May 17, 2008

A poolside iguana and a train through Bohemia

This is a life I could get used to: wake up in the late morning, drink my coffee on a balcony overlooking a pool surrounded by palm trees and the ocean just beyond, wander around plantation ruins in the afternoon, sip rum punch in the shade of the sea grape trees on a soft sand beach…

Rum punch under the sea grape trees

I used to think that vacation was about adventure and challenge: figuring out the train schedules in a small, gritty city in Poland; lugging a backpack through a crowded street market to see the 27th most significant church in Central Europe; struggling over a menu offering "fried frog things" and other creatively translated fare, and eventually coming home with a new stamp in my passport and sense of accomplishment.

The East (not the Caribbean)

I've been there, I've seen famous cultural things, I've eaten strange food (and may/may not have gotten sick from it), and learned how to say "may I have a beer, please" in other languages. I'm somehow a better person—more knowledgeable, or worldly even.

Church of some importance
But, I'm tired and need a vacation.

Lately, this structured wanderlust, while still alive and kicking, has ebbed slightly, allowing me to experience vacation in a different way--the way my wife prefers it: on a beach, looking out at the water, with a rum drink in hand.

Our latest vacation, billed as Honeymoon, Part II, was a late April escape from Boston to St. John, USVI. I had never really been to the Caribbean before—with the exception of a short business trip to San Juan, PR a few years back—and was anxious to experience a new island, in another ocean (Honeymoon, Part I was in Kaua'i). There was a significant period of my life (ages 9-17) when a trip to a tropical island would have been my greatest dream. I used to be oddly fascinated with lizards, fish and other tropical creatures—the result of a childhood raised on too much Jacques Cousteau and too many PBS nature shows, I guess. At that time, the closest I got to living this life was a few vacations to Cape Cod and the North Carolina coast.

A poolside iguana in St. John

Over time, and after the gradual realization that a career in marine biology was not exactly what I thought it was, this interest faded a bit. I discovered Jack Kerouac and Milan Kundera, visited Europe and fell in love with backpacks, trains, and (briefly) hostels. I learned to subsist almost entirely on baguettes, cheese, and cheap wine. As I longed to push further East--colder, darker, bleaker--my interest in becoming Pierre Cousteau and owning a huge pet iguana was repressed. To me, a vacation on a tropical island was like a cruise that didn't go anywhere. Where are the Soviet-style block apartments? What do you mean you can't get there by train? Why is everybody smiling? That blue sky is unnatural!

As I get older, I'm learning to reconcile my leisure life as lizard-loving snorkeler with my inexplicable fascination with Eastern Europe. A trip to Berlin a few years ago helped provide an improbable fusion: at some point after the fall of the Wall, East Berliners, dumped loads of sand along the Spree River and created several beach bars on the banks--complete with deck chairs, thatched roof bars, and reggae music.

Lounging with my feet in the sand and a cold drink in my hand in the heart of gritty Berlin, all was well with the world...

May 08, 2008

A warm shack (on a frozen river): Part II

Paul, art, Hugh

Saturday AM: We were awakened by Hugh, the human equivalent of a tornado in a trailer park, who arrived early from New Hampshire. After a quick cup of instant coffee and a few moments admiring the extraordinary artwork in Paul’s house, we were out the door for a hearty breakfast at a fine local establishment, where we focused on our egg/cheese/pork nightmares. It was then that Hugh and Paul began 24 hours of communicating entirely in quoted movie dialogue.

Last minute supply run (beer, snacks, subs, etc.), a swing by the Portland Head Light, and then we were finally off to the Cathance...

Hugh, the Ancient Mariner, at Portland Head Light

The River Bend Smelt Camp was a bit further north, in the town of Bowdoinham. After a short drive, the four of us slid and shuffled from the mini-van across the icy parking lot to the main camp house on the bank of the river, where we paid $15 a piece for a package of blood worms and 5 hours in the shanty of our dreams. It was late afternoon as we made our way across the river (again with the sliding and shuffling) to a line of shanties near the opposite bank, the cold Maine sun drooped low in the sky and muffled voices drifted from the row of shanties.

our shantytown

We located #31 (it looks like it was #23 at some point in it's lifetime, and possibly #28, as well), and attempted to situate ourselves in the slightly cramped interior--the four of us in small wooden folding chairs and collapsible canvas camp chair around a wood-burning stove; the beer/food nestled in the snow just outside the door.

knife and PBR tallboys

Essentially, smelting is to fishing, as beer pong is to tennis. There are two long trenches carved out of the ice on either side of the smelt shack and 8 lines with hooks and sinkers hanging from wooden pegs on the wall. Basically, you cut-up the bloodworms into bits, bait the hooks, and drop the lines into the trenches. Apparently, there is a little bit of science involved in all of this--i.e. the depth of your bait, whether you jiggle the lines or let them drift, etc--but, the rest of the sport involves sitting and drinking. And trying not to let pieces of your sandwich fall into your trench.

the abyss/trench

Well, in spite of periodic jiggling and depth adjustment, the smelt mostly ignored us and we ignored the smelt.


paul stares at his trench


While we waited on the smelt, we ate, drank an assortment of beer, told (mostly) bad jokes, quoted movies (Paul & Hugh continued their odd style of communication), and played the name game in attempt to keep the boredom from setting in.

night falls on the shantytown

Note for next time: bring a radio and more beer.

5.5 inches of victory

At last, Dan caught one, which Paul quickly gutted, slapped in cast-iron pan greased with a slab of Crisco, and cooked on our wood stove. When the beast was ready to be consumed, I was in the middle of adding more bait to my hooks (inspired by Dan's luck) and my hands were covered in worm juice. "Go ahead, I'll wait for the next one," I said when offered a chunk of smelt flesh.

taking in the night air (it is colder than it looks)

This turned out to be a bad decision. In spite of my vigorous and inspired smelting efforts, the final tally:

5 hours

4 smelters

1 smelt

I told you it was cold