We’re off to see the Queen!

It seems like forever since my eldest daughter Kristen and I took a road trip, and our experience celebrating her high school graduation in Japan will always shine brightly in my memory.  But before we get too caught up waxing on the past, it’s high time for us to make some fresh, new international travel memories!

For the past two years now, K has been enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, and after taking the fall semester off to intern with locally-based Anthropologie clothing company, it’s time for her to return to the books this spring as she enjoys a semester abroad.  She’ll be continuing her pursuit of a degree in Film Studies (yes, hear me groan on that one!) with minors in English and Women’s Studies (yes, that was two more groans you heard) at King’s College in London, UK.  For the record, I am still holding out hope that there is still time to turn the focus back and salvage that degree in International Business that her mom and I sent her off to St. Louis to achieve two years ago!

OK, now that I have cleared the air with my personal feelings on career-building decision making, let’s move on to the adventure at hand.  Her classes will be starting early in the first week of January, so my little darling has a bit of a mission in front of her to get prepared, and to add to her stress, everything is happening over the holidays.  The good news is that dad is always up for a road trip, and what better way to ensure Kristen gets off to a great start in this continuing education process (wait….film studies???) than to be there and help her navigate through any logistical challenges that may arise.  It’s her first time in Europe since she was 2 years old, so lots of research was necessary to get things squared away.  We’ll be flying on the 31st of December, and celebrating New Years somewhere over the Atlantic.  Of course the downside of this timing is that poor Michele will be quietly ringing in the New Year with me in spirit alone, but my confidence is high that I’ll make it up to her with a special celebration when I return on Wednesday.

So our adventure starts this morning, and here is where it is obvious that Kristen has inherited a few of her mother’s genes, at least in the travel department.  Our flight from Philadelphia is at 1:20 in the afternoon, so you know I am doing the math, baggage check-in cutoff, time for the parking shuttle, 31 miles down the interstate, yep, we can do this by leaving at 11:15 and really get a good adrenalin buzz going to start the trip and end the year!   But noooooo, that’s not happening today, as K mandates a 9:00 a.m. departure from Harleysville to “not be rushed” at the airport.  “Not be rushed?” I ask incredulously, “where’s the fun in that?”  But she is not deterred, so I begrudgingly agree, and a 9:00 departure it is.

Well of course you know there would be some interpretation in that schedule, so she’s already called me twice and is standing there tapping her foot when I pick her up at 9’ish.  We load her four bags in the van, and start down the road, but wait; I need to make a stop at the bank.  OK, that done, wait, I need to now stop at a second bank.  OK, banking completed, I am out of places to stop, so finally, at 9:58, we are actually heading towards Philadelphia International.  We get to the SmartPark lot and the parking lot Gods are smiling at us, with the very first parking spot open and awaiting us, ensuring maximum exposure for the van advertising while I am gone.  Hmmm…interesting sign, could this trip be blessed in some way?  No, it gets better, as Floyd, one of the regular drivers there, waves and says “Hold on Mr. Valaika, I’m almost done washing the van for you”.  So he pulls up in a squeaky-clean shuttle van, and transports Ms. Kristen and I in our own private shuttle to the airport.

And as we pull up to the Delta terminal, who is there but my good friend and long time Skycap Harold, along with his sidekick Benny, and they come running over to the van and get our bags moving towards check-in.  He asks where the 200 pounds of scuba gear is hiding, and I share our travel plans with him.  What a great guy and a good friend to have in the ‘business’ Harold is.  But wait, for some reason, my over-packing daughter has exceeded the baggage limit for this expedition, and Harold says “geez, I’m not sure here, but according to the computer, it looks like you are going to have to pay an excess baggage fee”.  Well fate continues to shine on us this morning, as Melinda, another friend and one of Delta’s finest gate agents, walks up to wish me a Happy New Year, and Harold tells her of the predicament and she smiles, and says “I’ll take care of this”.  Minutes later, all fees are waived, and now I am really feeling that either this is truly a gifted trip, or, like the proverbial “calm before the storm”, there is some major bombshell about to explode!  Clearly, with the early departure from home, no scuba gear in tow, and an adrenalin level of zero, this is not a normal trip for the Dave-ster in any case!  And we are still over two hours early for our flight!

With the bags checked, we head to security, and I know this is where it will get testy.  Ever since Kristen attempted to sneak her knitting needles and scissors through Salt Lake City security a few years ago, I have been sensitive to her to fully understanding the mentality (and ineptitude) of the Blue-Shirted Army that is charged with keeping America’s skies safe.  Well as a predictable as a lottery drawing with only one ticket in the bowl, guess who gets grabbed for the ‘random second level security screening’?  If your answer was a Valaika, then you’re a winner!  But, get this….it is not me, but my eldest princess who clearly has the look of an international terrorist about her.  So they pull her aside, give her a cursory review, never bothering to ask if she had bags, since I had swept them all off the belt, and we are allowed to pass.  America is safer for sure, and I’m more comfortable flying next to her!

What are we going to do with all this extra time?  Well the Delta Sky Club is calling our names, and we head in, stopping to wish long-time staffer Angela, who keeps teasing me with wanting to learn to dive, a Happy New Year.  She asks where I am heading, and I introduce Kristen to her and share our travel plans, and then amazingly, the entire staff at the front desk blows me away with their familiarity with Kings College, the school K is heading to, and they start talking about the award-winning choir, the school grounds, the famous chapel, and more facts and details than I could ever have expected.  Utterly amazing, and just further proof of what a small world we all live in.  Finally, we’re inside, and we settle down in a quiet area, and K, who celebrated her 21st birthday in September, wants to make herself a drink.  Well she walks up to the self-service bar, and I watch as she is a bit dumbfounded, looking at the automatic drink dispensers and the impressive line up of inverted bottles of libations.  So, like a good dad, I give her the quick skinny on bartending and the proper use of the equipment and technology, and before you know it, she is mixing up her gin & tonics like a pro!  And the best part?  This bar is FREE!

Several rounds later, it’s finally time to board, and we head down to the gate.  We’re whisked to the front of the line, saunter down the jetway, and board our plane and jet off to JFK in New York for our European connecting flight.  A short and uneventful flight later, we touch down in the Big Apple and entertain ourselves in the airport for a few hours before we board for Heathrow.  Last American dinner for K for the next eight months, and she savors her french fries, knowing that the “chips” they try to pass off as fries in England won’t compare to the real McCoy!  A little more quiet time allows us to go over our marathon touring plans, and we’ve got a checklist of the places we plan to hit over the next two and a half days:  Stonehenge, Salisbury, Brighton on the beach, Windsor Castle, Oxford, the white cliffs of Dover, and finally the Imperial War Museum in London (thank you Kristen!).  There’ll be no resting on this trip, and we are pretty pumped up about our adventure.  Our notes are complete, maps are laid out, and we enjoy one last round of libations as we await our boarding call in the Sky Club.

Finally, it’s time…. and once again it’s great to be in front of the line!  We walk on board and are shown our upgraded seats – the new upgraded Economy Comfort seating with 50% more recline and plenty of extra legroom, along with some other benefits in flight – OK so it’s not going to be too bad flying with the common folks tonight!  Woo hoo!

Dinner is served up, and we enjoy some more quality bonding time as I realize how sad it is that she is heading away for eight months – I’m gonna miss my little girl!  We wish each other a happy New Year as we pass through some time zone over the Atlantic, and then grab a little naptime before our arrival at 6:30 in the morning.

Once on the ground, we taxi up without delay, disembark, and pass through immigration with nary a hitch.  It should be noted, that when Kristen identified her reason for the visit to study, the border control officer had to review her paperwork from school and fill out a few forms.  He got to chatting with K, asking her about school and career, and then got to the line on his form where her area of study needed to be entered.   So she told him that she was majoring in Film Study (yes, I groan again) and the guy rolls his eyes says “Really?  Film study?”  I break out laughing, and he asks if that is something you do with a video camera and YouTube, not sure you need a college for that.  He is great, and Kristen gets into it too, finally consenting that the four classes she will be taking during this study abroad are all pretty lame.  At least she’s honest about this!  Of course she had to then tell him about her two minors, English and Women’s Issues, and it just kept getting better.  Funny how “human” a border control agent can be in another country – you’d never get that from the Blue Shirts in America.  Sad, but true.   He even answered a few questions I had about some folks they had in a special corral there – you’d never get that sort of honest disclosure from the TSA.  We finish our business here, grab our bags, pass through Customs, and exchange a small pile of Ben Franklins for the local currency of choice, Pounds Sterling.  The feeling that this trip is blessed just continues to surround us as we head out to grab the shuttle bus to Advantage Car Rental. They share the lot with Hertz so onto the Hertz bus we go, and the driver takes right off with us, another private limo –like experience for my little girl and I.  And the driver cannot be helpful enough, as he shares a lot of local tips and suggestions with us on the way to the lot.  As we pull up to the Advantage gate, he says, “Wait just a moment” and jumps off to run up and see if the office is open yet – it is not!  He runs back to inform us, then tells us to wait another moment, and sure enough, here comes the Advantage guy to open up his office.  The amazing part is that the shuttle driver is a Hertz employee and is just going out of his way to be helpful to two non-customers!  I’m starting to love these people!

Now I use the term “office” kinda loosely to describe the Advantage Car Rental facility.  Keep in mind that Advantage is sort of a second (or maybe third) tier rental car company, so the “office” is in fact a panel truck, with a generator, sliding side door and steps to get in, and a little counter and a sofa inside.  The employee fires up the generator, and suddenly we have lights…then the generator stops and we don’t.  He repeats this a dozen more times while we are trying to get our rental squared away.  First problem – they do not have a record of our rental although it is confirmed through Orbitz and in spite of the fact that I have all my paperwork.  Second problem is – they are out of cars!  Suddenly the “gifted” part of this trip appears to be unraveling a little.

The agent is essentially worthless, offering nonsensical suggestions about what we should do to resolve this – and I realize that we are in a bit of a pickle here.  I am standing here with a confirmed reservation in my hand for a nice sized car and a great rate, but that means nothing here, as he has neither the reservation nor a car for me anyhow.  And worse, we don’t have transportation and we are standing on the corner of the Hertz lot, and Hertz is historically the most expensive car rental company out there when I am searching for quotes.  But we’re tired and our options are limited, so we load our bags on a cart and with the slumped shoulders of a man defeated, I walk over to the Hertz office to see what we can do.

Jirrana, a very friendly agent, greets us and I try to explain the situation to her.  “Of course I can help you out”, she says, “Just give me your license and credit card to get started”.  “Hey before we get into that, how about we look at the quote I have here”, I say, “and see what we can to match or beat this number”.  “Should not be a problem”, she assures me, as she punches away on her keyboard.

Now I know most of us have seen more than our fair share of Hertz commercials, where the punch line for the guy who rented from “the other company” is always ….”Not exactly”.  Well guess what – Jirrana’s hard work and effort produced a rental contract for me that was twice the price of what I had from Orbitz, and for a car two sizes smaller.  I’d call that … “Not exactly.”  She said that is the best she could do, and in her sole opinion, it was a very good price.  I chuckle, and ask if she has Wi-Fi here in the office, so I can go on line and search for a quote.  No, she does not.  OK, can I use a computer here, since the office is completely empty on New Years morning?  No, I cannot.  Nice strategy, but I am not done.  I am really feeling that fate is no longer smiling on this trip.

Of course, my cell phone won’t connect to the Internet here, but I do have five bars, so I call back the states and wake Michele up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and get her to go on line to Orbitz and get me a new quote for a car while I am here. She does and we find one available from SIXT Car Rental for actually less than what I had originally gotten from Orbitz, so I tell her to go ahead and book it.  That done, I walk back up to Jirrana and ask if they would not mind giving me a ride down the block to SIXT, and of course, the answer is no, they cannot do that, they need to take me back to the airport terminal and then I can take the SIXT bus to their lot.  I say “Fine, thank you for everything”, and I am putting my paperwork away and getting ready to walk out to the shuttle when Iwana, another Hertz staffer, walks out from the back and introduces herself as the manager and asks if she can do anything.  I give her the story, and tell her what I am about to do, and she says, “Wait, I think we can make this happen”.  Now bear in mind that I have a $114 quote from SIXT in hand, and the Hertz on-line quote for the same car was $482.  Major, major difference, but heck, I’m game if she is.  So I follow her to her desk, we get chatting, I ask about her unique name, turns out she is Polish, she asks about my surname, I tell her I am Lithuanian, she breaks into a broad smile and says, “So is my boyfriend!  His family is from Vilnius.”   Well lo and behold that is where my grandfather came from, so suddenly the business barriers are breaking down left and right, and when all is said and done, I have an upgraded car for the same $114 price that SIXT quoted.  Amazing to find a little piece of Tijuana right here in London, ready to barter prices on rental cars!  K & I thank our new Lithuanian connection, load up the car, and head to our hotel to check in.

We pull out of the lot, with the “remember – drive on the left side” mantra ringing through my head, and we pull into the hotel lot a short while later.  Too early to get a room, we leave our bags with the concierge, change shirts and undies, and head out to our first destination – Windsor Castle.  First though we need to grab something to eat, and there is a McDonalds right there across the street, so I pop an illegal U-turn and suddenly we’re there!  We pull in the drive thru and immediately recognize that the woman in the car in front of us is having way too difficult a time placing her order.   Finally she gets past the ordering screen and moves forward, so we pull up and order a diet coke for dad and porridge with jam for K – something unique to the UK McDonalds.  Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned woman is having difficulties at the payment window, and finally, she gets into an argument with the guy giving her the order.  The manager apologizes for our delay, and suggests that it seems she is still celebrating New Years with a good buzz still going strong.  Needless to say, I’m glad to see her turn in the opposite direction of where we are heading.  Some people, eh?

OK, time to head off to the castle!  But first, I need to comment on our car.  It’s a Volkswagen Polo, diesel, five speed manual transmission, with the steering wheel on the right side.  It’s a blast to drive, although with the very short throw on the shifter and the left hand shifting, I manage to stall it a few times by trying to start out in third gear.  Getting in and out is a bit of a challenge, as this model was designed around someone a bi more compact than my 6’2”, 270# frame.  But we manage, and we have wheels, so all is good.  Now the highway system is something else, with a distinct lack of road signs, and a somewhat confusing (to a Yank) pattern of overhead signs on their equivalent of our interstate system.  But the best part?  They have round-a-bouts, hundreds and hundreds of them, so this really adds to the thrill of the drive!  Now while this feature might intimidate a lesser soul, I was born and raised in New Jersey the state that invented the traffic circle, so I felt right at home as we zipped in and around each one.  Of course, Kristen screaming, “Dad, you don’t have the right of way” as I accelerated into the passing traffic didn’t help my concentration, but we managed to survive each one, unscathed.  Can’t say that for the other drivers, but it was good for the tourists!  And even better, we opted to have Kristen learn her UK geography by using real maps, you know, the things you fold up in the glove box, and she just did fantastic in her navigation, learning the lay of the land at the same time.  Every trip with Dad is a learning experience, whether she wants one or not!

Well 70 miles and a couple of missed turns later, we park the car in downtown Windsor and walk up to the castle gates.  To say the place is a bit overwhelming is hardly doing it justice – this is medieval construction project on major steroids!  We head in, get our tickets, and opt for the self guided tour, and spend the next four hours just walking around this place, getting more amazed at every corner we turn.  The neatest part is that this is a working castle, not a museum, so all the massive dining halls, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, and galleries are really used on a regular basis, and the Queen Mother spends nearly four months a year in residence here, including extended weekends nearly every month, and a month or more in March and April – very cool.  Of course everything is much bigger than real life, but the amount of artwork, collections and displays truly leaves you in awe.  There is a huge display of clothing donated to the royal family over the years, and Kristen recognized so many of the names and designers I was amazed.  Ditto on the artwork, as she knew more facts and trivia about the artists than some of the castle staff did.  I was pretty dang proud to be in her company as she truly immersed herself in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And the staff was tremendously helpful, answering all the ‘deeper than the average tourist’ sort of questions I usually come up with on a tour like this, such as who are these people that live here (retired soldiers, rank of Major & above, who were awarded the Blue Garter for service to the country), or why are these bathrooms so big (because they get 8,000 plus visitors a day in the summer), or what are these Buckingham Palace-type guards actually guarding here (nothing, they are really ceremonial as the security is handled by all the police with the submachine guns in clear view), or who the heck had all the time and money to build this unbelievable dollhouse in the Queen’s apartment (it was a gift from the nobles…proving that political favoritism was active even back in the early 20th century), and finally, what’s with all the cannons and arrow-shooting slits – was this fort ever really attacked? (Yes, twice, both times by local barons and their followers revolting over taxes and other royal inequities – go figure!).  So we walked away with much learned and a really deep appreciation of the professionalism and knowledge of the staff here, which was proving to be the case nearly every place we stopped on this adventure.

Our plans after that were to head to Oxford and tour that area, but with the rain starting to fall, the sun going down, and me fading from the long over night flight, that thought of driving another 80 miles round trip and heading back in the dark is probably not the greatest idea, so we opt to call it a day and head back to the hotel.  I am hoping I can find someplace local that will be showing the Eagles game tonight on TV!

Well let me be the first to report that US football is not held in as nearly a high regard as that other form of football, so needless to say, none of the local pubs were showing the Birds whooping up on the Redskins tonight, but still good to end the season with another win and with the Birds finishing ahead of the Cowboys in the division!  That was enough fun for today so it’s off to catch some beauty rest before another big day tomorrow.

The weather forecast had predicted rain all day today, but once again, the gods were smiling upon us and we awoke to a bright sunny blue sky and fifty degree weather – perfect for a day of touring more of this beautiful country!  In the spirit of the poet Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep today.

But first things first, it’s out of the hotel parking lot (remember…left side, left side, left side!) and another quick U-turn to head into the local Mickie D’s for another porridge / jam / diet coke order. Kristen’s all over figuring out the myriad of coins and paper bills here (think Monopoly money) and we quickly settle up, and as I’m given my change, I suddenly feel ‘Six pence, none the richer!’  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The first destination on today’s list is the the Royal Pavilion, located about 80 miles southeast of London in the sea side city of Brighton, ranked as one of the top 10 city beaches in the world by major travel guides.  The drive down is lovely, with changing landscapes all along our ways, such a beautiful country this is.  The old architecture, rustic barns dating back hundreds of years, hedgerows between the fields of crops, wooded areas; it just really takes your breath away to be living in a history book.   We pull into Brighton, and drive past some phenomenal cathedrals as we pass through town.  We head right to the coast road, and park along the beach.  Mind you now, this is parallel parking, on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and I manage to ace it, first time.  Kristen is impressed!  But wait…there’s more!  “Check out the cool license plate on the car in front of us,” I tell her.  “Wow”, she says as she figures it out, “These guys drove here from Lithuania!”  How cool is that?

This place is beautiful and you don’t know where to look first!  We walk across the street to the beach, and here we are in for our first surprise – the entire beach is made of large rounded gravel.  There is not a grain of sand in sight!  At first I thought, this is interesting, they put gravel at the top of the seawall, but no, right into the sea it went.  How weird is this?  Not the most comfortable beach to lay on, and man, jamming your umbrella into the rocks must truly suck big time!  Definitely a beach for shoes to be worn, but hey, it’s a beach, so we’re loving it!  We walk along the world’s first and oldest electric railway, the Volks Railway, the oldest continuously operating one of its kind in the world, going into service back in 1883.  There’s at the huge 150 ft tall Brighton Ferris Wheel, offering fantastic views of the town and the beach, and the world famous Brighton Pier juts out hundreds of yards over the English Channel.  Located across the street is the Sea Life Aquarium, the first in the world, built for the British royalty back in the late 1800’s.  A hundred or more small restaurants, pubs, and shops line the street along the beach, and many more are located in the town.  Truly a place to come and spend a few days exploring, but that’s not on our itinerary for this trip.  We snap some photos as we walk to our destination – the Royal Pavilion.

If you were to Google examples of royal excess, this place would come up at the very top of your list.  The Royal Pavilion, the spectacular seaside palace of the Prince Regent (George IV) transformed by John Nash and a team of architects, designers and interior decorators, between 1815 and 1822 into one of the most dazzling and exotic buildings in the British Isles.  The Pavilion houses furniture and works of art including original pieces lent by Her Majesty The Queen and a magnificent display of Regency silver-gilt. The Royal Pavilion Tearoom, with its fabulous balcony, overlooks the Pavilion gardens, which have also been returned to their original Regency splendor.  Originally constructed as a local monument, known as the Marine Room in the early 1800’s. One of the most unique features of the design was the decision to leave the original obelisk domed structures in place and constructed a cast iron frame around their base to envelope the existing buildings and expand upon them.  This was revolutionary and the first time cast iron was ever used in a building structure……ok, ok….the engineer in me gets carried away sometimes!  Anyhow, the entire building was constructed and finished to recreate the look and feel of Indian, China and Southeast Asia, with bamboo, silk, ornate wood carvings and metal castings – you truly feel you are in a different land when you’re inside.  Decorated from head to toe with hand made silk wallpaper, ornate carved columns and woodwork, dedicated rooms for every fancy, the first steam heated kitchen, just about everything you could imagine was in there, clearly with no budgetary limitations whatsoever.  When royalty from other lands would visit, they would typically prepare over 100 main courses alone, just to make sure the visitors had something they liked – they had sample menus saved from some of the events for us to view.  And remember, this was before Tupperware, so the waste just had to be absolutely phenomenal from these events.  Again, we’re talking no budgetary restraints here whatsoever.  Check out more on the website link above to learn about this fantastic place.

And of course some interesting military history to be found here also.  During the Great War (WWl) the British Army was significantly outnumbered, so they drew upon the resources of the vast British Empire and brought in troops from the colonies.  One of the biggest contributors was India, who sent tens of thousands of troops to fight alongside (and when possible, in front of) the British soldiers.  They served in the European theater from the onset of hostilities in 1914 through 1916, at which point they were transferred to Africa and the Middle East campaigns.  During this time though, the army needed to expand their hospital network, and the pavilion proved to be a perfect setting for the East Indian troops.  And just like today, no one could really get along – between the Sikh’s, Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Meat-Eating Muslim’s, and a few more sects, plus the ‘untouchables’ that did the dirty work, the hospital had to maintain nine different kitchens, different slaughterhouses (some animals killed by chopping off head, others had to have the spinal cord left intact, so many religious variations), independent water supplies (they could not even share a tap!) and separate laundries, cremation grounds and more.  It is no wonder they are still fighting amongst themselves today over there.  This was just crazy but neat to see that the religious extremists we see on the news today are hardly new items – these are some deep rooted beliefs and issues at work here.

Three hours (and a hundred questions to the staff) later, we strolled back to the car, and then embarked on a seaside drive along the coast, before turning inland to head towards Salisbury and Stonehenge.  We got a little fouled up in our navigation along the way, and with the sun heading towards the horizon, we decided a potty break at the McDonalds in Southampton would give us a chance to ask some locals for directions.  So we take care of business and ask the staff working the counter how to get to Salisbury, and you can immediately tell from the expressions that these guys were probably not candidates to appear on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.  They mumbled amongst themselves, and then finally the one who appeared to be the leader of the pack says, “That’s pretty far away.  We’re not sure how to get there.”  Mind you now, it turns out we are 21 miles from Salisbury, but this collective group of young folks in this village have not only never traveled that far from home, but have no concept of how to get there either.  Geeez!   We’re about to head out the door to figure this out ourselves when one fellow comes up and says “I can help you”. Although he cannot give us directions all the way to Salisbury, he can, however get us to a town that is nearly ten miles up the road, and he knows there will be signs for our destination to be found there.  We get in the car, and Kristen comments, “That was unbelievable.  I go to a school 1,000 miles from home, and here, you’d have to circumnavigate this country to get that many miles on your odometer.  Amazing that these people we asked have never left the village!”   I concur, but at least we are pointed in the right direction, these crazy Americans, and with true international explorer spirit, we’re going to make it to Salisbury and beyond!

Back on the road, we make it over the horizon to the new land beyond, and find ourselves rolling into the lovely village of Salisbury.  In addition to our sightseeing, we have a few assignments to complete during this condensed visit.  Kristen needs a local cell phone, and a hair dryer.  Argos, the UK version of Circuit City, has been recommended as the place to go, so we’ve kept our eyes open for a location during our drives.  Suddenly, on the opposite side of the ‘dual carriageway’ (divided highway) we spot on, so time for another U-turn and we find ourselves pulling into the lot.  Into the store we go, and knowing we are like lambs in the woods here, I grab the first staffer I see and ask if he could help us out.  “I sure can’”, he responds, “Just give me a moment.”  So we mull about, and sure enough, Dan, our newest British acquaintance, is true to his word and comes out to find us.  We explain what we are looking for in a phone, and he walks us through the process and the plans and we end up with one that will work.  As I am wandering the store, he’s put the sales charm on K, and she ends up not only with her hair dryer, but a straightener and a few other things too.  But wait, the phone we got appears to need a SIM card, and they are out of stock.  “Hold on,” Dan says, as he bolts out the front door of the store.  That was odd, I am thinking, but he’s back in a minute and says, “OK, I went to the Car Phone store at the other end of the shopping center and checked – they are open and they have the SIM card.”  Talk about service above and beyond, I guess it helps that Kristen is cute – I should take her shopping with me more often.  So we finish up our business here, and walk down to the Car Phone store, only to find that today, the day after New Years, is a bank holiday, so they cannot process credit card sales. Now someone surely missed the mark on that one, we laugh, and head back to the car.  Fast forward – turns out there is a SIM card packaged with the phone, so we end up with service before the night is over.

Back on the road we continue into the village, where the highlight is the Salisbury Cathedral, at 404 ft tall, it is the tallest church in the UK, and more impressive than that, it was built as a fast-track project, completed in only 38 years, in 1320.  We pull the car over along the massive structure, get out and walk around the beautiful grounds, snap a few jillion photos, and finally we move on to find a parking spot, as K has chosen a restaurant from her guidebook for us in this town – the Haunch of Venison.  Not sure where it is, so we pop our head into a local convenience store and ask, and a friendly woman says, “I’m walking that way, I’ll take you.”  You cannot ask for a more helpful, friendlier, more interactive experience than we have encountered at every step along this adventure, and it’s not over yet.  We walk along with our new friend, chatting about the town and other matters, and sure enough, she points us right in the direction of our destination, which, by the way, she recommends highly also, and points out it is an original English Pub, not like these chains they have today! We like that!

This is arguably the oldest hostelry in all of England, and it’s really a hole in the wall sort of place.  They have been open and operating for 700 years, since 1320.  That is almost incomprehensible – makes you wonder if one day someone will find themselves sitting in a  TGIFridays or Chili’s and thinking back over the last 700 years of serving the public…..NOT!   Anyhow, back to today…tourist test number one is getting in the front doors, which are spaced so closely in the tiny foyer that only one person can get in at a time, and you have to close the one door behind you to make room to open the next one.  Obviously, they have no real fire code requirements here!  But we’re finally in, and the eyes are on us – they don’t get many Americans here.  This place can hold maybe 16 people max, in two little areas, that are not even connected, you have to go back outside to get from one corner of the bar to the other.  A cute little fireplace, some locals with their dogs, a pewter-topped bar (the only one in England, it is pointed out by one of the locals), and an array of beers on tap, none of which, for anyone who knows my tastes, that I’ll enjoy.  But K does fine, sampling a number of the local stouts and brews, each with a story behind it.   They don’t start serving meals until six, so we’ve got nearly an hour to hang in the bar.  It’s kinda funny, one person says something to us, then another, and finally nearly the whole bar is talking to us, asking questions, telling stories…they truly don’t get a lot of outsiders here!  We do find out that they have had American visitors in the past, mainly during the Second World War, when there were numerous airfields built around the town, and the US airmen’s presence is noted in the old B17 radio cabinets that now serve as bases for some of the taps at the bar – pretty darn cool to see!  We’re really enjoying ourselves here, learning of the local history, local events, political views, culinary recommendations and more, and keep at it until K’s stomach rumblings become obvious – her last meal, other than this morning’s porridge – was a bowl of soup from room service last evening.  She did inherit her dad’s eating habits, once a day if needed, and doesn’t whine about missing meals, which makes her a perfect traveling companion for me.  For dinner K goes with a stuffed squash, about the size of a football (American-version) and I choose the trademark, haunch of venison.  My meal is delicious, with local venison filets prepared just right, along with all the sides.  Great dining choice, Kristen!

Well we’ve got a ninety-mile ride to get home in front of us, but with two days of wrong-side driving practice, it’s a cakewalk, even with the round-a-bouts and sometimes difficult to understand traffic signage.  We pull back into the Sheraton at midnight and put our heads down for our final rest before K heads off to school in the morning.

Tuesday morning comes and it begins with a celebration – it’s my birthday!  It’s raining and dreary out, a perfect day to conclude the fun part of the trip and get down to the more serious purpose – to deliver Ms K to school.  We’re up early, fueling up the car at the local “petrol” station, and then working our way through rush hour traffic to her dorm residence.  Her navigating skills again prove to be pretty good, and dad is pretty cool about when we miss turns and need to backtrack, so it’s a positive experience overall.  She meets the woman in charge of housing and her room is not quite ready, so we hang for a bit in the student hall.  Another young lady arrives, a native of Hawaii who is attending college in Boston, and she is here for her semester abroad also, so K immediately bonds and the two of them strike it off well.  Seeing she is in good hands, it’s time for me to head back to the airport to return the car and catch my flight, so I bid my #1 princess goodbye and get back on the road for my last run.  Car is returned without a glitch, and I shuttle over to Heathrow.

Well the gods of fate continue to shine on this mission as the good folks at Delta upgrade my seat to first all the way home, a perfect way to celebrate a most wonderful start of the new year.  Life is definitely good!


A Journey to the Sacred Land of the Mayans

Four long, dry days working in the salt mines of Harleysville, and I know it is time for a change.  What to do, what to do, what to do…OK – I got it- let’s go diving!!!  The Mexican Riviera is calling is calling sweetly, so Team IVS packs up and gets ready to head south to the land of the Mayans for nine days of extraordinary diving in the Akumal region.

Our plans are to fly into Cancun a day early to save a bundle on airfare, and then drive south approximately 70 miles to Akumal.  But wait, I am thinking, why wait 70 miles to moisten our gills?  We can start our trip with some diving right in Cancun, then, properly hydrated (no, not in ‘that’ way!), we’ll make the drive further down the road for the balance of the trip.

And actually Cancun has been on the list for some time now to check out as a potential destination for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip.  So we can do some reconnaissance diving and information gathering while we are here, better to serve the needs and desires of the IVS family of divers.  Yes, I know, it is work, but the sacrifice is the least we can do for the folks back home.

And before you all start thinking this Dave Valaika must have some sort of deathwish, marching off into yet another land of banditos and revolutions like my recent jaunt through Egypt, let me assure you that once again, the advertising departments at CNN and FOX News have gone all out to make it appear that Mexico is all but lost to the drug cartels, and no gringo will come out alive if you go there.  Nothing can be further from the truth, and there is nothing of that sort anywhere on the entire Yucatan peninsula, including the tourist-dependent Mayan Riviera.  The biggest fear you need to worry about here is how bad that great new suntan is going to hurt tomorrow, or are you sure that you packed your Pepto-Bismal!  So Americans everywhere, please take notice:  Mexico is open for business! Come visit!

So, my Public Service Announcement out of the way, I dig into my bag of resources, and the best dive operator in Cancun comes to mind, Scuba Cancun, owned and operated by my good friend Thomas Hurtado.  In fact, I had just seen Tom at the Beneath the Sea show and he had given me heck for not getting down there yet, so how fortuitous is this that we’re going to be in the ‘hood’ this very weekend!  We’ll be staying at the Hotel Casa Maya for the night and our plans for tomorrow are two deep reef dives, followed by a special dive in the Cancun Underwater Museum, an undersea art project created by Jason deCaires Taylor. I’ve seen it advertised and talked about for years, and now we’re going to have a chance to check it our up close and personal.

From there, the balance of our week will be spent at Villas de Rosa, a fantastic oceanfront property designed, built and operated by Tony DeRosa. Conveniently located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, it offers easy access to all the major cenote systems that riddle the Quintana Roo area, plus the beautiful reefs of the Caribbean Sea right outside our doors.

So our flight is booked down for 10:15 Friday morning, out of Philadelphia.  Brian LaSpino, a man who’s always up for a thrill, decides to throw caution to the winds and drive down to the airport with me and catch the same flight.  Something tells me he is not a regular reader of the blog, that, or he has some short-term memory issues we might have to address!  But none the less, we book our flights together, and agree to meet at the shop early Friday morning to being our adventure.  We verify the flight departure time, back up the baggage check-in cutoff, add some time for parking and the shuttle, consider the rush hour traffic we’ll be driving in, and then, get this, round up a little for comfort, finally deciding to depart at 7:00 in the morning.

So tell me, what is wrong with this picture?  It is 6:45, and I am sitting on the deck at the dormitory, bags stacked neatly alongside me, reading the paper, and with nothing to do but wait for Brian.  Here I am, tapping my toes, checking my watch…where is Brian!!  I check my pulse, and verify that I’m not dreaming – yes, I am ready, early and ahead of schedule.  Sensing this must be some sort of sign, it’s probably going to snow in Mexico this week.

So I wait and finally around 7:25 Brian comes rolling in, and asks what time I’m really planning on heading to the airport. OK, faith is restored – he really DOES read the blog!!  But there’s no need to build the anxiety this morning, and my plan is to give the adrenalin glands the day off, so I suggest we just climb into the truckster and get on the road.  It’s 7:45 as we pull out of the parking lot.

So ready for the dramatic report from the ride to the airport?  There is none!  This morning is starting off waaay weird, nothing is stressful, traffic is flowing well, speed limit is observed, and parking is readily available.  TSA is, well, the TSA, and we observe some arguments over break times, and I speak out, loudly, saying “Hey, America’s security is at stake here, perhaps we can all focus on our real jobs here”.  That scores me some nasty looks from the boys and girls in blue, and Brian cringes, in anticipation of that less-than-gentle body cavity search that may be in the making.  Alas, nothing comes of it, and we pass through.  First stop is the brand spanking new Delta Crown Room at the Philadelphia airport, a year in the making, and it is a nice relaxing oasis in the hustle and bustle of the airport scene.  We get some complimentary breakfast items there, and before you know it, it’s time to stroll down the terminal and board our flight to Atlanta.

Once we land, it is a bit of a hustle to get across the airport and catch our flight to Cancun.  And as it turns out in the small world department, the flight attendant is a diver, and she and I swap stories and exchange emails with the hopes of diving together somewhere down the road.  Then Daryl sitting next to me wants to learn about diving, and next Michelle and Fred, a couple from Maryland sitting in the row in front of me, turn around and start talking diving.  Turns out they are divers and coming to vacation with their non-diving daughter Nicole, and her equally non-diving boyfriend Brian.  They were concerned about who they were going to dive with here, and as you might imagine, we cleared that concern up right away – they’re coming diving with us!  What a cool sport this is, and to share it with others is all that much better!  Well after another 2 1/2 hours in the air, and we touch down in the Land of the Mayans, Mexico.

Meanwhile, as we work our way through the serpentine line at immigration, Nichole comes up to me and asks how deep she would have to go if she tried diving with me.  Her parents were talking to her, and after listening to “no way” for so many years, they are shocked that she is ready to try it!  So now we’ll be doing a Discover Scuba for her and her boyfriend on Monday too!  Meanwhile Brian has been talking to his seatmate and passing out IVS cards brochures so we’ve got some other interest brewing from the “back of the plane gang” too.  This trip is picking up already and we’re not even wet yet!

Finally we make it to the front, and after the cursory rubber-stamping immigration process we gather our bags and then get to play the baggage rummaging lottery.  Press the button next to the nice man with the latex gloves on, and if you get a green light, you are good to go, but if it comes up red, you can count on everything you packed getting re-arranged as they dig through every nook and cranny in your suitcases.  Thankfully my honkin’ Pelican cases, crammed to the gills, get the green light, and my careful packing earlier this morning won’t be disturbed.  Brian clears also, and we head out to the taxi station.

Of course it would not be Mexico without some negotiation, so our cab fare starts out ‘astronomical’, then after some back & forthness, we negotiate a better rate, get the extra bag fees waived, and the price to take the two of us to our hotel is manageable.  We pile into the shuttle van, and immediately you know you are not in Kansas anymore – there are eight of us in the cab, including a young man from Australia, two girls from Bulgaria, a couple from Germany, and three Americans – a pretty neat international mix right from the start!  Our hotel for the night is the last one on Cancun’s hotel row, so we get to see a lot of nice properties as we drop off the others one by one.

We pull up and are greeted by Tony Smith, one of our other divers on this trip, who flew in earlier today from Philadelphia.  At the front desk we are welcomed by Raymundo the group manager, and we’re quickly set up in some very nice rooms overlooking the pool and the ocean – sweet! A quick dinner and we all head off early to bed to get a good start on our first day of diving tomorrow.  But not without first sharing the view from my room:

Saturday comes and it is an absolutely glorious morning.  We get our gear ready and leave our bags for the hotel to watch while we are diving today.  A short walk across the street and we are standing in Scuba Cancun, our dive operator for today’s activities.  There we meet Tom, the owner, and get the complete nickel tour of his dive center.  It is part of a many-faceted family business empire, and has been operating in Cancun for 31 years now.  It’s the second largest dive operation in eastern Mexico, and judging from the excellent customer service and attitudes we see everywhere, it’s easy to understand why is has been so successful.

Today we’ll be doing three dives, one wreck, one reef, and one visit to the Underwater Museum.  We load our gear on one of their five boats, a nice 65 ft long former crew boat from the oil industry.  These boats are popular at so many dive centers and make great platforms to work from.  All loaded, we get our briefing from Lars, who will be one of our dive guides. Lars is from Switzerland, via Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, so he’s a pretty interesting dive professional.  Pablo will be our other guide,  and we are joined by Herb, a former Texan who currently resides and Indiana and is down here for a little vacation.  There is also a group of locals on board, who will diving with two more guides, plus a videographer, so there’s plenty of staff to go around. The seas are relatively flat and the water is a stunning shade of blue, and we enjoy our thirty minute ride out.

Pulling up to the site of our wreck dive, the current is ripping, so the decision is made to abort the dive and head to a reef location in hope of better conditions.  We head over to Punta Negral, and hot-drop off the boat, knowing this will certainly be a drift dive with the currents.  Down we go to about 60 ft, and the reef is a serious of ridges and drop-offs, not too much vertical, but plenty to look at and covered with fish.  The currents are mixed and confused, and we sail along, working hard to not work hard, enjoying the dive and letting the water take us where it wants to.  Some nice morays, lobster, crabs, smaller fish, barracuda, and all the other typical Caribbean sea life provide a nice visual backdrop for us as we enjoy 50 minutes of bottom time in the 80 degree clear water.

All too soon we must return to the surface and we head over to our second location.  A little off-gassing on board, and sensing the crew might be operating on Mexican time, I decide to speak up and say, “Hey, my computer’s beeping – it’s time to dive again!”  Smart move, Dave, cause that inspires the crew to wrap up siesta time, and we’re back in the water in 30 minutes for dive #2.   Location #2 is a site called Granpin, because it supposedly resembles some sort of anchor, but we see no evidence of this at all.  It is, however, a real pretty dive site, and the current for the most part is much better here, allowing us to enjoy a lot of swim through’s and more pretty reefs.  Once we are done with the site we position ourselves above the reef, and enjoy a high-speed sail across the flats, with current probably approaching 4 knots – very cool to just hang upside down and backwards, enjoying a bit of a psychedelic visual as the sea floor flies by you.

Back to the dock, we enjoy a light lunch from the snack shop as the boat prepares for the afternoon trip.  We’ll be joined by some folks doing a Discover Scuba, and some others in an Open Water certification class, as we head out to a shallow, sandy site where the Underwater Museum is located.  Again, it’s a thirty minute ride out, and we tie up to a mooring above the site.  With the increased pressure on the reefs due to the popularity of diving in the area (not to mention the less-than-stellar buoyancy skills of many of those divers) the local diving community had looked at artificial reef options as a way to expand the diveable areas and reduce the impact to the natural reefs.  At the same time, the art community had an idea about doing something under the sea, and wouldn’t you know it – the two factions got together and hatched the idea for the Underwater Museum.  Funded by both government and private sources, the project moved forward with great efficiency (a rarity considering where it was taking place) and from last fall to today over 400 statues have been placed on the sea floor.  Built on hexagonal concrete bases approx 10 ft square, each contains about six life-size concrete statues of people depicting many aspects of life and careers.  Each block is butted up to the next, so you have a vast field of people standing on the bottom of the ocean – very  surreal indeed!  The sea has evidently approved of the project, and the surfaces are covered with early stages of sponges, some corals, and algae, and serve as homes and hiding places for schools of small fish.  Although the site itself is quite small, it’s still interesting enough for us to spend 70 minutes at 28 ft, examining the artwork, playing in the rocks and rubble that surround it, and observing the other divers and wanna-be divers cavorting in the water alongside us.

Let’s just say that it was pretty clear that these were not Indian Valley Scuba instructors at work here, as we witnessed some excellent breath holds during the regulator recovery and mask removal skills, none of which were caught by the staff.  Gauges dragging, over-weighted students standing and laying on the bottom, I was thankful indeed that we were not on a reef.  The sad news is that these folks will be getting c-cards and now taking these non-skills out to wreak havoc on what we love so much about the sea.  OK, off my soap box now.

Back on board, Brian, always working that mojo, engages one couple who were doing a DSD today and really loved it.  Turns out they live in New Jersey, and before you know it, emails are exchanged, cards are swapped, and Bev can be expecting a call from two new students who want to join the IVS family!  Nice work Brian!!  The trip back to the dock is quiet and scenic, right until we cross paths with a big catamaran out on a booze cruise,a and realize that nearly everyone on board is naked or near naked.  That inspires our captain to turn around and circle the catamaran again, making sure we were not confused over what we saw – yep, drunken naked people!  Pretty funny addition to the afternoon, and we return to Scuba Cancun’s dock to unload and say goodbye’s all around.

Meanwhile Roberto, our driver from Villas de Rosa, has arrived and is waiting to whisk us south to our next destination.  We gather our gear that the hotel has been carefully watching all day, and climb aboard for the ninety minute ride.  Tony DeRosa Sr, the owner of the resort, greet us when we arrive, and they have our room ready for us.  We get our paperwork completed with Tony Jr and his long-term Canadian/Russian squeeze, the lovely Mila, shows us to our condo.  Living large is an understatement for our accommodations this week, as we have a three-bedroom, three-bath condo with a huge deck right on the beach. Big kitchen, dining area, living room, we will certainly not get in each others way here!  We also get to spend a little time with our other two divers, who actually came down a week earlier, and are checking out today, Staci from Lake Tahoe and her daughter.  They had a wonderful week enjoying the cenotes and the reefs here, and can’t say enough about the service and accommodations they enjoyed at the resort.  The kitchen stepped up and took care of their strict vegan diets, and the dive team made it a mom/daughter vacation to remember!  So great to hear!

Dinner is served up to us in our condo, and we call it an early night.  Morning comes and we enjoy a dramatic sunrise, rising from the sea right in front of our east-facing condo; it doesn’t get any better than this!  Plans for today are a couple of cenote dives this morning and a visit to the reef after lunch.  We busy ourselves swapping our gear configurations for the caverns, grab some breakfast, mix up some delicious Divers D\Lyte for the day, and get ready to jump in the van to start this next phase of our adventure!

But wait!  It is a most beautiful day here, and the seas are absolutely flat!  So our host suggests we take advantage of these conditions and do some ocean diving today, since the weather can’t be counted on to be so nice every day.  So we re-configure our gear, haul it the long 40 yards to the beach, and load it in a 24 ft panga (open boat with outboard engine) that they brought up for us.  We get connected with Tito, who will be our personal guide and diving sidekick for the week, and Carlos, who will be our boat driver whenever we go out on the reef.  We load up the tanks, push off, and head out, enjoying some spectacular views as we motor the 15 minutes to our first site.

The boat is a little small, and the gunwales a little low, for getting all geared up on board, so we just inflate our BCD’s and toss our kits overboard, then roll off the boat in mask and fins.  We put on our gear in the water one final group buddy check, and then it’s thumbs down as we drop into the 200 plus feet of visibility  that greets us.  This site is called the canyons and it is appropriate, as the cuts between the vast fields oh healthy coral drop down 20 or 30 feet, making for some really fantastic diving conditions.  Our depth here is 90 ft, and we spend 50 minutes taking in our first taste of Akumal reef diving.  We like it!!

After that we head back to shore to get a second set of tanks, and push right back off for dive #2.  Another short ride, another great dive at a site called The Iglasius (the churches) named for all the dramatic arches and swim-throughs here.  Very, very nice, and Tito is very cool, allowing us to dive our computers and run our own dives, as he just swims along like one of us.  This is going to be a great week!  Finally, 70 minutes later, we surface from the 50 ft deep site, and climb back on board for the lunch run.

Lunch is served up poolside with some delicious butterflied chicken steaks and all the fixing’s – food is NOT going to be an issue here.  The cook is very accommodating, and has all my dietary quirks written down (no onions, no peppers, no guacamole) so he’ll be preparing “near-Mexican” dishes for me this week.   We kick back for a bit after eating, respecting mom’s rule “No scuba diving for 30 minutes after you eat” or something like that.  But soon enough, it’s time to head back out!

This time Tito figures out we are not going to give up easily, and we load two sets of tanks for the afternoon’s dives.  First stop is Dief Reef, similar to the others, and we get 60 minutes at 55 feet in.  Some very friendly turtles here, and Brian work’s on our PETA endorsement with some great critter interaction.

Finally, stop #4 for the day is Akumal Reef, and after a long 30 minutes of surface interval, we head back under for another 70 minutes at 55 feet.  OK, some of us enjoyed 70 minutes, that list being limited to the guy using the Cochran computer!  The NDL’s on the others tended to be a little more conservative, so I waved them all good bye and enjoyed the last part of the dive alone with the fishes! Finally time to head in, and enjoy dinner served up on the beach, with a beautiful moon over the ocean to accompany us.

Sweet!  Monday morning and breakfast is served in our condo dining room – this is living the good life for sure!  This trip might have been a bad idea, cause it sure will be hard to get Brian back into the IVS salt mines next week! Our first order of the day is to get some cenote diving in, so we load the gear in the van and get ready to head down the road.  But wait, no IVS story is complete without a little twist, and here’s this mornings: our van has California plates, and is registered in the US.  Mexicans are not allowed to drive American cars here under the insurance laws.  So go figure, who is our designated driver for the week?  Captain Dave of course!  Look out Mexico!!

So, map in hand, and Brian on board to translate the Spanish instructions, we head down the road to Dos Ojos (two eyes) one of the more famous of the cenote systems that riddle the area.  This is part of an immense underwater aquifer, with passages and channels cut through the limestone substrate millions of years of slightly acidic rainfall, creating a myriad of flooded tunnels to explore, some easily, and some not nearly so easily.  And as the earth has warmed and cooled over time, and the polar caps formed, melted, and then reformed to their current sizes, the sea levels rose and fell accordingly.  So at one point in earth’s timeline, this entire region was under the sea, and the actual ground we walk on here is actually formed of the old skeletal remains of coral reefs from days gone by.  When the water levels dropped to provide the water for the ice caps, the Yucatan rose from the sea.  Years of rainfall helped cut the passages, but it was the millions of years of leaks dripping through the cave ceilings that really added the silent majesty and beauty to the cenotes, creating thousands of stalagtites and stalagmites, some forming floor-to-ceiling columns and others just hanging down from the ceilings or rising up from the cave floors.

Although they have existed for tens of thousands of years, it was only recently that divers began crawling into holes, and down wells, to see what laid below the surface here.  And we are thankful they did!!!  Most of the major cenote systems have been explored to some extent in recent years, and as they have been, steps have been taken to help ensure the safety of divers using them, and the sanctity of these natural aquatic art museums.  Permanent guide lines, also know as “gold lines” due to the diving community standardizing the color, have been put in place along the cave floors, marking a clear path to follow that positively leads back home, to help avoid making a wrong turn and ending up as another pile of bones down some dark passage, as you can often discover during your dives here (although those bones are mostly that of animals, thank you).

So here at Dos Ojos, the site is named for the two areas that open to the surface, which, if viewed from above, are two circles, hence the “two eyes” name.  How those early Mayans got airborne to see that view I have no idea, but we’ll just accept that fact.  There are two major loop routes here, all starting and ending back at the smaller of the two open eyes, with permanent lines tracing a nice long path through the underground cenote systems and back.  There are many side passages and long dead-end tunnels that go off from the main route, but these are considered true caves from a diving perspective, and require significantly higher levels of training and preparedness in order to safely execute dives in these areas.  The cavern portions of the dives are primarily defined as being not further than 200 ft from an area where you can surface, and not having passageways so tight that only one diver can pass through at a time.  Additionally, there is some source of outside light that can be located when you are in the passageways, although the key word there is “some” cause in some areas it is not much at all!

So we brief our team with the overall plan, familiarize them with the site layout and what to expect down below, and walk on down to take a look at the final staging area and cenote entrance.  There are quite a few divers there already, and snorkelers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing, crystal clear water.  Listening to the various conversations taking place around us it is amazing how many different languages and accents you hear – cave diving is truly an international sport and draws folks from many lands, near and far.  All geared up, we do a final equipment check, and head down the path to the entrance.

Two dives are planned here this morning, one on each of the loops. The first route will be around past the “Barbie Line”, named for a jump that leads off to a beautiful cave system. We slip into the water, and perform a bubble check on each other, making sure none of our precious gas is leaking from a hose or fitting, cause there’s no early exits from some of the points on this dive.  All good, we drop down, and enjoy 50 minutes of touring through this beautiful system.  Brian’s new mb-sub cave light truly illuminates our path, and shows off the fantastic structures that draw folks here year after year. Maximum depth is only 26 feet but the distance we cover is non-stop eye-popping geo-art to the max!  Love it!

We come up and while the boys are switching tanks, I enjoy my doubles and get a 20 minute solo dive in down one of the passages, playing with the fish that live there, and checking out the tiny critters that live in the nooks and crannies and under the rocks here.  Finally the men return, and it’s time for dive #2 (or 3, for me).  This time we head down the “bat cave” line, and get another 45 minutes in the deeper portion of the cenote, at 39 feet max.  Great couple of dives to start the day, and we re-load the van and head back, stopping at a local market to pick up some supplies for our condo.

And speaking of hydration as we weren’t, once again we have brought a supply of Divers D\Lyte with us on this trip, to help maintain a healthy balance of hydration, electrolytes and nutrition.  This product, developed by our friend John Dooley, has taken off like a rocket in the scuba diving community, and we are proud to share it with others everywhere we go, planting the seed for future Divers D\Lyte believers across the globe!  In fact, here you can see Tito our dive guide enjoying the product, as well as a smokin’ model quality shot of yours truly with some great product promotion! And, just in case you don’t believe in proper hydration, you can walk around all day like a Michael Jackson look-alike with your pink umbrella – name withheld to protect the innocent, Tony!

OK enough of that scary thought!  Sorry children, it is safe to come out now!   Meanwhile our new friends from our flight, the Banner family, have driven down to Villas de Rosa to dive with us this afternoon.  Fred & Michelle are certified divers, and today their daughter Nikki and her boyfriend Ryan would like to see if diving might be the sport for them.  So, since this is a ‘business trip’ and NOT a ‘vacation’, Brian and I will conduct an open water Discover Scuba Diving for the two of them, along with a refresher for mom & dad.  We get a couple of sets of rental gear together from the local inventory, and head poolside for the first part of our DSD.   Paperwork is, of course, completed, and then we go through Scuba 101 for our two new candidates.  Physics, physiology, equipment, environment, we cover all the key points to help ensure a safe and fun experience in the ocean today.  Brian leads them through their skills in the pool and everyone is looking good.  Lunch is served poolside, and the anticipation builds for our open water fun!

We haul the gear down to the panga on the beach, load up, and pile the bodies in.  A quick briefing before we head out, questions are answered, and we fire up the 60 HP Yamaha outboard.  The wind has picked up a bit so it’s a wet and bumpy ride on out, but the viz is forever as we pass over the reef.  We choose a shallow site, Cabasas Malos (Bad Heads) where the maximum depth is 40 ft, and drop our anchor to try to reduce the surface drift while we get everyone set up.  Gear is tossed overboard, followed by the bodies and, and Brian and I make sure our new divers are all hooked up and looking good.  Regulators in, thumbs down, and we drop below the beautiful blue water to the reef.  No issues on descent, clearing is good, weighting is right on, and we get our buoyancy neutral above the reef.  Big OK’s all around, everyone is smiling, so let’s go see what we can see! The conditions are great for a first open water experience, and there’s plenty of sea life to entertain our newest divers.  We end up spending 45 minutes on this dive, surfacing with plenty of air all around, and pile back into the boat for the ride in.

The ride was a bit more than our friends had counted on, so once we are back at the beach, they make a wise decision to leave it at one dive today, and forego the second trip.  Well the ocean is calling our names, so it’s hugs and handshakes all around, and the three of us pile back in for another go at it!  Dive site is Islas Akumal, and we get another 70 minutes in (OK, I get another 70 minutes in, but those last 20 minutes were a solo dive as my dive buddies have all abandoned me) at a max depth of 55 ft to wrap up another beautiful day of diving in Akumal.

Another excellent dinner served to us in our condo, log books are filled out, photos downloaded, and off to bed to rest up for tomorrow’s activities – ALL cenotes!!

We’ve made an executive decision to not waste time by coming back to the resort for lunch today, and just staying out and enjoying our day of diving.  This lets us enjoy a more leisurely start and we finally get on the road around 10:00 to head south our first stop today, in the Chac Mool area.  Here they have an extensive cenote system, and our first dive will actually be in Kukulkan cenote.

Different than yesterday’ dives in Dos Ojos, here we have fewer ‘decorations’ as the formations are known as, but another feature which adds some spice to this particular dive – a heavy halocline that permeates most of the route.  A halocline is the technical term for when a layer of fresh water sits on top of a layer of salt water, which, even though the salt water is significantly warmer, the heavier density of the liquid keeps it from rising up on top of the fresh water.  But it is the actual zone between the two liquids that is the coolest, as the two waters are intermixed, creating a layer of liquid with varying refractive properties.  In appearance it is similar to the heat waves that rise off a hot desert or highway in the sun, and the net result is that our eyes cannot focus through the medium, no matter how hard we try.  It’s like someone smeared vaseline on the front of our masks, and you can’t even read your gauges, it is that strong an effect.  Dip your head below it, into the salt water, and the visibility is as clear as above it, in excess of 200 ft or more in most of the caves.  Same when your head is above it too!  But because the caves tend to follow paths that go up and down quite a bit, we pass through or swim through this layer multiple times in the particular cenote, so it is a good test of your confidence as a diver and ability to relax to know to just keep swimming and eventually you’ll be able to see again – very cool (OK, at least to me!!).  Here’s a pretty cool video that shows how this cenote, and the halocline, appears to the divers.

We spend 22 minutes at a maximum depth of 48 ft with our first traverse through the system, then catch our breath and debrief a bit before we head back to where we started, taking another 20 minutes to return to our starting point.

We climb out of the cenote and most of the gang heads back to the van to swap tanks.  I am diving in full cave gear as required by local law to lead these dives, including double tanks, so I just slip into the next cenote, Chac Mool, and hang out and chat with some of the other divers there while awaiting my team’s return.  Finally everyone is back, and we head into this system, which is similar to the first, and enjoy 71 minutes of this silent underwater splendor, with a max depth of 44 ft., before we climb out of the cenote and pile the gear in the van for the next top on our cenote-a-thon experience.

But first, a little more about Brian and his mojo!  While we were first setting up our gear, Brian strikes up a conversation with the gringo’s who are parked next to us. Turns out that Shawn, from Toronto, is an avid photographer, and is using an Olympus camera in an aftermarket housing.  He comments to Brian that he wished Olympus made a housing for his camera, and Brian, says “Did you know that they do make that?”.  Turns out Shawn had been misinformed by his local dive shop, and as a result has been suffering through with a mis-matched housing and camera setup.  Brian speaks with authority, as IVS is the North American distributor for Olympus Underwater Imaging systems, and Brian fields questions from customers on the product line daily.  Well they are waiting for us when we return from our dive, and before you know it, business cards are swapped, and Shawn is writing down his address for us to ship a new housing to him when we return to the states,  Way to go Brian! – he makes me soooo proud!!

The next stop on our hit parade is the Ponderosa Cenote, also known as Jardin de Eden (Garden of Eden), just a few minutes drive from Chac Mool.  Another little gate, another little entrance fee, and we head on in.  This is a very pretty spot, with a huge open swimming area, a high cliff for the kids to jump off of into the water (gotta watch that when diving underneath them!) and a nice dock and ladders for our entries and exits.  We set up and slip into the crystal clear water, and head into the cavern area, under the cliff (avoiding the bodies dropping down from above!).  It is another beautiful site, with a long swim through one portion of the cave system, then through a smaller open cenote, and finally into the entrance to the deeper cave system.  A great dive with 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 39 ft.

We cruise from there to our last stop on today’s trip, at Tajma Ha cenote.  Often mis-spelled (and misunderstood) as Taj Mahal, the name is really Tajma Ha, with ‘Ha’ being the Mayan word for ‘of the water’.  Sorry to debunk that myth for anyone who wrote Taj Mahal in their logbooks!  OK, enough of the linguistics lesson, on to the dive!  This is probably one of my personal favorites in the Mayan Peninsula cenote system, and once we get it, the rest of the crew quickly agree.  You actually will pass through three separate cenotes as you dive through, with a maximum depth of 47 feet.  Several of the cenotes are not open to the sky, but rather end up in air-filled caverns above the water, filled with beautiful hanging formations, tree roots streaming down, and of course, bats!  Bats everywhere!  Can’t have a good cenote without having a lot of bats, and we are not disappointed here!  Besides the “dry” areas, there is so much to see in this cenote system, with fantastic decorations, huge collapses and piles of rocks, and cross-sections of the geological stratification that has taken place over time as this system was created by nature.  In a word:  Sweet!

That’s enough for today with five dives in four cenotes, and we head back for another great dinner, some debriefing time, and photo downloading from the cameras – look for some great stuff in the gallery – soon!

Wednesday now, and time to get out and explore some more cenotes!!  Today the kitchen staff has packed a lunch for us, so we don’t have to go hungry while out exploring for the day.  We load the gear, the designated driver (me) assumes the position, and we roll.  First stop is the chief’s house in downtown Tulum, where we pay our entrance fee and pick up the key for the gate at Angelita, a unique cenote located in the jungle about 10 kilometers south of town.  This is a different sort of cenote, essentially a shaft cut straight down into the jungle floor, with a maximum depth of 200 ft.  There are a couple of small caverns that go off the sides but nothing of any significant merit for exploring. The thing that makes this spot so special is a layer fo hydrogen sulfide in solution in the water, making a thick, whitish cloud across the entire cenote from approx 95 ft to 110 ft of depth.  As we drop down and approach it the appearance is surreal, with the limbs of trees that hurricanes have tumbled into the cenote sticking up our of the cloud in silent testimony to natures wrath.  The bottom appears solid, but as Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues would say, “that is just an illusion”.   As we approach, we grab our buddy for reference, just as we briefed, and slip silently into the mist, completely disappearing from view  – and each other!  But as predicted, we emerge from the bottom edge and sure enough, we can see, but now this day dive has just turned into a night dive, because zero light is penetrating the layer today!  Lights on, we split up into buddy teams and most begin a slow spiral back up and around the walls of the crater.  Meanwhile, Brian is going for a pinnacle dive here, in the dark, under the cloud, in a cenote – I love this guy’s style!  I take him down to 150 ft and we decide that is deep enough for today, a new personal best for him!  Good job Brian!  Eventually we surface, with 40 minutes of bottom time, and it’s high fives for a great dive for all!

We hump the gear back up the winding path through the jungle, and load the van for our next stop.  As I slip my booties off, Brian, with his medical background, takes a look at my foot and says “Whoa, what do we have going on over here?”.  My right foot, for the last year or so, has been peeling and somewhat reddened from around mid-foot to my toes.  It sheds skin constantly, and worse when I dive, but it never appears to be growing or getting worse, so yes, it is somewhere on my list of things to get checked out, but not quite near the top.  “Here, put that up here on the table”, Brian directs, and he gives me a thorough examination.  His diagnosis:  Trench Foot, or Jungle Rot, as it was coined during the Vietnam War, caused by my foot staying wet so much!  Not sure how we can ever cure this, I am thinking!  But Brian suggest fungicides and we’ll get on that as soon as we get back to Harleysville; no shopping at the Farmacia here!

OK, we close the clinic, pile in the van, and march our jungle-rotten feet to the next cenote – Calebero.  Also known as the Temple of Doom, this cenote has a very small vertical opening with only a ladder to get out.  Getting in is simpler, just a big giant stride and you can’t miss the water!  I know I am sounding like a broken record here, but this place is beautiful!  I need to digress here, and wonder where that term came from – broken record.  Growing up in the days of 45’s and LP’s (albums), if your record was ‘broken’ then there was no way to play it, similar to a CD snapped in half (there, the younger audience can understand it now).  However, if you scratched one of the grooves on the surface in such a way that the needle tracked back over to a groove it had already played, then in fact that short audio snippet would play again, and again, and again.  So why don’t we use the term “sound like a scratched record?” rather than a broken record?  One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose.

Ok, digression over, I am back!  I leave the group for a bit here cause there is a entry into the cave system that is just screaming my name, and I cannot deny the call.  Reel out, tie-off’s made, and I am down the shaft, exploring the dark zone and taking in all this fantastic beauty.  This place is stunning, and you have to see it to understand it (by the way, cavern and cave training classes ARE available at Indian Valley Scuba – OK, got my plug in!). But seriously, this is such a different kind of diving and so much more ‘Zen-like” than anything you’ll ever experience on a reef or a wreck.  OK, OK, enough said, I retrace my steps, collect my reel, and rejoin the group, as we wrap up another great dive with 45 minutes at 58 ft max.  Up the ladder we go, and boy these doubles are a bit of a hump, but I make it out with all my gear, and we head back up the path to load up the van and head down the road to cenote #3.

Well we ‘almost’ loaded the van, cause after the short ride down the road to our next stop, the Carwash cenote, we spread our gear out and Tito, of all people, realizes he is missing his fins and mask.  I am feeling like a mother hen here now, making sure everyone has all their stuff before we move on!!  Geeesh!  No problem, I jump back in the van (as the designated driver, it’s my job!) and haul donkey back up the road to Calabero.  Of course I have to deal with some local jokesters there who knew it was Tito’s gear, and finally I get it and return to the team.  “OK, is everyone ready?”, I ask, and into the drink we go!

Now here we have raised the bar on our team and their roles in the cenote diving.  There is no permanent line here, so I will be having Brian and Tony run the line for us this morning. We go over the proper tie-off techniques, selection of appropriate tie-off’s, routing of the line, proper tensioning, housekeeping and neatness, and team communications.  Buoyancy control is emphasized, as is situational awareness and keeping a cool head while working in the cavern.  And last but not least, I encourage them to actually look up and see how beautiful it is in there, which is an easy thing to overlook with all the other tasks at hand!  So we head in, Brian in the lead, Tito pointing the way, and we make our first tie-off’s.  On to the very important secondary tie-off, and then in we head, Brian laying line, Tony keeping it neat, and me just trailing along and observing the team at work.  Soon enough we run out of line on the primary reel, and Brian motions “what to do?”.  I hand him a finger spool, he ties it in, and we get another 150 feet along.  Again, out of line, but wait, we have another spool!  So another 150 feet down the line we go, before finally being completely out of line.  Here we are in a ballroom, so we leave the line to explore, knowing we can keep the end of our line in sight at all times.  Once done, we return to the line, and the team begins the job of reeling it all back in, spool after spool, until we are finally out of the cave and into open water.  Great work team!!  And a great dive to boot, with 60 minutes of bottom time and a maximum depth of 51 ft.

Finally, it is time for cenote #4 of the day, and we’ll wrap it up at Grand Cenote, or the “White Cenote” as it is known, since all the underwater formations are bright white here.  Another popular swimming hole, we walk through along the docks with our gear, answering questions as we go, and slip into the water through a crowd of young people enjoying this beautiful sunny day.  Down we go, and this cave has a long traverse line that passes around the system, almost 270 degrees around the main opening, with several passage ways off to the cave system to explore as we dive along.  There are over 56,000 feet of surveyed passages in this cenote system, so you could certainly spend a bit of time here exploring the various nooks and crannies below.  We get another hour of bottom time in at 50 ft, and finally head back up and back to the van to call it a day.  Poor Tito has not worked this hard in a long time, he confides to us, so we decide to cut him a break tomorrow and do some reef diving instead.

Morning comes and poor Brian is not feeling so well from all this abuse we have been putting his body through all week, so he opts to sit out the morning dives.  Looking at the stack of paperwork that I have hauled from my office to Mexico with me, I decide that a day of catching up on work and being Brian’s nurse would be a better investment of my time than the reef, so I pack Tony a lunch and send him off in the panga with Tito to do some diving.  I start on my paperwork, but then some little voice in the back of my head, starting out as a whisper, is not screaming at the top of it’s little lungs “Hey, you are missing a dive!”   Yes, you heard it, I nearly passed on a couple of dives!

Enough of that momentary lapse of reason, Brian will be fine and now owes me big time for me almost missing those dives!  We toss the gear in the panga and head out into some bigger waves than we have seen all week. It’s a wetter than usual ride out, but we make it, and our first location is Hogfish Reef.  Another nice 80 foot dive, with less-than-stellar visibility, no doubt due to the wave action above.  We get to play with a really big turtle here at this site, so that added a nice touch to the murky dive.  Still we manage to get 50 minutes in and head back for a second tank.

As we load the boat in the surf for dive #2, we realize it is sitting a little lower in the water, and each wave splashing against it is getting closer and closer to coming over the sides.  Wait a minute, it IS sitting lower – shoot, the boat is sinking!!  Seems the battery for the bilge pump has died, and we are not putting the ocean back on the outside of the boat where it belongs!  We bail, jump on board, pull the hull plug on the way out, and salvage the day!  And anyone who knows me knows that sinking boats and Dave V go hand in hand!  Oh well, enough of that bad memory, next you’ll start talking about leaning navigational markers in the Keys…Anyhows, we head out, and this time it’s Adventuras Reef, another nice one, and another 50 minutes at 50 feet in the logbook.  Plus our first shark sighting here, a nice nurse shark under an overhang.

We come back in for lunch and to check on our patient, and he is still not looking so good, we we decide it is best for him to sit out the afternoon dives.  Being in the land of the Mayans, we respect that older cultures way of thinking, and for this decision, I actually draw upon another native American culture, the Eskimos.  They knew they needed to keep the tribe moving for the benefit of the majority, so when one member became ill, or too old to keep up, they left them behind, for the polar bears to enjoy.  Well Brian, keep a sharp eye out for polar barracudas!! Tony and I discuss the splitting up of Brian’s gear as we walk down to the boat for the afternoon dives, and I make it clear I have first dibbs on his new Atomic T2X regulator!

Rather than fighting the surf again, we moved the boat down the street to where it is protected by a small breakwater, and we load up for out two afternoon dives.  First stop is Morgan Reef, 55 ft deep, and we get 60 minutes in here, with the highlight being a motorcycle sitting in the sand that provided some photo opportunities.  Second location was Los Quebralo, 57 feet deep, where we logged another 55 minutes of bottom time.  Viz sorta sucks at this point, so glad it was the fourth and final dive of the day!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Brian has not been feeling well at all.  So as fate would have it, as I return with the van from this afternoon’s dive, there is someone parking in my spot, and I ask him to move so we can unload the tanks. Well funny thing is, he’s wearing a stethoscope, which I think is kinda odd, but hey, I am the stranger in a strange land here, so who am I to judge.  Well then he asks me if I know where room #204 is, and I say “Of course I do, that’s my room!”.  Wait a minute here!  This doctor is coming to see my Brian!!  Brian was not feeling well this morning, thought his tail bone might have bruised from some bouncing on the boat or my driving in the van (ha!).

Brian also suspected he may have something else, butt (pun intended) more on that later

So it turns out that my new friend and visitor is none of than Dr Cabelero (yes, Dr. Cowboy) who came from the Akumal clinic (yes they still make house calls here) to see Brian here in our room.  Turns out Brian has an abscess on, as Forrest Gump would say, “on his buttocks”, that has flared up and needs to be treated here.  So they took him away to spend the night in the Akumal clinic and put him on IV antibiotics for the night with the hope to be able to lance his derriere tomorrow to drain the abscess and then pack it with dressing for the trip home.  They would prefer he stays on the IV for a few more days, but, acting as Brian’s advocate in his weakened state, I told them we have to fly home on Saturday, so they can have him til the morning, butt (ha ha) then we need him back!  And suddenly for some reason I am thinking about that Atomic regulator again…

And if you’re wondering, no, I’ve got no pictures of it (Brian was too shy)!

But wait, breaking news here!  Brian just skyped me, and it turns out that he has a bigger pain in his ass than they suspected and it’s too big to operate on here in the little Akumal clinic, plus the risk of it involving other anatomical parts is too great for them to get out the power tools and cut into him here.  Should they err in their navigation, and get too close to any other parts of his intestinal tract, they would risk creating a shitstorm (pun intended) of problems for our boy, so they are taking him to the bigger hospital in Playa del Carmen for the night and intend to “go in” tomorrow. It’s a somber dinner for Tony and I tonight, worrying about our partner and his ass!

Friday morning comes and the seas have laid down a bit, and we head out to a site called Meke Maze.  This is a deeper site, at 115 ft, but we are rewarded with great visibility and healthy corals, so the shorter dive time is worth it!  We end up with a 45 minute dive, and return to our waiting panga for a 30-minute surface interval.  We motor over to our last reef location for the week, Chaemuiel Reef, and get our final 60 minutes of salt water bottom time in with the depth around 57 ft.

Back in I check on our patient, and he is still intact, and has not left any parts of himself here as a sacrifice to the Mayan Gods.  It’s getting kinda late in the day for surgery, I point out, and he agrees, considering our travel plans tomorrow.  Heck, I’ve got a clean dive knife, if we need to do any lancing I’m there for him!  Brian shudders at the thought and assures me he’ll be OK to make it home to see a real doctor there. OK, just wanted to offer!  A little home surgery makes for some great blog fodder!!

But while I am talking to Brian and making sure things are all good for the travel home, he realizes that he has a 10 a.m. flight, while Tony and I are flying out after 3 in the afternoon.  Now he needs a special ride to the airport, and can’t consider joining us in our ride to the Tulum ruins.  He’s flying on Delta, like me, so I suggest he give my friends at the Medallion desk a call, explain his predicament, express the fact that he is not sure when they will discharge him from the hospital, and see if they can do anything for him.  So he calls them up on Skype, using a video call, and there he is laying in his hospital bed, with his IV line in, and looking at the agent with his best puppy dog eyes on.  She looks up my record, sees we are connecting on the second part of our flight, from Atlanta to Philadelphia, and then goes ahead and says “Let me see what I can do”.  Well by the time this phone call is done, not only has she moved Brian from his morning flight to my afternoon flight, but she has upgraded his sorry (and swollen) ass to first class on both flights!  Holy Smokes, I need to remember this approach when my upgrades are not looking good!  Now he is my seatmate all the way back home!

OK, sensitive moment complete, it’s time to go diving!  Tony, Tito and I pile in the van and head down the road to Dream Gate cenote, a bit of a more primitive site.  We head about a mile into the jungle, stop at a small shack to pay our entrance, and then travel about two more miles down a trail cut in the jungle, without improvements, to the actual cenote.  There’s no swimming area here, as the cenote lies about 20 ft below the ground, and can only be accessed at two points, both involving ladders!  At one of the ladders there is a hoist to lower tanks down, and at the other, everything is on our back as we crawl in.

The extra effort is worth it, as the Dream Gate Cenote is a phenomenally beautiful cave system with a very unique twist:  Mayan human sacrifice victims, still swimming today where they were entombed hundreds of years ago!  Over 40 skeletal remains join us on this very poignant dive today.  Here’s a little video of what we saw today!

We end up with a couple of nice dives here, and I get a third one in, for a total bottom time of one hour and 50 minutes in this very special place.  Way to wrap it up!!

Back at the resort, we get good news – the authorities are releasing Brian tonight!  He calls for a ride and all the vans are locked up, so I suggest he grabs a cab from the hospital.  He does so, and confirms that his string of bad luck is not over – the cabbie has his wife and sick kid with him, and they stop several times on the way for the wife to open the door and let the kid vomit.  Nice!  Meanwhile poor Tony and I are pacing nervously, worrying about our Brian!  Finally he arrives, safe & sound, and it’s hugs all around as the team reunites!  We rinse all our gear together and spread it out on our patio to dry overnight in the arid air and constant breeze.

So on Saturday morning we’ve got some time before we need to head to the airport, and so our plan is to immerse ourselves in one last bit of Mayan culture, and that’s a visit to the Tulum ruins!  Our plan is to borrow one of the resorts vans, and head south to check out this rich site located on a towering precipice along the shoreline.  But allow me to digress yet again…Tito, who has been taking such great care of us all week, decides to wash the van for us to drive.  Only yesterday in fact we were talking weather patterns and precipitation in the area, and Tito pointed out that the official annual “rainy season” is September to November, when they might get rain once a week, and in some years, none at all.  So here we are in April, and that month does not fall in the rainy-ish period.  But, Tito did wash the van, and guess what?  Just like at home, the same phenomenom holds true – wash your car and it rains!  SO today, perhaps in the first time in Mayan history, it is pouring!  Amazing!  But does that deter us?  No!

We head down the rainy road and arrive in Tulum at the site of the ruins, which is quite the carnival with souvenir shops, trinket dealers, authentic actors doing authentic Mayan stuff, and everything else you would expect at a world class ruins site.  We buy our $2.00 tram tickets, and head up to the actual Tulum historical site.  We head in and let me just share – it truly takes your breath away to stand here and imagine this site 1,000 years ago, back in it’s heyday, with all sorts of village and religious activity taking place, the market trading, the seaport, and the hustle and bustle of a major gateway to Mexico and the Mayan civilization.  Very cool indeed!

We spend a couple of hours taking it all in, and then it’s time to head back, re-connect with Brian, grab our bags, and have Roberto drive us up to the Cancun airport for our flights home.  What a most wonderful week this has been, with thirty great dives, a dozen different cenotes, and more good stories and experiences than we deserve!  A most hearty recommendation for Scuba Cancun and Villas de Rosa – both first class operators in a first class diving destination!  Like the Governator says, “We’ll be back”.

But hold on, there’s more, from the ‘Team IVS Dives the Globe‘ department!  I get a text from Bill Zyskowski, who most know as the honorary poster child for the “Z-Ball” on the Spiegel Grove wreck in Key Largo.  Bill is diving today with our friend Randy on the Emerald dive boat out of Jupiter, and he is just gushing with his dive report.  Turns out they had a fantastic day there, with TWO hammerhead sharks, a big 14 ft bull shark, and a few others cruising with the divers and putting on a great show.  Bill was hunting lionfish today, and nailed five in total.  But not without cost, as one of his victims managed to return the favor, and nailed Bill good with his toxic venom before heading off to fishy heaven.  Bill reports a lot of swelling and pain, but once I shared Brian’s swelling and pain with him, he just said “Never mind!”

Hold on, there’s even more!   So Brian and I arrive at the Philadelphia airport and between waiting for our bags and then catching a shuttle to the off-site parking lot, it ends up being after 2 a.m. when we finally get back in the shop.  Brian jumps in his car for the short ride home, and between the shop and his house, he can’t resist getting turning on the mojo and getting one more comment for the blog.  Here it is, in Brian’s words:

By the way, I have one more final piece for your blog on this trip.  On my way home from IVS that night, I get pulled over at 2:15am for “making an erratic left turn” whatever that means.  The cop takes the usual license, registration and proof of insurance and goes back to his car. After about 20 minutes, he comes back and asks me if I have been drinking.  Naturally, I tell him “no” and he counters with, “are you sure?”  At this point I tell him I have been traveling all back returning from Mexico and I turn on my internal car light to show him my suitcases and he sees my IVS shirt.  He comments on it and how he always wanted to try SCUBA.  I briefly tell him about my trip (sans my buttock story) and I give him my card and invite him on a DSD.  He thanks me and lets me off with a warning!  I say “thank you and I will see you at the shop!”

Thanks for enjoying our story with us, and we’re sticking to it!  Stay tuned for our next adventure coming soon!