La Mer

La Mer, qu’on voit danser le long des golfes clairs a des reflets d’argent. La mer, bergere d’azure, infinie.

The sea, we see it dance the length of the clear gulfs, has the shimmer of silver. The sea, shepherdess of blue, infinite.

Charles Trenet, 1946

Yesterday the sea was full of large, soft rolling waves – a real pleasure to be rocked and soothed by (as opposed to smacked around by like the days before). On the horizon was an evenly-spaced line of huge ships. An excited, happy woman was drawing in the sand by my towel – a heart for her friends who were getting married nearby. I looked to see her friends to wish them well and saw a lovely woman in a white tea-length dress and a considerably shorter person with long dark hair, black capri leggings and a tuxedo coat. A fun rock-and-roll wedding, I thought. As they came closer, I saw that the groom was a woman as well. They’ve found another to love them in this difficult life. I’m happy for them.

The morning run on Ocean Boulevard was full of fit, inspiring, fun-to-look-at people. I’m starting to run on automatic now. It’s no longer a struggle, but rather a pleasure.  I’ve always run solo and was surprised to discover that there’s something very satisfying about being a part of the flow in a herd of other running humans.

IMG_5929 Ocean Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale

IMG_5873 View out the front of the W, Ocean Boulevard

But the funniest part of yesterday was at the little offsite gym, which is isolated and accessed with a code.  Several days ago, and NOT funny, a very creepy, avoidant, and disheveled young male came in while I was in there alone.  I tried to engage him to assess whether he was going to be a problem as it looked as if he might be, but he turned his head away and would not speak.  He went straight back to the bathroom and sounded to be taking his time washing up, as someone off the street who knew the code might. I left.

I’d finished with weights and most of a yoga workout, had been alone in there for over an hour, and was in a very awkward Happy Baby pose, which can look fairly crude if viewing from a certain angle. With earbuds in, I didn’t hear the door unlock and open and when I noticed the sunlight from the door I looked up to see a man surveying the length of the gym and then noticing me there at his feet in this terribly awkward pose. He jumped as if he’d seen a snake and I was totally embarrassed, but we both had a good laugh about it once the surprise and embarrassment subsided. He introduced himself and I found him to be very friendly, heavily sprayed with cologne, and almost certainly from the gay men’s hotel and spa next door. I put my pepper spray away.

I was halfway back to the place where I’m staying before it occurred to me that he and his friends would’ve known the best places – gay bars – to dance, were likely going out for nightlife, and would possibly have accepted a female to tag along. That would have solved the concerns I had, and was a great place go with gay friends to dance and not be hassled throughout my early 20’s. Possibly a missed opportunity, but it wasn’t like I could have invited myself.

The pool outside my room as opposed to the pool by the office:

The girls’ holiday girls are on their balcony howling with laughter. Their balcony overlooks a one block square construction site where the cranes and drills screech all day long. Because evidently someone thought Fort Lauderdale needed one more megahotel.

I put on my black beach dress and headed out for a walk to say goodbye to the Boulevard and have a last bowl of gazpacho at the W. Met more fun, nice people at the communal tables (and haven’t met another non drinker in this town yet). They usually guess that I’m alone because I’m here on business, but they all seem to like the disaster response team answer. I should start telling people I’m a hooker just for fun.

Fun intersection art in North Beach by the hotel:

Strangely, I’m understanding more spoken Spanish now than spoken French. But I can’t speak Spanish other than the most rudimentary tourist Spanish and I can speak, read and write French well enough to scrape by pretty well in a limited way. Go figure.

Now the real fun starts: a trip to the laundry’s dryer and packing to go home. There’s finally something interesting on PBS about Shakespeare’s play “Measure For Measure”. “Tis excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant”. Truth.

This morning I ran early with my headlamp around my neck on red to try to not get run over by a vehicle or other runners. What running in the dark lacks in visual pleasure it makes up for in privacy and anonymity. Sunrise over the beach was beautiful.

I’m now an Ubering fool. Guadeloupe, a future law student and Spirit Air flight attendant originally from Peru brought me to the airport. It was good to ride with a female who, unlike my first Uber driver, didn’t want her tip in hugs and kisses….

And if you want to hear some truly impressive trash-talking, sit at the gate where a flight is leaving for Montego Bay….

It’s time to go home……This is how I feel about that…..

Unless something terribly interesting happens during the hours I’m passing here at this comfortable, airconned, WiFi’d up airport, this will conclude posts for this trip. Thanks for coming along and Happy Trails to you!

 

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No Raves, My Transgender Girlfriend, and an Excellent Chicken Curry Wrap

OK, so I’m officially a raisin. This is the brownest I’ve ever been and I can see the sun damage on my face even though I’m using SPF70 sunscreen. Was rewarded with big return smiles all morning yesterday when running, but by noon I was spent and put on my city face. That is to say, a manner that says “not interested in engaging in any way”. One can only be cheerful for so long when one’s baseline state is slightly irritable.

After checking out the 3 options for dancing (thanks to Kelsey and Dan and their wedding reception for unleashing THAT beast……..:0))), I’ve concluded that some discretion is required and I’ll Say No to dancing here as an older solo woman who looks like a suburban housewife and doesn’t drink. That and the fact that I’d actually have to find someone to dance with.

What I was thinking I’d find for dancing: some large venue with a pounding techno beat so loud that it hijacked your heartbeat. I evidently wanted to go to a Rave.

I almost asked the bunch of drunk women now arrived at the hotel on a girl’s holiday if they wanted to go out dancing just for others to go with. They, like the guy in Bolongo Bay, didn’t want to walk “all the way upstairs” for their bottle opener, especially since my apartment is poolside and my kitchenette has a bottle opener. But I’m not sure any of them could have actually danced after 5 p.m. and then I would have gotten exactly what I’d set myself up for: a night out with a bunch of drunk women. The one I talked to the most didn’t remember me this morning. But never mind because there are two people with a boom box and great dance music on here at the pool. I’ll just dance in my head…..

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Walking the sidewalk beside the Ocean Boulevard last evening (the Ocean Boulevard has clearly marked and spacious cycling lanes), some arrogant asshat from some culture where this kind of behavior is just fine came plowing down the SIDEWALK on some kind of huge, wide cross between a motorcycle and an ATV and in a loud, arrogant, commanding tone called out to ME to “pay attention”. I was seriously ticked off and said loudly “You’ve GOT to be kidding me!” (and got ready for an ugly confrontation or to take his picture and make some calls). His girlfriend riding behind him apologized, which helped.  It was like being in Bangkok there for a second (See NotesFromAHermitage, the Thailand series).

Had dinner at the Turkish place again. A falafel salad, baba ghanoush and got a curried chicken wrap para llevar for later. All extremely good. Here’s a picture of the curry wrap. Oooops……

Including walking Birch Park, the morning run, and walking otherwise, mappedometer says I did a total of 13.5 miles yesterday. Almost a Camino-length day of hiking, and it’s a start on preparing for the 1,000 km Via de la Plata that’s in planning stages for the Spring.

Here’s something you don’t see every day in the mountains in Pennsylvania…..causeway drawbridges.

The most interesting thing that happened yesterday was a chance encounter with my transgender friend from the kitchy beach shop across from Primanti Brothers. I was waiting at the light there in front of Primanti Brothers when felt someone smaller than myself press the side of their hip into the side of my hip, put their arm around my waist and squeeze me close. It was this person, all made up and smiling, saying hello with her French accent like we were old girlfriends. I told him/her that she looked fantastic, we exchanged some pleasantries, and she went into her shop and I along my merry way marveling at how the world is and all the different and interesting people walking around in it.

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At 9 pm last night I was falling asleep watching such bad TV programming that once again I’m glad to not have it in my own house. What a party animal.

Say Yes.

For awhile now I’ve been aware that I put unnecessary limitations on things and avoid taking social risks like the plague.   So I tried to remember to Say Yes. And then the whole world changed.

Now I have a new playlist full of impossible-to-NOT-dance-to music, learned some new dance moves while on St. John in a debris-hauling bucket brigade behind the charming, warm, funny, and exceedingly good-looking Pablo (who claimed to have been a stripper and a gigolo).  When the other males got tired of him sucking up all the female attention, they checked internet sources and evidently he’s also a Chilean TV soap opera actor.  I almost stepped on a tarantula on the steps of a market on St John after tearing around the steep, rutted roads and hairpin curves to gangsta rap with a carload of Bad Boys that I adored.  I stealth-backpacked out of a rat and cockroach-ridden camp via a coastal hiking path in the dark. I’m running 2.5 – 5 miles by the beach every morning and tried Uber for the first time today. I’m 63 years old. WTF??

It’s been a blast.

Finally found a bit of flamenco and Spanish guitar tonight at one of the open air restaurants on the Ocean Boulevard, although in general I’d say that live music and/or dancing are not big in Fort Lauderdale.

Had a 10 minute conversation about insects with the cashier at the neighborhood mini-market after she completely freaked as a minuscule spider crawled across her counter. I picked it up by it’s tiny legs and flung it out the front door, which seemed to make me some sort of heroine in her eyes. I’m not sure how she survives in Bug, Rodent and Reptile Land.

The gazpacho at W was spicy, had some crunchy bits, and the plan is to go back there every evening I’m here for another bowl because it was really, really good.  As is a newer trend finally catching on here in the States, some establishments now have large communal tables which unaffiliated people share, usually making it easier for strangers to enjoy each other.  Last night instead of seating me, a non drinker, at the bar again, they’d offered me a seat at one of their communal tables and I’d been there alone for about ten minutes when some random asshat approached and asked if I were taking up the whole table for myself alone. I enjoyed explaining the concept of communal tables to him.

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The very trendy W restaurant “El Vez”, Fort Lauderdale (The Time). Communal table.

Tonight at the communal table I met two delightful men – an older and outrageously roguish Brit from Yorkshire and his local builder friend. They asked me to take a picture of them which began about 45 minutes of fun. The older Brit suggested that his friend marry me (never mind that wedding band thing….) because not only was I “interesting”, but as a wife would be “gone away hiking or volunteering half the time” (evidently absence being a positive quality in a wife). They were on their third Margaritas each to my soda water and gazpacho talking about dancing on bar tops at 6 a.m. and were far too much fun for a sober person to spend much more time with.

I Said Yes to downloading Uber’s app and using it to get to and from a clinic after a fall while running. At a spot where the local woman behind me said people fall every day because of a big bump in the brickwork. There was initial swelling at both arm and knee, and seemingly a divot in the right ulna by the elbow. I wanted to have the arm checked to see if an X-ray was needed.

We don’t really have Uber in the mountains where I live – the nearest Uber driver is 20 miles away and, when away traveling, usually there is public transport.  So I got into my first Uber car with a cleaned-but-bloody knee and arm and explained to the driver, an older gentleman, that the address was a medical clinic. Approaching the destination I asked him if it was ok to give him a tip in cash instead of via the app, to which he said he’d accept a hug and kiss instead. When I said nothing, he shrugged and said “we’re not supposed to flirt with customers, but…….”. I laughed it off because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re injured, bleeding, on your way to get X-rays and your Uber driver suggests a hug and kiss instead of a money tip, right?

On the way back I got a Haitian man who was a physics student, minoring in astrophysics. He explained to me that people who study physics aren’t necessarily any brainier, they just enjoy using their brains in that particular way. Which sounded to me suspiciously like “don’t feel bad that you’re a Muggle”:0)).  We spoke in French for some of the way and talked about Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss and the New Atheists/Four Horsemen. Thankfully, he did not seem at all interested in hugs and kisses.  Nothing is homogenous or assumable here and it makes for very interesting conversations.

The last few days have been hot, windy, and the surf is pounding. Few are actually getting into even the very shallow water at the shoreline. There was evidently a lifeguard rescue close by, but I missed it, having been lulled to sleep by the wind and the waves, drooling on my nylon daypack.

Part of North Beach Village, which by now feels like my neighborhood.

You can run, and if you’re green anyway you can hide in the plants, but if you hide only your head, others really can still see you….

Here are some pictures from a tour of the Bonnet House and gardens, which was more interesting than expected, although the grounds were fairly teeming with huge, darting, slithering lizards and iguanas. When I mentioned to the guide that the grounds looked like Jurassic Park, she shuddered with revulsion and said that they were an infestation and that everyone hated them. Guess they’re like reptile rats.

No idea what this sinister-looking thing above is.

THAT sinister-looking thing above is a lizard – a huge one doing reptile squats………..

Orchid greenhouse.

Only a few days left of running on Ocean Boulevard every morning, baking on the beach every afternoon and eating ceviche and mangoes. Then it’s time to head home to the cold. Oy.

I’ll Go Home when I’ve Turned into a Raisin…..

It’s twilight here in Art Deco-land. The older motel structures are mostly now painted white and aqua. Neon lights are coming on and the setting sun gives everything a pinkish glow.

Here in southern Florida the Art Deco is mostly Nautical Deco (as opposed to more theatrical Deco found elsewhere) featuring elements from ships such as plain railings, straight, spare, mostly horizontal lines, occasional circles representing ship portholes, and rounded ends resembling the bows of ships.

The grillwork above would be an example of the more theatrical style of Art Deco.

Examples of Nautical Deco or a contemporary interpretation of it below:

NauticalDeco

Although many of the old motels have been preserved and turned into “boutique” lodging, there is more huge, contemporary construction, often architecturally impressive and using elements that reinterpret and continue the Deco style. There are a few that seem to emulate sails or waves.

The sidewalks by the ocean are sometimes brick laid in a wave pattern that can be a little dizzying to walk on, and the low stucco barrier walls are sometimes undulating rather than straight, as waves. The concrete gateways indicating the frequent entrances to the beach are also upward-spiraling, curling shapes (reminding of the Guggenheim in New York). As such, some of the angularity of the typical architecture seems to be offset by the more undulating, curvy shapes at the beach.

I ran almost 5 miles yesterday morning among an impressive herd of runners and cyclists on Beach Boulevard. No shortage of fitness inspiration here, and sometimes they even smile back. There is one nationality after another encountered from all across the world and it’s a pleasure to see it all working well, at least as it appears superficially in as undemanding and transient a setting as a popular beach area. On the other end of the day I went out for a walk and stumbled upon a Primanti Brothers with a Kennywood sign inside (but nobody working there whose first language was English, much less Pittsburghese).

But let’s go back to the start of the nonvolunteering part of this trip:

Bolongo Bay on St Thomas was a great place to relax, the only downside being that it’s not possible to walk anywhere – even to the next property on either side of its beach. But everything needed is at hand and it’s mercifully unfussy, the food is great, and the staff are helpful and understand hospitality. I did not expect anything but a room by the beach, but they looked after me, treated me like a welcomed friend, and I enjoyed being with them.

The prehistoric creature in the picture below – verified as a large iguana and one that was, with tail, an easy 3.25′ long – crawled out from underneath my pool chaise and would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the faint scritch-scratch sound of its toenails on the concrete 6 inches beneath me. The staff said that although they don’t bite, they’ll whack you with their tails and that I was lucky not to find that out the hard way.

A guy who had been sitting by the swim-up bar at the pool for most of the day and had intermittently been looking my way evidently became inebriated enough to leave his bar buddies, wade through the pool over to my chair, and ask if I knew if they sold sunscreen in the gift shop (the gift shop that was not 15′ from his drinking chair). He wanted me to tell him because he’d left his sunscreen up in his room and “didn’t feel like walking back up to get it”. I suspect he wanted me to provide him with sunscreen, or maybe just wasn’t smooth at introductions, but I hadn’t brought mine down either. As hotels go, this place is tiny and has only two floors. I tried not to laugh openly because not wanting to exert oneself to walk up to one’s nearby room just sounds absurd to a woman who’s been hauling lumber, sledgehammering concrete, hauling huge buckets of water and living in a tent among rats and cockroaches for weeks.

I had clothes on. Honest…..

The hotel had a taxi waiting for me to go to Charlotte Amalie, and within the few hours I had there, I ran across several more interesting, friendly and engaging people, including a very sweet girl who was working in a restaurant (Jen’s Cafe by the gazebo and Post Office…..they have Roti and ginger iced tea with ginger grown in the owner’s garden). This girl had come to the island as a volunteer with the same organization as myself…… and never left.

A Passport Control official asked what my business on the islands had been, and when I told her, she took both my hands in hers and genuinely thanked us all for helping. I was again very moved as have been every time these islanders express gratitude and show themselves to be the incredibly kind and open people that they are. They’ve had a really bad time of it. I am sad to be leaving those islands in a way, but have found the local people here where I am in Florida friendly and willing to be warm and engaged as well. I’ve signed up with 3 more disaster response organizations and hope to be back out helping in St. Croix, Puerto Rico or Florida soon.

The Spirit flight from St Thomas to Fort Lauderdale was easy and there were more interesting, friendly people.  I’m in a good “boutique” hotel where staff is around if you need them, but you’re free to do as you wish, including swimming in one of two little heated pools in the middle of the night if you like and hanging clothes to dry on railings Clampett-style. I can’t understand why people choose fancy hi-rises where they have to wait for elevators, are nowhere near the outdoors and are surrounded by people anytime they’re out of their rooms.

How to get yourself mowed down in Fort Lauderdale:

 

The gray silhouettes of the ships here remind me of a dream I had at age 25. I’d finished putting myself through my first degree by working full time and was living, unhappily and drinking too much, in Baltimore. The dream was of the gray silhouette of a huge ship on the horizon understood to be moving away, having left the silent seaport where I stood with my father watching from a pier that was also in grayness.  As we watched the ship moving past, as is typical of dreams (that their meaning is in the concrete words describing their images) I understood that I had “missed the boat”.  My father seemed to be there to help me understand.  I started the process of getting into nursing school shortly after, which focused me and brought my world into compliance with adult expectations rather quickly because working full time and getting through a program as intensive as Nursing required just that.

I’d planned to watch the calorie intake yesterday, but didn’t make it past a Turkish place by the beach at 10:30 a.m.  A smiling, friendly, heavily pierced girl brought me falafels and baba ghanoush and told me the difference between Indian kadhi kofta and Turkish kofte.  Afterward in one of the 10 or so kitchy beach souvenir shops I visited, I heard a very low, masculine voice with a distinctly French accent. But the person, a shop worker, had the appearance of a small, slender, vigilant, un-made-up and worn older woman. I spoke to her in French and she explained that she had lived in Paris for 20 years and had been a “showgirl” at the Folies Bergere, presumably in Cabaret and in drag. I enjoyed her flamboyant, interesting, personal conversation and she reminded me of a drag queen I knew long ago in Louisville. Something about the eyes. I found her fascinating.

Here’s a typically tacky-but-funny beach souvenir item.

Here’s one of the curly-tailed lizards that scurry all over the walkways:

I walked and wandered most of the day after gym, yoga, and laundry yesterday. At night I got dressed up in a beach dress and roamed the busy Beach Boulevard looking for a place to watch salsa dancing, as a shopkeeper on Hollywood Beach last year had recommended going up to Fort Lauderdale to watch some.  Eventually I stopped at a place called Ibiza because Ibiza is part of Spain and there was live music and a woman dancing something flamenco-like with an initially-Spanish-guitarist. But the dancer stopped dancing after one song and after a few standards like Bessame Mucho, the guitar player headed permanently into non-Spanish territory…..and by that I mean Stairway to Heaven and the like.

From this morning’s run south to the causeway: George Jetson’s House meets the Statue of Liberty –

Drop-in Yoga was mostly just irritating. Time and time again at drop in classes teachers seem to assume that since you’ve not been to THEIR class before, you must be new to yoga. And they insist that certain well-known poses be done a specific way that aren’t done that way other places.  I didn’t get much of a workout either Saturday or Sunday, and the instructor held the classes out in front of the studio on a very lumpy, sloped (both downward and sideways) area of cushioned fake plastic grass. People passing by took pictures of us.

One night I wandered into a shop and almost exited quickly when saw the prices on their bathing suits. But I was directed to a sale rack and found a really nice bathing suit for a surprisingly reasonable price. The older woman running the shop called me “mamacita” repeatedly and was very excited that the bathing suit fit well …….and kept running her hands all over the suit….with me in the suit.  We had a warm conversation about exercise, grandchildren, and whether it was necessary at our ages to have spouses and/or boyfriends. I’ll spare you the details:0)).

Yesterday afternoon there were hoards of drunk, obnoxious people spilling out of the open-air bars by 2:30 in the afternoon. I put on my new Supersale Ralph Lauren swimsuit and went to the beach, which I expected not to like all that much, as I remember the water last year around this time at Hollywood Beach to the South being murky and cold. But there was more to like about this area – the water was just cooler than lukewarm, clear, and the waves were soft.

I’d considered getting a massage at the spa associated with the North Beach Village hotels, but it was very expensive, required advance scheduling (however they don’t actually answer their phone), and since most often spa services just leave me wishing I’d not bothered, I decided to skip it.  On my way to do laundry at one of the hotels affiliated with the one where I’m staying, I passed a motel with an ad out front for a spa and thought to have a look.  On approaching the front door of this motel I was behind a man in a Speedo thinking he was probably European (because they do like their Speedos). The ad out front for the spa showed a man having a facial which vaguely struck me as odd, but I quickly dismissed the little hint as sexist on my part because why wouldn’t spas have advertisements including men? When the Speedo guy reached the front door and started looking for his key, I asked him if there was a spa brochure available inside. He said that yes, there was a brochure inside, but that the spa and motel were for men only.   It was an odd moment that I thought was pretty funny but the guy in the Speedo seemed not to.

All nationalities and ethnicities are represented here, and at least presently, none seem to dominate. Everyone seems to have a part to play and a place in the sun. It’s one of my favorite parts of travel to be among a wide variety of others who belong to a wider world, but I’m also glad to go back home to the familiar as well.  At least I’m glad for a few weeks, anyway.

This later and more free time in life is my time to pursue new and interesting experiences that weren’t possible as a young person. I’m rarely disappointed as a novelty-seeker, even though some of this flinging oneself out into the wide world alone brings challenges that aren’t pretty. But I wouldn’t trade the things I’ve seen and done for anything, and travel and new pursuits have helped me grow in ways that would have been otherwise impossible.

Until next time, thanks to family and friends for the text and email connection. I love you all!

Escape from Survivor Island

Life teaches that things can derail rather quickly.

As mentioned, I love working with the Bad Boys.  AJ, 18 year old team leader extraordinaire, does a high-intensity headbanger’s workout to gangsta rap cranked up both going to the site and returning, and I am happy to be a part of these days among these funny, lively young people.  Amazingly, they have tolerated a 63 year old retired nurse who lives in a totally different world beautifully.  I think I might actually be starting to like gangsta rap…..

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This St. John site is essentially run by very young people and seems to attract a large number of very young volunteers, as opposed to some other groups like Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and UMCOR.   For a stretch of time, I was older than any others by at least 20 years.  Presently 63 years old, I worked in social work, trauma nursing, and psychiatric nursing my entire life.  While working full time, I paid for and completed 2 college/university degrees and have been reasonably respected throughout my work life.  I raised a beautiful daughter.  I’ve been married for 35 years, have hiked and traveled alone all over the world many times, and I’ve gutted and renovated my own house and worked very hard on several others.  I am no novice at dealing with adversity. I need very little to get by.  I try not to be an asshole.

At this particular program site there seems to be little awareness that older volunteers are probably not going to be accepting of some of the things that they might get away with doing to young, inexperienced volunteers, and some of the staff seem to have odd ideas about what it’s acceptable to do to volunteers.  For a very mild example, one morning I asked one how long we had to complete assigned morning camp housekeeping chores and got a lecture about doing a good job….(!).

On the evening of this, my last day on Survivor Island, something occurred that was so absurd that, after some weighing of options, I decided to leave this situation, as in addition to the other unusual hardships we were all unexpectedly dealing with, to stay would have been unacceptable.

During the work day, the founder of this wonderful organization visited our worksite on a trip he and his wife were making of the programs (which are all over the world). He has written a book about starting volunteer humanitarian aid programs and they have been helping in disaster aftermath situations all over the world since the tsunami in Thailand in 2004.  He is a very kind, engaging man, and his wife also a pleasure to meet.  I mention this because the situation that occured in no way reflects on them or the important efforts of this humanitarian aid organization.

A scenario such as this can become somewhat cult-like and overstep limits in their treatment of  volunteers if there are staff in charge who have lost perspective, are perhaps a bit over-inflated, and lack judgement about what it’s ok to do to people.

My husband, as a lifelong and accomplished provider and director of human services organizations, immediately pointed this out when I texted him what had happened.  Usually a very calm and understated man, his initial text said:  “WHAT????  Is that guy NUTS???”.   All the elements of a cult are there:  an isolated setting, limited (but possible) exposure to connections from “normal life”.  A rigid, exhausting schedule that all are expected to be on board with.  Staff who are, some of them, on the self-inflated side.  A pervasive ideology that all are expected to subscribe to. Controlling behavior. Punishment. Limiting access to necessities. And the expectation that this should all be considered normal and acceptable, and that to object results in YOU being identified as the problem.

I did not sign on as a volunteer to go to a rah-rah summer camp.  I signed on to go do some hard work under some difficult conditions as an older adult volunteer.  Although their situation had deteriorated only about a week before my arrival date, only one of the previous and subsequent volunteers received mention of the change in conditions. Not everyone would want to or could safely live under these conditions.

There was to be a community meeting, as usual, at the end of the work day at 5 pm.   I’d been to all of the meetings and done all that they’d asked of me for around 12 days at that point.  That particular day, I’d helped unload the Jeep and started running around trying to get a few things done before dark, as there was an additional meeting after the first at which the founder was to speak.  As it turned out, the founder was busy with a phone call during the usual 5 p.m. group community meeting, but his wife was in attendance.  My cell phone with the time of day was in my tent as I rushed around to get things done before dark and I then rushed to the community meeting, unknowingly arriving exactly 3 minutes late.  The usual initial order of the meetings was in progress, but as they were going around the room doing introductions of the newly arrived volunteers, the staff leading the meeting called my name when reached the part of the room where I was standing…… and then stopped and just stared at me as if I were clairvoyantly to know why he had called me out. There were 35 people in the room including staff and other volunteers.

I inquired as to what he wanted of me and he said:  “you were late for the meeting”.  To me, this didn’t mean much.  Perhaps he felt entitled to make a big issue out of it for some reason.  Perhaps once this was in play, he was unwilling to back down because the founder’s wife was in attendance.  Perhaps it was some idiotic dominance thing.  The summer camp spirit seemed to be in particularly high gear with the special guests’ presence, and I started to feel very singled out and “put on the spot”.  When he continued to just look at me as the entire room watched, I said “I see you looking at me and I know there’s something that you think I’m supposed to do, but I don’t know what it is”.  To which he responded “when people are late, they have to do 10 push-ups”.  This seemed completely bizarre to me, and I’d never seen this carried out before, so, becoming increasingly uncomfortable, I said “you’ve got to be kidding”….which met with the assurance that no, in fact, he was very serious.  I then tried to make a joke, which again met with a stony-faced response.

I quickly weighed my options:  refusing and walking out would mean making a bit of a scene in front of the entire meeting including the founder’s wife, which would end up looking like bad behavior on my part.  Seeking clarification and joking already hadn’t worked, and given this staff member’s behavior, I wasn’t sure that the next statement if I refused wouldn’t be (given that it seemed a show of power was under way) “then pack your bags”, which would have been drama and an even worse humiliation.   So I decided to play it off in the moment and figure out what to do afterwards and so told the group that I could do 10 yoga pushups.  The leader decided that this was acceptable and the group seemed thrilled at the prospect of this bizarre command performance.  In a state of disbelief, I got down on the filthy concrete porch floor as a 63 year old woman and performed to the entire room cheering. Especially for someone with an extreme aversion to being embarrassed in front of others, this was a humiliating and sickening experience.  And it was a situation in which I had little to no control or support.  Not one person in the 35 present said:  “Wait a minute.  This is wrong”.  When not one objected to this, it would seem to mean that this kind of treatment of volunteers is acceptable and endemic to the program. It is still unbelievable to me that this happened to an older adult in a humanitarian aid/volunteer setting….and not to a juvenile being trained in boot camp or a college kid pledging for some ridiculous fraternity.

As you may have experienced in these group settings, especially those in which the setting is isolated and exit tricky, exposing that you’re leaving usually brings about an intervention of sorts or at least a lecture insinuating that it’s you who is the problem.  I waited through the rest of the community meeting and then through the founder’s speech, trying to decide how to proceed.  Do I pretend this is all fine and keep living in my roasting, damp, cat-piss tent on the edge of a small field hauling buckets of water to the bathhouse, getting further eaten alive by insects no matter what I used as repellant, doing camp chores, marching to the tune and working at the sites in the heat doing strenuous work?  Do I expose myself by going to get some miscellaneous belongings like my safety goggles and a hoodie from the locker in the dining hall where others were? Do I wait longer to leave until others are less likely to be about but risking missing the ferry and/or not getting a room either in Cruz Bay or Charlotte Amalie?  Do I try to get a ride into town, then having to justify my decision to a crowd – which ends badly because the decision is unpopular?

Gerardo, a very kind man and friend. The St John site is full of wonderful people.

I decided to get a bucket bath so I didn’t reek and look like I really was from Survivor Island and then start packing up quickly after dark behind the blue tarp.  I got out of camp, amazingly, only seen by my two friends Gerardo and JT whose tent was on the road through camp and who sent me some sweet, loving texts for which I am grateful and very touched.  Being a hiker, it was easy to backpack out with my pack and large duffel along the dark and often rocky Lind Point trail to Cruz Bay.  I got a ferry ticket, got help with understanding the setup for taxis and hotels out of Red Hook Bay on St. Thomas, and when cellular was possible called Tom who is the best Adventure-Gone-Wrong Hotline husband possible.  Then I booked a place with Booking.com for this perfectly adequate beach hotel, and find myself among kind, relaxed people.

Despite the problems, I would not trade this overall experience and getting to know the others there for anything.

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I’ve made new flight arrangements.  And am rather thrilled and amazed to find that when I turn on the tap……WATER COMES OUT!!! And someday I’ll get all the little green stick-tights off my clothes and shoes….

Tent Failure and Fun With Bioluminescence

The best part of the day was a morning run from here to Caneel’s beach, then past Honeymoon Beach and back to base camp. Repeat to make a 2-mile run. Quiet, not too muggy yet.

No, wait. The best part of the day was at the OTHER end when about ten of us sat under the stars on the pier, went swimming in our underwear and swished about in the sparkly bioluminescence.

Here’s a video (some of it sideways because evidently I haven’t mastered the art of iPhone video yet) of the project we’re on so you can see what’s being done by this organization and these amazing volunteers. I’m with the Bad Boys Team again tomorrow and although only slept an hour between the hard rain, the itching bug bites all over arms and legs (even with using Deet) and the damp bedding, I’m looking forward to it. Doing demo is always cathartic.

I renovated my tent during the weekend time off because some rain got in and because trying to live in a 4′ x 7′ x3.5 enclosed space for weeks is pretty cramped. But everything I have is still damp, and now the camp cat is pissing all over my campsite, evidently as a way of marking its territory/establishing dominance. The generator across the lot makes a ton of noise and I wish they’d get rid of the rats in the dorm so I can move in without spending all night with one eye open worrying about them.

One of the fiberglass arches holding up my tent snapped sometime overnight even though the tension was distributed exactly as the instructions said and as the grommets on the tent corners required. There is no possibility of getting a replacement as even Amazon Prime can take two weeks to get here. Duct tape is giving me a wonky but sort of adequate tent. I’ve extended the space by making a tarp “patio”, but despite the extra coverage, a little rain is still getting in. My house now looks like everyone else’s……with a huge blue tarp face.

It has been raining for much of 3 days and is now raining overnight on the 4th. We’ve been working in a roofless open building in the rain too, but it feels wonderful in this heat.

Part of the slightly eerie stretch of what was once Caneel Bay Resort’s bayfront. Now a paradise for those of us delighted to have the run of this post-apocalyptic scene.

The cat is horrid. He evidently routinely pisses on volunteers’ things, per a conversation with another volunteer. It pissed in the duffel bag I’d left open outside under a rain flap. The cat sits in the old staff kitchen building and whines in a way that only a cross-eyed Siamese can. Unbelievably, when I got back to camp from the pier and was checking on the pissed-on clothings’ drying progress, this cat strolled into my new “patio” and tried to get behind the tent where it had pissed the last time. And immediately before we left for work, it was sitting next to my lone tent for at least the third time as if it were just waiting for me to leave so he could keep on marking its territory. Evidently he owns the place, and I have no idea how some find him adorable.

These guys are pecking around the camp all day. In other wildlife news, something unidentifiable has been screeching for days from behind a locked door in the women’s bath house leading to a destroyed area.

One morning around 6:30 this particular cat was in the lunch-prep area whining while one by one 4 or 5 female staff and volunteers came by and petted him, spoke sweetly to him, and fed him bits of lunchmeat. Finally someone more of my own disposition came by – a rather snarky and irritable young staff member who passed through still half asleep, and when the cat whined at him, he barked “Oh Fuck off!”. I enjoyed that.

My legs and forearms are swollen from bug bites and they now itch like crazy after 9 days here. There seems to be a different type of bug in prevalence every few days. Tonight it’s fleas. Or maybe more precisely Sand Fleas. And I have a gash on my left cheek from getting smacked with a piece of debris on a pile while scavenging for a piece of rope for my tent renovation. When I had access to a mirror much later it looks as if it should have been sutured, but it was late for suturing, there are no steri-strips around, and what’s one more scar?

I’ve been transporting people to and from Cruz Bay today, a Sunday. Fun people have arrived….and two of my own age! And I got the morning reports of who did what and to whom the Saturday night before down in Cruz Bay. Seems most of the young staff and volunteers are hooked up with one or more others from here or the community. As I would hope to be as well if I were young and uncommitted.

At least 2 of the 6 new volunteers are sober people and I wonder how it will go for them with so much drinking and pot smoking going on.   I’m curious to see how long it takes the new people to decide whether the lack of running water, electricity and the presence of rats in the dorms is all ok with them, especially since only one of them got a warning about the recent deterioration in conditions. People are starting to go home who came in around the time I did, and they’re not unhappy about leaving. I feel like I’ve been coated with soap film or sweat almost continuously.  The staff has started keeping all the Jeep keys with them, possibly to assess whether someone driving has been drinking. But it means hunting them down before and after to get and return the Jeep keys, and if feels like being in a childlike position.

There is dinner made for us during the work week, but we’re told how much of each thing that we’re allowed to take, and the cook (a very nice woman with no easy task to feed us all dinner 5 days/week) stands at the line and monitors it all.  Once I took a second small scoop of boiled vegetables and was told to put it back because only one scoop was allowed until it was known whether seconds were possible.  That day, select team leaders were then approached to come for seconds, but not the rest of us, which I found odd.  It is possible to bring in your own (very expensive) food from town, but I was told not to put more than one item in the refrigerator because it was the only one kept running on the generator and everyone was using it.  And you can probably guess what happens to your tent if you try to keep any form of food in there, even if it’s in ziplocks……. bugs show up in the hundreds.

Today there was more oncoming traffic in the wrong lane, more near misses, and more drunk or stoned people about in town.  I’m wearing thin, but my adorable new friends Gerardo and JT made a trip to KMart on St. Thomas today and brought me back a headlamp, which is helping a great deal in all this darkness, and a mirror, which showed me how unwise it is to go two weeks without being able to see your face close up in the light.

There are always sweet people though, and they make it all a little better.

Badass for a Day

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This exotic flower was given to me by my new boss, and because I am frequently quite dense, I initially completely missed what he was doing:  not just showing me a pretty flower found at the work site, but giving me a pretty flower.  He is a wild, sweet 18 year old, very bright and very funny. Even when trying to correct me diplomatically to put my hard hat on and stop standing on wobbly things to reach.

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Yesterday, I was assigned to go with him (your assigned team and boss and project can change daily) and two other young males in their early twenties. It was my pleasure to be driving them (insurance precludes those under age 26 from driving here) and working with them for the last two days.  My boss started the day during the drive to the work site playing headbanger music and gangsta rap cranked up to 10, so loud that the car boomed and locals were turning to look at us before we passed them. Then we careened up a deeply rutted, steep, twisting gravel road.  We hauled our sledgehammers and power tools to the site:  a concrete shell with debris inside and below, most of the roof ripped off, and a rotting deck that a step in the wrong place would mean a fall down about 30 feet.  The house hangs onto the side of a steep hill overlooking the ferry port (and main) town of Cruz Bay. A few months after the hurricanes, this family lost the mother from pancreatic cancer.  A child showed me where her room had been.  It was roofless, concrete, with weather-rotted studs and debris.

In this way, I got to swagger around with these young guys like a wannabe badass, and they not only tolerated me, but took me in and entertained me with esoteric information that they’d amassed from their travels and homeschooling, which seems to develop voraciously enquiring minds.  At the end of the day we did it all in reverse, and it was a pleasure to be with them.  Even if Austin almost fell into a bottomless cistern.  There is some wisdom in sending an old trauma nurse with these three wild things, even if they probably just needed someone old enough to do the driving.

I think I may now like gangsta rap. It quickly puts you into badass mode.

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Back at camp we got the news that the exterminator wouldn’t be coming anytime soon, which means I’ll be in my tent for the foreseeable future.  I had tons of camp chores to do, hand washing clothing to do, not much time before dark, and was hearing stories of others shortening their stays because of the conditions, illness, being covered in bug bites and generally discouraged.  It takes forever under these conditions to get anything accomplished. I was exhausted and irritable at the end of the day and decided that more than two weeks of this was probably going to be miserable. They said they had lots of volunteers coming in, so I didn’t feel too bad, especially since some others were leaving quickly after discovering that the conditions had deteriorated.  Most are staying two weeks, it seems.  In a state of discouragement, I booked my own flights out and left word that I’d be staying one additional week instead of three, which I’m glad I did because it gives me an end date that is within reach, relieving a great deal of pressure. I hadn’t been sleeping, it rained all day, my laundry was all still wet, I’d spent an hour mopping floors after working hard all day and I’d had enough.  But as happens, rest and a few good occurrences help a great deal and I’m going to wait to see if the rat problem gets taken care of and whether the electrician that we met in the parking lot at the Starfish Market actually does get some electrical and water going.

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Then I slept for 7 hours in my nice little organized tent, got up to 4 new volunteers, two of whom worked with us today, and got to hear their stories/get to know them a little while working on a common task, which makes it all easier.  More unique people from diverse backgrounds, and by now it feels as if a tribe is forming.  I feel more settled into things socially as have a better feel for who people are.  I really like these people.

Since I’m sober, I’m popular on Saturday nights as a driver.  We ran into other volunteers in town and collected Austin walking along a sidewalk to bring home.  Everyone hitchhikes all over the island.  In fact, drivers stop to say they’re sorry they can’t give a ride because they’ve picked up so many hitchhikers that they have no room left.  Unbelievably nice people everywhere and, so far, no problems related to bad behavior on alcohol.  Maybe because so many are predominantly smoking pot and aren’t drinking but a few beers.  I’m a little sad to have decided against going into town with the others, but evidently there aren’t really many places where people dance, and everyone comes back hammered, so I’ll hope the kids are playing some island rap and dancing in the dark at the pier some night.  I’ve been doing an hour of yoga in the dark with a solar light on the pier and also in the kitchen area in base camp.

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This morning, Ryan got out his boom box and made his way through camp playing it loud.  He played Uptown Funk and called out that he was playing it for me (because during my own introduction they’d asked me what my favorite song to sing for karaoke might be), so I got a lift out of that.  The night before, Sia told me how to see the bio-luminescence that the plankton produce when you swish your hands in the shallow water.  Like sparkling or fireflies just under the water.

After my friend Lillie came out and kindly invited me, about 7 of us sat around in the office watching Jurassic Park (I originally thought the office had office HOURS and was closed at night, but it doesn’t even have a door:0)).  Just tattered mosquito netting to pull aside). Everyone pretty much trusts each other, and it’s a great environment in which to practice being more open and relaxed among others and to watch the kaleidoscope of people all negotiating these extraordinary circumstances while doing this extraordinary work.