the two-plus hours until flight time. What I should say is that the wait was more than two hours until my flight, but as it turned out, not for John and Lynne. We were sitting casually talking and sipping on beverages when John jumped up in a state of panic having noticed that their flight to Charlotte was leaving in 5 minutes. It seems that USAir has a flight at 11:55 AM and another at 1:35 PM. I assume they got on their plane since they didn’t reappear, but it made me wonder why the shuttle service picked me up with almost two extra hours for my flight than was allowed for these folks. There wasn’t 5 minutes difference in the distance I had to travel and what the people at Sandals were facing but they were cutting it a whole lot closer.
My flight left about 30 minutes late, but since I had plenty of time between flights in Charlotte I wasn’t concerned. Immigration in Charlotte was almost as badly organized as it had been in Montego Bay. It took me a little less than an hour to get through before I made it into the Customs Hall. Amazingly enough, my luggage was there and I sailed through customs, had dinner at one of the concourse restaurants, and caught my short flight to Asheville.
Abner had stayed with my Eric and Regie (more importantly with Spencer and Bentley) for the whole time I was gone. This was the longest time he had ever stayed somewhere besides home and not been with me. I think he did OK but clearly was happy to get home, have me there, and have things get back to normal.
Or what has evolved into normal. January through March are the quiet months in Asheville and walking downtown and stopping into see our friends who work in various stores is a lot easier than when the streets are crowded with curious strangers. Nonetheless, I have started walking with my IPod. Having visible earphone on seems to discourage some people from initiating conversation, and provides me an opportunity to ignore people if I want to. Sometimes I don’t even have the music playing. It isn’t a completely foolproof method, but it does help. The acid test will be when the tourists come back in large numbers in the spring.
Economic hardship has finally become pretty clearly present here. Our real estate market has finally slowed to the point that some prices are actually starting to soften. I continue to look for houses but have found nothing that excites me enough and that I can afford. There are houses that I have looked at twice over more than an 18 month that need to be completely redone. There is a fairly large stock of houses built here in the 60s and early 70s that were never great houses and are now really tired, but if they sit on lots with decent long-range views, the asking prices continue to be too high. I think that many of these houses belong to older people who have been in them for so long that they don’t recognize that the houses no longer provide what people looking in their price range expect. Consequently I haven’t even made an offer on anything.
I am once again, therefore, looking at the possibility of building. It isn’t a forgone conclusion that this can happen. Prices should be down dramatically from when I had the house bid a year and a half ago, but my stock portfolio, from which the cash I am planning on investing has suffered some shrinkage as well. Interest rates are not bad although certainly not as low as the news media implies they are, and more to the point, the lenders are being almost absurdly restrictive in their lending practices. 6 weeks ago I had a conversation with a banker at SunTrust who assured me that getting the loan I was interested in would be no problem for them. Last week though, his story had changed considerably. Since I haven’t worked full-time in more than four years, and since a lot of the income I live on is from sources for which it is difficult to show value and paper trail, they seem to be a whole lot less interested in me as a borrower.
I am now pursuing another possible lending source but am a lot more suspicious of this situation. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I need to decide whether or not to renew my lease downtown.
Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina has once again canceled my health insurance. They claim that the reason is the same as last summer’s debacle. . .non-payment of premiums. The problem is, as it was last summer, they are still failing to send me a bill. I actually haven’t received a bill from them since either June or July. They insist that their billings are computerized and there cannot be an error on their part. Nonetheless, since I was compelled to pay months in advance after this exact same scenario from last summer, I had no idea when billings would start again, and since they never sent one, I didn’t know that it was due in December, not to mention I needed a bill for January during which they were bumping the rate by almost $200/month. At this point, I don’t know if they are going to reinstate me or not. I am so annoyed by the attitude of their customer service people who obdurately refuse to deal with the issue of failure to send a bill that I am not all confident that if they do reinstate the policy, they won’t continue to screw up the paper work and once again accuse me of failing to pay. I don’t relish the idea of having no insurance until Medicare kicks in, but at this stage I may have no choice. BCBS is pretty much the only game in town here so if they refuse to take me back I will enter that large group of 47 million Americans we keep hearing about who have no health insurance.
While it doesn’t sound like walking Abner, dealing with my ongoing housing issue, and fighting with an insurance company could have taken up the last month, it seems that that is precisely what has happened. For the regular readers of this blog, I am sorry it took to long to get this posted, but when you get busy, computer time gets to be harder to log.
For those of you in the northern hemisphere, I hope your winter is going well. It has been beautiful here. The weather has vacillated from very warm to very cold with precious few days when the temps are close to normal, but most days the sun shines and the views of the Blue Ridge are beautiful. Abner and I are fine and plugging along.
A couple days last month, we had cold enough weather that we got a pretty albeit very light dusting of snow. The shots below are of the completely frozen Bass Pond. The pattern of freezing in the ice was fascinating and extended all the way across the pond. Winter here really is a spectacle.

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One beautiful warm Sunday, Matt and I took Abner and Bear for a stroll up the Hard Times trail up to the now closed Blue Ridge Parkway and walked back down to the Arboretum parking lot. On the way down we caught these two distant views of Biltmore House with some of our mountains looking pretty blue in the background. It does give you a pretty good idea of the "splendid isolation" George Vanderbilt obtained when he assembled his estate and built his house.

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The peacocks strolling around us as we left our Zipline tour seemed to be pretty accustomed to hanging out with humans.

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Jon and Erin, above, and Mom and Dad, below, were part of the crowd celebrating Erin's Birthday in Jamaica on New Years Day.

At the end of Ben and Jon and my Zipline tour we exited the park past this small store with some local residents on the roof and checking the pavement for snacks.
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In the upper shot Emily is looking like she is feeling good about conquering the falls. Below Rachel and Emily take a breather.
The shot below is the last big vertical stretch of the falls. Chuck, Jan, Rachel and Emily all made it to the top with their dignity and limbs intact. . .although Emily did come away with a little owie.

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One of the really beautiful spots on the north shore of Jamaica is Dunn's River Falls. The water is warm and comparatively shallow, so climbing the falls is a popular activity for people in the Ocho Rios area. I had done this on a previous trip so I stayed on the side and took pictures of people climbing.

Jan, Chuck, Rachel and Emily decided that the climb was something they wanted to do. Above you can see them going up a strecth of the falls just below the bridge on which the main highway crosses the falls. Below they are in one of the resting pools before starting up the next stretch. Jan convinced the photographer who is holding her hand in the upper shot, to act as their guide.
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I'm not sure what this bush is but these berries are one of the most vivid wintertime displays we have seen. Below, Biltmore house looks great even in the dead of winter when viewed from the lagoon.

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One day when Abner and I were heading toward the Arbor Trace hike using the trail along the river, we encountered this view of some of Biltmore's Angus herd enjoying a mild winter day grazing.
At Riverbend Farm, there is an area where small numbers of livestock are held for visitors to have up-close contact with farm animals. One afternoon, a chicken that wasn't too swift turned into a meal for a local hawk. This was probably a little more of a nature lesson than some of the parents had expected their kids receive.
There are days in the winter that are so still that the Bass pond turns into a perfect mirror. I have shot the boathouse before, but rarely with the water so calm.
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The orchid room in the Conservatory at Biltmore has been particularly spectacular lately with its display of exotic flowers.

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