Sunday, May 3, 2009

Update from abroad and back (plus moving tomorrow - Monday)

Chris here... Kristen did a blog entry below too, so make sure you head down there after reading this one! Also, we're heading out tomorrow to Cat Island at first light. It should be interesting to get out of this harbor without good light, but we'll figure it out. We'll be running the SPOT, so follow along at your leisure by clicking on the tracking link to the right.

This post is longer than I anticipated, but oh well. It will make up for Kristen's short post below (she was kind of cranky today).

OK, so being in the US is being abroad to me now since my home is currently in Georgetown. When we go back to the US, things will change back, but for now my home is here..

So I woke up Tuesday morning at 5:15am to catch the water taxi to Georgetown. Elvis showed up right on time at 5:30 and we did the short hop across. He also arranged for a land based taxi to take me the last 20 minutes to the Georgetown airport. The taxi ride to the airport was fun - the taxi was a huge Chevy Suburban and we hurtled down narrow twisty roads with blind hills and curves in the pitch black of the morning.

For the past several days I've been advertising on the radio that I would take flat stamped mail - in other words, letters to be sent. I believe I've mentioned before that it can easily take 30 days for mail to get from the Bahamas to the US, so cruisers will pass their mail to other cruisers who are heading to the US. I collected mail from about 8 different boats to bring back with me. I also grabbed a bunch of stuff from Pelican that was just taking up room, and our autopilot which has been acting up on us lately.

So, Georgetown airport. Basically, it's two large rooms. Outside the first room and main entrance, there are signs declaring the area a "No bottle zone". I'm not quite sure who would enforce this so-called no bottle zone as there were no security guards in sight. The funny thing is that many people were drinking from bottles of water while waiting on line for ticket check-in. Outside of that, the first room contained seven or eight airport style desks, plus an office. The second room was a waiting lounge for about 50-60 people and had a couple of gift shops.

I arrived at the airport a bit early - around 6:20am. My flight didn't leave until 7:20am. Apparently you don't check in an hour early for a Bahamian flight like you do a US flight. At around 6:40 the airline person (BahamasAir) motioned to the first person in line to approach her. I'm not sure what they were talking about at the counter, but it was a good 10 minutes before it was my turn. Once at the desk I showed my passport and checked in. I also asked to get seat assignments for my flights within the US - I didn't want to get stuck in a middle seat. I don't think the counter attendant was in a great mood that morning since she just grunted at me and told me I'd have to do that in Nassau. I'm glad I got there early - by the time the plane was supposed to leave there were still 20 people on line to check in.

The plane was a Dash-8, holding about 40 people. I was surprised - I expected a 15-20 person plane. I guess I was the only one who had an actual seat assignment since when people boarded the flight attendant just told people to sit wherever they want. It's the first non-private plane I've seen where the first set of seats faces to the rear so the passengers in the first two rows face each other and can converse. Kind of nice! Anyway, we only took off about 20 minutes late, which isn't bad for the Bahamas, and we headed to our first stop in Eleuthera. That took about 40 minutes, we sat on the ground for 10 minutes while people deplaned and others boarded, and then we took off for Nassau, another 30 minutes away.

Once in Nassau you have to pick up your baggage at the domestic baggage claim. This is a broken down conveyor belt about 5 steps inside the terminal door (No jetways here!) where one baggage handler pushes the bags through the hole from the outside and another two or three carry the bags down the belt. I'm not sure why they don't just roll them directly inside from the plane as opposed to pushing them through the little trap door, but I didn't ask. Welcome to Nassau mon!

The international terminal is somewhat of a hike from the domestic terminal. My flight didn't leave for 90 minutes or so, so I took my time getting over there. I knew the time was coming to deal with how to bring the autopilot to the US to get fixed and then bring it back to the Bahamas without having to pay duty on it. The duty here is around 45% or more, and since our autopilot is worth about $4k, but we had entered the Bahamas with it, I didn't want to pay duty on it. Bahamas Customs in Georgetown just told me to see customs at the airport in Nassau and they would have me fill out a form.

When I entered the domestic terminal I found someone who worked there and asked them where customs was. They pointed to a door behind the ticket counter and said I could go over there and knock. I explained what I was trying to do and he said he would get someone from customs over while I checked in. At the ticket counter I found out that I could upgrade to 1st class for $100. After sitting on boat cushions for so long (i.e. my butt hurts most of the time) I knew I just had to do the upgrade, so I paid my $100 and checked my bag, taking the autopilot out so I could carry it with me on the trip. By the time I finished checking in, a customs officer came over and said he'd look out for me when I got to the customs area.

I headed towards the security checkpoint and x-ray machine. I took my laptop out and placed it and the autopilot on the x-ray conveyor. "Sir, what is that?" asked the officer. "Ummm... it's a boat autopilot." "Can you open it up for us please?" I took the cover off. "Can you turn it on please?" "Not unless you have a 12v battery." I guess a 12 inch by 8 inch by 4 inch gray box with metal cooling fins on the back and circuit boards sticking out made them nervous. Several people told me I should have held my phone in my hand like a trigger with the autopilot held close to my chest. I thanked them and let them know that I'd rather spend 3 nights on the boat as opposed to a Bahamian jail. Anyway, they finally let me through (this was repeated at every security checkpoint in both the Bahamas and the US) and I entered the customs area.

The line in customs was long (they pre-screen US departures in Nassau so you don't have to go through customs on the US side). There was a JetBlue flight leaving soon so there were probably about 100 people in line. A group of four people behind me had a flight leaving in 10 minutes and were jumping through the line, asking people if they could cut in. The twenty-somethings in front of me told them "No - you can't cut in front of us - the line is moving so don't worry". Nice people. Anyway, the group of four fidgeted in front of me with about 85 people between them and their plane. Me thinks they should have gotten there a bit earlier. At this point, the customs officer saw me in line, came over, opened up the cordon and told me to follow him to a checkpoint. I'm sure that everyone was wondering why a customs officer pulled someone carrying a small gray box out of line and were questioning him.

At the checkpoint they asked me what I was trying to accomplish. I explained to them that I wanted proof that the autopilot was originally in the Bahamas so when I brought it back I wouldn't have to pay duty. They were very nice, but they only wanted to fill out the export/import form if the device was made in the US. I said it was a US company that sells them (Raymarine), but the device was probably made in China. We opened up the front, and lo and behold, it was made in Hungary. I guess I was only off by 5000 miles, but it still wasn't made in the US. After I pleaded my case, they finally filled out the form, but instead of filing it they told me they would leave it on the head person's desk and would throw it away a few days after I got back if they hadn't heard from me. Whatever - at least some official knew I had it here, so I did what Bahamas Customs told me to do - see customs at the airport.

My next flight took me from Nassau to Washington DC (this was my third hop of four) and was uneventful, although enjoyable in the big first class seats. Entering US airspace over the coast was very strange. There was land as far as the eye could see, covered with trees, houses, cars and, well, lots of other stuff. Landing at DC was just as strange with all of the tall, huge buildings. You have to understand - I've spent the last couple of months in a land of single story buildings, sand and scrub. The primary tree around here is the mangrove which is very short. The entire Exuma island chain has under 3,000 people. I hadn't realized how used to the environment I got in just two short months. Arriving in the US was alien to me.

I boarded my last flight and arrived in Albany at around 4:30pm. I was met there by the president of my company, Chad, who is taking care of my cars for me while I'm gone. I gave him a ride home, and then drove to a bar where Chad had told me some of the people from my office were. I stood inside while two of the three people walked right by me, but the third, Chris, did a double take and then gave me a huge hug. I hung out for a few minutes and then headed to the hotel to check in. The first thing I did when I got in my room was to jump in the shower and stand there for about 30 minutes. I then used 3 towels to dry off. As soon as one was slightly damp I'd throw it on the floor and grab a new one. OMG - I can't even describe how good being able to take a shower that didn't cost $4 for 8 minutes with lukewarm funny smelling water felt. It was, well, kids read the blog. I can't go there.

I then headed to the neighborhood where our house is to visit with our neighbors. I saw several of the neighborhood kids (Hello Jared!) plus my next door neighbors, George and Karen. Our house looked good from the outside. I actually never got inside during my visit. It was strange - I didn't have a lot of interest in being there. I then headed down to Yip's Chinese for a bunch of Chinese food. One of the things I wanted to do while in the US was to eat at all of my favorite restaurants. Yip's has the best Chinese food in the area, and I can tell you that it tasted awesome! I headed back to the hotel, jumped on the high speed Internet (I had forgotten how fast broadband internet was after spending all of my the past few weeks on satellite Internet and satphone e-mail) and then turned in at around 1am.

As revenge for taking off cruising and, according to Chad, drinking rum punches on the beach every day while girls in bikinis walk by, it was arranged for me to attend a business breakfast about 30-40 miles away on Wednesday morning. Chad picked me up at 6:30am and we headed over. It was a Chamber of Commerce meeting, and it really made me realize some things about my prior life and how much I've changed.

There is no judgement here - just observations and comparisons. In the Bahamas, food is readily available, but not in the quantity or variety as in the US. When shopping, you usually visit a couple of different markets to buy your food and other needs, and while there is never a shortage, there may not be a large variety. You adjust fairly rapidly to this and it becomes a fact of life, not bothering you in the least. When you eat out, you get fairly small servings. Anything left over is taken home with you, including any leftover bread so you can use it for sandwiches the next day. When eating on the boat, leftovers are mixed with new meats and spices - never thrown away or wasted. When you visit other boats, you bring your own drinks and usually a dish to supplement what they have. In other words, there is a lot of respect for food and drink, and there is very little waste. It's just the way life is down here, and it's just fine. We're never wanting for more.

At the chamber breakfast, there was a buffet table filled with a traditional breakfast of heaping trays of scrambled eggs, bagels, sausage, fruit and other foods to serve the 100-150 people in attendance. After an hour or so of eating, the half full trays were taken away to be thrown out. Every table had pitchers of water and coffee. A variety of juices were served at the bar. At the completion of the event, I glanced around at the tables seeing tons of plates covered with uneaten food that people had taken and only pecked at. I was shocked at the amount of waste, and recalled how much food we used to throw away at home. What we used to cook at home would have literally served a banquet of 15 or more cruisers here. We used to cover the leftovers and leave them in the refrigerator for a few weeks before throwing them out. You eat a lot less out here (which would probably explain the close to 60lbs I've lost so far) and you save every scrap. I didn't like the feeling I had while surveying the remains of breakfast and I wonder how it will be when we finish our cruise and return to the US.

While in New York I visited with friends and families. I realized that most social activities there take place around food. Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, we've always used a meal as a crutch to use between small talk. When cruising, you find that sitting in the cockpit of your boat with friends or hanging out on a sandy beach and chatting replaces the food intensive socialization within the United States. It's OK to have long pauses with no discussion and to just look at the beautiful land and water that lies around us.

Anyway, enough waxing philosophic. I spent the rest of Wednesday hanging out at my office with the amazing people who work there. I don't know how I have been so lucky to find such a great group of people, but it was incredible to see everyone there and how much they care for the company. On Wednesday evening I was supposed to have dinner with friends, but prior obligations of theirs butted in so I ended up going out to my favorite Indian place - Karavelli's - with Chad (the president of my company - D&D Consulting) and Cole (the CTO). I ate way too much food, but it was all so wonderful and I just had to take the opportunity to get as much of it as I could. After dinner I headed to my home town to meet the friends I was supposed to have dinner with (Scott, John, Brett, Kevin) at the local Sports Bar & Grill. It was great to see all of them, and we hung out until almost midnight. I ended up drinking water all night as I felt sick (bloated) from all of the Indian food at dinner. (By the way - if anyone from East Greenbush is reading this - tell Carmella [from my neighborhood] that I'm really really sorry I missed seeing her but I just couldn't get over to visit with everything else I had to do - I'll catch her on my next trip through - I promise).

On Thursday morning I attended a local trade show for state government that we were exhibiting at. I received many surprised looks from clients and friends, and saw tons of people who all wanted to know how this trip is going. Proving how small this world is, one of the people I talked with said their dentist was doing the same thing. It turns out their dentist is Mark from Side by Side, the boat we've been hanging out with so much. At noon I excused myself from the show and ran errands. While in the US I had a huge list of items, from pancake mix and M&M's, to toilet paper, to tools and electrical supplies and more to buy. In three and a half hours I drove an hour south to get my replacement autopilot, went to Walmart, Sams Club, Radio Shack, Home Depot, West Marine, Hannaford Supermarkets and Staples. It was a whirlwind tour, but I got pretty much everything I was looking for, including a laptop/netbook for Kristen so she can have her own computer for blog writing! The kids are always using one and I'm using my work laptop so she doesn't have the opportunity to use a computer much. Now she has her own!

On Thursday evening I headed up to Salty's about 30 minutes north of my office. There, I hung out with a lot of my friends from the marina we kept Pelican at on Lake Champlain. A few couldn't make it, but it was great seeing the ones that did (Paul, Tom and Janet, Clair and Jackie, Gene and Dawn). Cheese is really expensive down here, so I got Eggplant Parmigiana served over Manicotti with sauteed spinach. I was in heaven!!!! On the desert menu I saw an apple walnut crumble with vanilla ice cream. As ice cream is also really expensive here - $12-$18 per half gallon (it has to be brought in via boat in refrigerated containers) - I asked for extra. They must have brought out over a pint of ice cream. To the amazement of everyone around me, I managed to eat the entire mound. I did feel pretty sick afterwards, but it was well worth it.

On Friday morning we had a "Meet with the CEO" (i.e. Me) breakfast at my office. I didn't want the ordinary donuts or bagels for breakfast meeting so we brought in a tomato pie. Basically, it's a pizza with chopped tomatoes and sauce covered in Romano cheese. It really cured my craving for pizza. We hung out for a little over an hour and talked about my trip and the future of the business. I also got all emotional and had to tell each and every person how wonderful they are and how much they contribute to the success of the company. It was great. I spent a couple of more hours there and then had lunch with some business acquaintances/friends (who don't seem to read the blog - what's up with that????) who told me I had to come back. I'm going to have to deny them, as much fun as returning to full time work sounds.

In the evening I had dinner with Kristen's parents, brother, sister-in-law and nephews. It was a nice time and it's always great to visit with family. The only person I wished I could have seen but who couldn't make it to visit was my own mother (she is having severe back problems). Oh well - I'll see her when we get back to the US, and I'll hopefully also be able to visit with my 95 year old grandfather who I really look up to. While visiting with Kristen's parents, her dad (Poppi) fashioned a teak bracket for a wind/speed/depth instrument I bought for the inside of Pelican (so I don't have to go up top at night to see wind speed/direction and depth).

I also ordered a ridiculous amount of boat parts to bring back with me, from an anchor snubber to dinghy lights to instruments to caulk to fans, and much more. Kristen also wanted me to bring back some books (and all I have are hardcovers), and we also had mathbooks for the kids plus some gifts they gave me for Casey and Kaitlin and Kristen. I brought an extra duffel bag with me, but after looking at everything piled up on my hotel room floor, I was highly concerned about how I would be able to fit it all in my bags. I removed all of the packaging and proceeded to start arranging items. I was finally able to get everything to fit, but the bags were HEAVY. I don't mean just slightly heavy. I mean, "Are they going to let me on the plane with these" heavy. I was prepared to leave certain items home if I needed to, but I really didn't want to.

I arrived at the airport the next morning and put my first bag on the scale. 52lbs. Ouch, just over the 50lb limit. Unfortunately, this was the bag I was going to put stuff into if the other bag was too overweight. This wasn't looking good. I put the second bag on the scale. 69lbs. Yeah, this is going to be interesting. Bags over 50lbs are an additional $50. Bags over 70lbs are an additional $100! I started shuffling items from one bag to another. 49lbs and 72lbs. 50lbs and 71lbs. Finally, as the line behind me built up to critical mass, I was able to get one bag to 49.5lbs and the other to 70lbs, but fluctuating to 69.5lbs if the wind blew right. I paid my $50 for the one bag, and an additional $35 to cover the BahamasAir fees, and continued on my way.

Once again, I was hand carrying the autopilot and making everyone at security really happy. The plane left Albany on time for Charlotte, and I continued on after a 3 hour layover to Nassau. In Nassau you have to pass throuh Immigration and Customs. I showed Immigration my passport and cruising permit and was sent on to pick up my bags at the customs area. While waiting for my bags I asked one of the customs agents about the autopilot. "Did you see customs before you left and get them to fill out a form for re-import into the country?" "Yes! When I was leaving I filled out a form with US customs!" I was so happy that I did the right thing. "Did you have Bahamian customs give you the re-import form?" "Huh? Uhhhh... wait! I was just told I had to see customs... not specifically Bahamian customs." "Yes sir, you needed to have Bahamian customs give you a permission form." Oh great. "Well, sir, when you come through we'll see what you have." OK - it might still work.

I was a bit concerned about the fact that I was carrying a significant amount of stuff in my bags and how I would get through with the autopilot. There were guys with carts around the baggage area looking to take people's stuff for them, so I grabbed the closest one. With my bags weighing so much, I probably would have done it anyway. We got my bags and then I asked him "Which person is the friendliest customs person?" He yelled, "Follow me!" and took off at a rapid pace. I raced along with him as he ran through the customs queue. The customs officer yelled at him when we were already 50 feet past their station, "Visiting?" "Yes!" my guy yelled, and that was it. We were through customs and almost halfway to the domestic terminal before I could catch my breath. For the record, I had fully intended to pay my customs fees and will look into how I can do that at my first opportunity. I'll just have to find a customs office around somewhere :).

My flight back to Georgetown was pretty cool. We flew over the Exuma chain and I could easily see all of the islands we stopped at. The water clarity is beyond amazing. We passed over what looked like sand dunes with ridges up and down their sides. Then I realized, as boats passed over them, that they were covered by water, and what I was looking at was the banks. The water was so clear that you couldn't even tell it was there. You could make out each and every feature of the bottom, and you probably could have seen each individual fish if you were a bit closer.

Just to wrap this long post up since I have to go to bed quickly to get up early tomorrow (6:30am Chris Parker forecast), I arrived back at Georgetown sometime after 7pm (baggage claim was on the curb outside the airport), took the taxi back to town and took the water taxi back to Pelican. I was greeted by an excited family wanting to tell me about everything they were doing while I was gone and it was absolutely wonderful. I am so glad to be back at my home in the Bahamas, and I'm looking forward to spending as much time here as I can before we head back to the US.

Speaking of heading back to the US, I can't recall if I've already mentioned this, but we've officially made the decision that we're going to cruise in the US over the summer. We wanted to head down to the Dominican Republic, but we have to switch insurance companies to be insured there, and in order to do that we need to have a survey done of the boat. This has to be done in the US (right now we're only insured up to the Bahamas, so if we headed south to get the survey done we'd be uninsured for a period). That's OK. The US is an amazing place to cruise and we'll make this blog interesting for you to continue to read. Then next season we'll head to the Caribbean. Things change and you deal with whatever you need to as it happens. One of the things I'd like to do is meet as many blog followers as possible on our way up and down the coast.

Anyway, our expectation is that we'll head up to Cat Island tomorrow, then Eleuthera, then Abaco, and then we'll either head to Florida, or more likely we'll head to the Chesapeake, about a 5-6 day sail. As our plans evolve, we'll keep you updated.

Sorry for the really long post. I don't know what came over me, but it seems to be gone now. *YAWN*


peter said...

Chris and Family:
You guys make my days. I'v been enjoying following you and your dream, my wife and I hope to do similar in the feature. We live in Old Saybrook, ct and keep our sail boat "justified" there also.
Fair winds and safe sails.

S/V Veranda said...

Since you'll be doing the east coast you should consider DC. One of our favorite stops we've made by boat. 2 days up the Potomac but well worth it.

Jamestown was also pretty cool as well and only 35 miles up the James River.

Sailboss said...

Great Blog! I really appreciate the depth of information on communication methods from Georgetown. We plan on following you next year. Thanks,

Johnnie (Sailboss) S/V Jazz