I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pearl Diving In Bahrain - The Last Chapter

This blog was originally started in April, just before I left Bahrain to start another job in Lesotho.  Since then I have suffered through a laptop crash, and even though I had backed up my files and photos, the photos of Rob & Robin that pertain to this blog have been lost - at least for now.

When I blogged about pearl diving in Bahrain in January, 2010, I promised the next blog would be about the history of pearl diving.  That didn't happen.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write this.  Originally, the blog was going to be about a story that goes back to Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who in about 3750 BC travelled to a land called Dilmun and dove for the "flowers of immortality".  That land is now known as Bahrain. The "flowers of immortality" were of course, pearls.  At one time the waters off this island nation supplied 80 per cent of the world's pearls.

I was told about this story, and much more, by Rob Gregory.  Together with Robin Bugeja, Rob ran PearlDive, and was a tireless promoter of Bahrain's pearl beds, working to safeguard them by making the best beds part of a World Heritage site. While Robin put Joann and I through the paces of re-certifying our scuba credentials, Rob was in charge of making sure we understood that the oysters we were about meet had been cultivated by thousands of years of free divers, going all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. His class, which was supposed to last an hour, took over three hours. Even so it was a whirlwind tour. There was so much ground to cover.

 He was born in Bahrain where his British father was working there in the newly discovered oil fields.  He went England to complete his education, but he spent his summers back in Bahrain practicing his newly acquired scuba diving skills.  It was in 1969, during one of these summers that he got a job working as an underwater cinematographer for Disney studios, who were in Bahrain to film the movie, "Hamad and the Pirates".  The combination of diving, pearling and photography set him on a course that would shape his future.  Having run dive shops in New Zealand and Australia, he returned to Bahrain in 1990 and continued his diving career.  He is considered the first Westerner to dive the pearl beds of Bahrain.

Joann and I met him while he was video-editing a 12-part series for a Bahrain television station about the history, biology and conservation of the pearl beds. When he heard I had a commercial art background, we struck a deal to trade scuba diving for logo design work, to help publicize the dive business and promote his efforts to gain recognition for the pearl beds.
He never got a chance to finish that project.  Rob died of an apparent heart attack in February, while Robin was in Australia visiting family and Joann and I were home on R&R.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write this.  He was a man with passion for his cause and a story to tell and I am not qualified to tell that story.  I would like to have learned so much more from him.  We knew him all too briefly. 

An excellent article about Rob and Robin can be found at:


Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Southern Cross

I have always been interested in the path of the stars through the night sky. There is something that feels inherently immense and awe-inspiring, to see the stars shine down at me. They are unimaginably distant, yet their presence reaches me so many light-years away, and fills my thoughts with distant worlds.

Growing up in the 60’s I felt like the space race was MY race. Living in the science fact and fiction that was my daily junior high and high school consciousness, I made my way through the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating during my graduation year, in Neil Armstrong’s famous “One small step…” The year before, 1968, was the year Stanley Kubrick released “A Space Odyssey, 2001." A bit of calculating and I realized that when 2001 finally did roll around, I would be 50. At 17 years old it was a distant future I could hardly relate to, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence. I made my plans right there and then to spend my 50th birthday on the moon.  I would go exploring craters in a rental moon buggy and bounce around in my space suit in the 1/6th lunar gravity.  Afterwards, I would retire to one of the tourist hotels that, I was sure, would be there by then.

Well, that plan never quite worked out, did it? Still, I've never lost the kinship I feel when I gaze at the magnificent display of the night sky.

I've watched the constellation Orion march across the peak behind my house on chill winter nights, when the sky was so clear and the stars so bright and close. As night wore on and the world spun on its axis, the arc of his feet perfectly matched the silhouette of the rocky crest.

I remember picking my way through a maze of logging roads one starry night during a fire season in the Kettle Range. It was before the days of GPS and one of the rare occasions I was alone in the fire truck. Looking for a reported lightning strike, I stopped at every clearing in the forest that afforded a view of the sky to relocate the North Star, trying desperately not to get too lost.

On a long night sail down the west coast of Florida with Joann and a few new friends, I navigated a 45’ sailboat by the stars, picking one to steer by that was on my compass heading, until at last the earth rotated it out of line and I picked another star to take its place off the bow.

One thing I have never seen is the Southern Cross, the southern hemisphere’s companion to the Big Dipper and the North Star. The Southern Cross has been guiding mariners for thousands of years around the seas south of the equator. Last night, standing in front of my apartment here in South Africa, with the help of a star finder program on my laptop I confirmed that what I was looking at really was the Southern Cross. A lopsided kite, its tail always points close enough to the South Pole to be a sailor’s best friend and constant nighttime companion. When I found it, I was surprised by how high in the sky it was.

What was even more surprising was something that almost made me dizzy. It was rotating in the wrong direction! I am so used to the stars wheeling to the left in the northern sky that I wasn’t ready, the next time I went outside, to find that it had rotated to the right! Clockwise! That, of course led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that clocks must have been invented south of the equator. In the north our sky rotates counterclockwise. If clocks had been invented in the north, wouldn’t they have been fashioned to match the northern rotation and the sky at home be said to rotate clockwise? Was I missing something?

Actually, I was missing something. Before the first clock was the sundial. The sundial kept track of time by marking the passage of the sun’s shadow. It was a shadow that moved in the opposite direction of the sun. Thus clockwise began as an opposite. I have to say, I was mighty relieved. The dizzy spells have passed and everything is right between heaven and earth again…

One star finder program that I like to use is called “Stellarium", www.stellarium.org . One of the things I like about it is that it is free. After you download the program, you can enter your location by clicking on a globe of the earth. A map of the stars in the sky at your time and location appears. You can turn on or off terrain, atmosphere, polar or azimuth coordinates, constellations and nebulas. You can speed up time and watch the stars really dance to the “music of the spheres”.

Maseru, Lesotho

Maseru, Lesotho May 19, 2010

‘Lah-soo-too is how the name of this country is pronounced. I scarcely knew where it was, much less how to say the name of it .

My first impressions have been favorable. Part of that might be due to the fact that a couple weeks before I got here I spent a week in Bangui, Central African Republic. I wrote about Bangui in my last post. I can wait awhile before I go back there!

Another thing that this place has going for it is its elevation. Maseru, the capital city is in the lowlands. For Lesotho that means 4000 feet above sea level. The entire country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa, is above 3500 feet. There are hills, mountains, rocky cliffs and gorges. May is the start of the winter season and the nights cool off quickly when the sun goes down. There are few bugs and the crisp feel of the evening air reminds me of home.

Having said all that, I am actually writing this from across the border in Ladybrand, South Africa. That is where my apartment is. Maseru is right on the border and Ladybrand is about 20 KM down the road. The other two Americans working on this project live here as well and we all commute to Maseru every workday in the same rental car. Ladybrand is a quieter suburban community. I looked at apartments in Maseru that were more expensive and not as nice, although they were certainly closer to work. Now, I am becoming a twice daily visitor to the border guards on both sides. Sometimes they check our passports, but often they just wave us through. Operations at the border are bound to tighten up the closer it gets to World Soccer Cup time in June and July. This is the first time the most followed sporting event on the planet has been hosted by African nations and they are determined to keep things peaceful -- if a soccer match can be called that!

I am just about over jet lag and getting used to a more normal schedule after eight months of working nights in Bahrain. Joann will be joining me here in a couple of weeks and I am looking forward to exploring a bit of this part of the world with her.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stuck in Paris

I have gotten to know the Charles de Gaulle Airport well in the last five days.  I owe it all to the volcanic ash cloud, Iceland's latest contribution to world travel.

It all started two weeks ago, when I agreed to take a side trip from my job in Bahrain to look at a job in Bangui, Central African Republic.  It's a job the company I am currently working for is interested in bidding on.  Scott, a fellow worker and I were scheduled to be there for a week, taking measurements and pictures for the folks in the home office.  That was on April 9th. 

Just getting to the country was an adventure.  Armed with malaria pills, a yellow fever shot and the antibiotic Ciprol, I flew from Bahrain to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then on to Nairobi, Kenya and Douala, Cameroon before finally landing in Bangui 20 hours later. 
Hotel du Centre, Bangui's finest

Bangui shows all the signs of decades of factional fighting and bad government.  Basic infrastucture is in poor shape even in the capital city.  Bad roads, undrinkable water and electricity that goes out two or three times a day.  The electricity had the greatest effect on our stay there, since the hotel's back up generator is too small to run air conditioning, making sleeping difficult in the sweltering rooms.  The local population is friendly and outgoing, but we were warned not to leave the city due to the gangs that roam the countryside.

I try to be an open-minded traveller, finding the good in each place I go, but still it was a relief to get on the plane out of the country.  From Bangui I was to fly to Paris, then to London and finally Bahrain.  A round about way to get there, for sure.  The wheels fell off when I got to Paris.   London's Heathrow Airport was closed due to the eruption. 
One of the iconic images of the Airport shutdown.  I saw many people snapping similar photos. The red lines are all cancelled flights.

Air France bussed everyone to a hotel in downtown Paris for the night.  The next day, we were back on the bus, but the Paris airport had also closed during the night.  Instead we were  driven to another hotel.  This one turned out to be the Newport Bay Club, a Cape Cod themed hotel in Disneyland Paris.  That's when I knew things had gotten downright Goofy! 
Looks just like Cape Cod!  Except for the Pacific Northwest themed lodge in the background- complete with its own beaver-dammed creek.

That's also when my week in Africa finally caught up with me. At four in the morning symptoms of gastric distress reached a point that I took the first of the Ciprol tablets I brought with me.  Within minutes I began to itch all over, starting with my feet, hands and eyes and spreading from there.  My tongue began to feel thick, it got harder to swallow and I worried that my throat might swell shut.  Trying not to panic I called the emergency number from my room.  A paramedic came to the room within minutes and in half an hour a doctor arrived.  By then the reaction had subsided quite a bit.  It was short-lived but intense. 

I have to say this about the French system of medical care.  To get a doctor to make a house call at four in the morning, give me a check-up, a pill for the allergic reaction and another to take care of my bowels, and for all that charge me 80 euros is a truly amazing experience for a guy used to the "American Health Care System."  I had images of an ambulance ride, admission to an emergency room and a bill for thousands of dollars that the insurance company would find a reason not to pay.

The following day we were carted back to the airport, told that no flights were going anywhere, and sent off to another hotel.  I have now been in four hotels in five days and spent too much time wandering the lonely halls of a mostly deserted airport, only to have to stand in long lines to find out what is happening.   I really can't complain.  I have a place to stay.  There are travellers here that are on their own, their resources dwindling or depleted.
Mona Lisas everywhere - this must be Paris

I managed to take the local train to the Eiffel Tower for an afternoon of sightseeing, but it is hard to get too far from the airport.  I have heard of all sorts of plans to get out of here, but the situation changes every day.  Today, the fifth day, I had a plan to take a bus to Toulouse in the south of France, where a flight to Dubai had left yesterday.  Now we are being told that airports in the south of France might close as the as ash cloud drifts south and the Paris airport might reopen if that cloud does move south.  "Come back at 3pm and we will have more information." 

So much for the Louvre...

As soon as I get back to my computer (I was clever enough not to bring it with me) I will add some pictures.

Update:  Well, I came back at 3pm and was told there would be no news until 7pm.  At 7pm guess what happened?  They closed the airport for the day.  "Come back tomorrow." was the only news.  I will be back tomorrow.  What else have I got to do?  Maybe I will take a train to Athens or Rome and fly from there.  Or maybe I'll just go back to the bar.  I can't do that very often though, a beer at this hotel is 12 euros. Mon Dieu!!

The latest (and last) update:  I am back in Bahrain!  The first Gulf Air flight out of Paris was a direct flight to Bahrain and I was on it.  I did just hear however, that for the last 2000 years every time the volcano erupting now (the little Iceland volcano) goes off, the BIG Iceland volcano erupts within six months...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pearl Diving in Bahrain

This is the first of two blogs about pearl diving in Bahrain.  The second one will be from a historical standpoint. 
It's quite a story in its own right...

Waiting for the dive boat (first trip)

Loading up Mohammed's boat.  A pair of traditional fishing dhows are moored behind us.

Sitting on the rail of Mohammed’s boat, getting ready to enter the waters of the Arabian Gulf thirty miles off the coast of Bahrain, I make one last check of my scuba equipment. It is January, and the sea has cooled since my first dive here in September. The water temperature is now 70 degrees, and while that might be warm for Pacific Northwest water, it's definitely cold for these parts, where summer water temps run in the mid-80s.

This is my second dive trip in Bahrain and the first time I have been diving without Joann. It is also the first time wearing a full wetsuit. Its bulk is unfamiliar and I am having a harder time locating the regulator, the backup regulator, the air valves on my BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device) vest, and the gauges. I am definitely the novice on this trip. Robin Bugeja, the dive master, estimates she has about 8000 dives under her weight belt.
Robin gets ready

The other two divers, John and Sian are on their first pearl dive, although they ran a diving service of their own in the past. Rob Gregory, who together with Robin own and operate PEARLDIVE, has the longest dive history of all, getting his start when he was hired by Walt Disney Studios as an underwater photographer during the 1969 filming of "Hamad and the Pirates" shot in the waters off Bahrain.  He is along on this trip to get video footage for a documentary he is putting together promoting World Heritage Site status for Bahrain’s pearl beds.

John and Sian ready to dive

Finally, I am ready. On Robin’s signal I put one hand on my mask to keep it in place, hold onto the camera lashed to my vest with the other, and tip over backward, splashing tankfirst into the sea. Surfacing, I signal everything is okay, and swim toward the line descending from the back of the boat. Sinking slowly along the line, letting air out of my BCD and equalizing the pressure in my ears and sinuses, I am soon hovering just above the bottom, 40 feet down. At the bottom of the line a weight and a net basket move slowly above the sea floor, pulled along by the boat drifting in the current.

 The weighted basket is kept off the bottom by a bright orange float bag, open on the bottom for adding air as the basket gets heavier with collected oysters. Visibility is good and I can clearly see the sandy bottom covered with clumps of oysters, small coral, and sea urchins. Thirty feet away is another line, this one hung from the front of the boat, also with weight and basket, and the two other divers, one on each side of the line, holding on with one hand and prying oysters loose from the bottom and dropping them into the basket with the other hand.
Oyster pickers

My attention today is focused more on collecting pictures, and less on collecting oysters. I want to test out the new camera I bought  yesterday. It is an Olympus Stylus Tough digital camera that claims to be waterproof down to 10 meters. We are going down to 12 meters, and I hope there is a built in fudge-factor that will keep the camera dry at that depth.
The camera still works!

Robin is the last one in and she soon joins us, checking lines, drift and divers as she goes. She has her own camera, the same model as mine and we take pictures of each other, before turning the cameras toward the scenes around us. Picking up the occasional oyster, I spend most of my time learning to manipulate the new camera underwater. The gloves I am wearing to protect my hands from the sharp edged clams and spiny urchins make me feel even more clumsy and are the first to go, tucking them into a pocket of my vest. I am woefully unfamiliar with the location of all the buttons and features and this camera is full of them, so I stick to one underwater setting and hope for the best.

Pearls in these, I'm sure

My second dive is a repeat of the first, only more productive. The current is not as strong, I am a bit more familiar with the camera. I am more relaxed and my tank of air lasts longer. After the dive, I somehow lose my snorkel as I am taking off my weight belt, tank and fins in the water before climbing the ladder back onto the boat. Robin surfaces behind me with it in her hand, having snatched it up as it floated down past her. All in a day’s work for a dive master.

Urchin-eyed Robin
Looking for pearls

Rob videos the action

It is now early afternoon and approaching time to return to the harbor. I still have a night’s work at the embassy to look forward to. In two dives John and Sian have picked up about 300 oysters. They start opening them on the boat in search of pearls while Rob videos and Mohammed utilizes some of the oyster meat to fish for dinner.

Mohammed fishes with oyster guts.  He will catch two or three fish, the largest about 12 inches. 

I manage to take several pictures, but only collect about 30 oysters. Those I will take back to my apartment and check for pearls later.

On the return trip, we encounter a pod of 25 to 30 dolphins, jumping and splashing in the water ahead of us.  Dolphins are a fairly common sight in this area, but this group is especially large and playful.

Dolphin movies

Hangin' with ma

Mohammed cuts our speed to a crawl as we pass the dolphins, and he steers the boat in a large circle. The dolphins swarm around and under our boat, pacing our speed and peering up at us, jumping and showing off. For half an hour we make lazy circles, cameras clicking. Most of the pictures, of course are of empty water where dolphins just were, but I manage to capture some of the antics.  Once again I wish I was more familiar with the camera.
Under the boat

I'm not sure if I will have another chance to dive before I leave Bahrain.  February/March is the worst time of year for diving in the Arabian Gulf.  Besides the colder water temperature, the winds and currents keep the surface of the sea choppy and the underwater visibility reduced.  Good diving days are less frequent and harder to plan for with my work schedule.  Robin has taken advantage of the season and has gone to visit her Australian roots for the month.  Rob is up to his ears with video-editing.

What about those oysters I brought back?  They spend almost a week in the bottom of my fridge.  When I do get them out and open them up, I find two small pearls - both in the same oyster.  The report from John and Sian is 38 pearls out of their 300 oysters, a very good haul!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yelapa, Mexico - Part One

Originally emailed March 23, 2005,  it was followed by part two, two days later.

I have been back to work for a couple weeks and have finally gotten all the sand out from between my toes. My tan has started to fade in a couple places, but not too badly. I have had a chance to collect my thoughts and sort my pictures, so I will send you some of each.

For anyone who might not know, I have been working at the London embassy since September '04, doing the same kind of work that I did in Beijing and Athens. On 22 Feb '05 I took a two week break from this job and traveled to Yelapa, Mexico to spend some time with Joann before she took off on a sailing trip across the Pacific.

Puerto Vallarta is at the center of the coast of the Bay of Banderas, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Yelapa is a small village on the southern tip of the bay, a 45 minute water taxi ride from the pier in Puerto Vallarta. Although there is a road connecting the two places, it is so bad that the water taxi is the only feasible route. This has the advantage of keeping Yelapa remote and devoid of cars (although there is a four-wheel ATV in the village for those who need an object to curse).

The warm, tropical breeze that greeted me when I got off the plane in PV was a welcome contrast to the daily snow flurries that had started in London a couple days before I left. I passed through customs and found myself standing in a sea of cab drivers eager to take me for a ride. Suddenly, I saw Joann standing by the door holding up a sign with "Juanito" scrawled on it. She had arrived in Mexico the week before, but I hadn't expected to see her until I got to Yelapa the next morning. She showed me where to catch the right bus.

The old blue and white bus, it's windshield personalized with rodeo trinkets, pictures of the young driver's family, and devotionals to the virgin Mary, ground it's gears and belched smoke as it took us on it's roundabout way to an ocean-front hotel in the old-town section of Puerto Vallarta. From there we would catch the water taxi the next morning.

By 11 am we were traveling the length of the Bay of Banderas in a "ponga," an open-topped fiberglass boat with rows of bench seats and a large outboard motor. The twenty or so passengers and their baggage would endure the whump-whump of the boat pounding through the chop and the occasional spray of seawater. Joann, having already experience a couple of trips, warned me that we should sit as close as possible to the rear where both the pounding and the spray were less intense.

Yelapa itself climbs out of the bay and up through the palms and fruit trees like a scene from an old movie. The stone and brick dwellings with red clay tile roofs alternate with open, palm-thatched palapas. Riders on burros and horses share the narrow rock-paved lanes with villagers and tourists on foot. Small cafes and casas perch on the rocks and line the arc of the beach.

The water taxi pulled right up to the north end of the beach, where some of the passengers disembarked, wading through the surf with their belongings. It then swung south, to the other end of the beach where we got off on a pier jutting out from the center of town. Joann led me up the rabbit-warren of pathways that wound between (and sometimes it seemed, through) the buildings. Soon we were climbing the stone-stepped path (182 steps - I counted!) that led up to Casa Milagros, the place that would be our home for the next two weeks.

The view from Casa Milagros was one thing that set it apart from most of the other casas. Climbing all those steps did have its advantages. Our room was on the top floor of the three story casa (add 17 more steps for a total of 201) and the roof of the second floor was our patio. To the west we could see far out into the sea. To the east we could see the entire town and beach. One other advantage of those steps was the feeling that the hike justified a big dinner at the cafe!

Antonia and Joann in the kitchen

View from the kitchen window

Casa Milagros is fairly typical of places to stay in Yelapa. While a couple of the rooms have private baths, most are simple rooms with screened windows (no glass) and mosquito nets over the beds. The large kitchen is shared and all guests can shop in town and cook their own meals.

Lunch on the patio.  Let's eat!

Joann and I took turns making each other breakfast burritos and sometimes lunch, but most dinners we ate in one of the many wonderful cafes in the village. Electricity is fairly new to Yelapa and the most prevalent form of lighting is still the "Yelapa Lantern", a candle stuck into a sand-filled tin can, over which is placed the chimney from an oil lamp. We were encouraged to bring a flashlight or two to negotiate the walk back to the casa after an evening's dinner and dancing.

Joann introduced me to Hugo and Antonia, our hosts at Casa Milagros.
 Hugo is a transplanted Texan who, though he has lived in Mexico for the last ten years still prefers to speak in English with his broad Texas drawl. Antonia (shown here making her wonderful ceviche) is native to the area, prefers Spanish and is very patient with those trying to learn the language. She is famous, perhaps mostly to Hugo, as the most beautiful girl from the village. Her first husband, now deceased, was an American pipeline worker who built the village's water supply piping from springs in the hills, or so the story goes.

Yelapa, Mexico - Part Two

Originally emailed March 25, 2005,

Yelapa is a hangout for artists and writers, among others. Casa Milagros, where we stayed, hosted a weekly writers meeting. One of the other guests there, Jari, was a published writer from Boston and had been there for several months working on her first novel.

Jari and Joann discuss writing (?)

By the time I got there, Joann and Jari had already become good friends. The literary air that drifted through the place could account for my desire to return to the travelogs I began when I first started working overseas. We'll see how long that lasts...

Jean and Joann at YESI

We spent three hours every weekday morning at YESI, the Yelapa English-Spanish Institute, an intensive language program, http://www.talkadventures.com/spanish/index.html 
YESI is run by Jean Hnytka, a Canadian lady who spent six months of every year in Yelapa. She has become known to some of the locals as "Jessie", the Y taking on a J sound when they read the sign in front of the path to her school. She was a fun teacher and her class was anywhere from 2 to 6 students. We sat out on the patio in front of her palapa and tried to pay attention to things like irregular preterit verb conjugations while macaws and parrots, frigate birds and vultures, hummingbirds and woodpeckers squawked, swooped, and pecked overhead. After school we walked back to our casa or down to 'la playa' (the beach), stopping along the way to pick up a few groceries at 'la tienda' (store) or checking emails at Mimi's Cafe, where, if we had to wait until the computer was free, we would be forced pass the time with a 'cervesa con limon' (beer with lime) and a bowl of chips and salsa.

Waiting for the internet

Internet cafe - Yelapa style
Notice the "Yelapa Lanterns" on the green bookcase between the arches.

Paragliding in Yelapa
The steep hills, favorable winds and thermals have made Yelapa a favorite spot for paragliders. From the time we arrived we watched a daily show of colorful wings launch, circle back and forth and land softly and gracefully on the beach. Some of the flights lasted an hour or more and the paragliders would ride the thermals up and up until they were mere specks. We watched them for several days, talked to a few of them, and learned that some of them had tandem rigs and took passengers for rides. With each other for courage, Joann and I decided we wanted to take a ride before we left.

Climbing to the launch site

Our last Saturday in Yelapa we met the paragliders at the bottom of the path up to the launch site, finalized who was riding with whom (there were three pilots and three passengers) and hiked up the hill. The parasail packs weigh about 60 pounds each and the trail is steep. The pilots have their work cut out for them just getting to the launch site.
 Once we got there we went through a short training session so everyone knew what was expected of them. The wind wasn't perfect that day so we knew it wouldn't be a long flight, but it did need to be steady enough and from the right direction long enough to get a good launch.

Spreading the wing, John on the left, Daryl, Jeff and Ross center.

The pilots determined the order of launch. Joann was to go second and myself last. The first wing was stretched out on the ground and the lines were checked and straightened. I was surprised at just how thin the lines were. They seemed much smaller than the parachute cord I was expecting to see, more like thread! Were these threads really strong enough? I went through a bit of mental calculation, trying to figure the foot/pounds of pull needed on each line to support two people, divided by the number of lines and adding a safety ratio... hmm... It occurred to me that someone must have already thought about all that, right? OK, then. I was ready! I still had plenty of time to think about it, though...

Jeff and Daryl, the first pilot and passenger, instructions and preparations completed, stood in their rigging, the sail spread out carefully on the ground behind them, looking a bit like a pair of horses in traces waiting for the slap of reins. Jeff looked around, gauging the wind by studying the colored ribbons tied to sticks at the corners of the clearing as they fluttered fitfully in the light breeze. After about fifteen minutes, they both sat down to wait for better wind. Sometimes, this is what paragliding is like, I guess. Another breeze and they were back on their feet, rigging rechecked and straightened. Now, the ribbons are streaming directly uphill. Jeff counts. For six seconds the breeze holds steady. This is it! Jeff shouts, "Run, run, run...!" They take a couple steps forward and the parasail fills with air and rises overhead. "Run, run, run...!" and they are moving down the clearing, heading straight for the bay far below. Having been warned not to stop running until told to, Daryl's legs are still pumping after they are airborne. With twenty feet of air under them, Jeff tells him to take his seat and they arc away to the right, passing behind the treeline below, returning to view after a few seconds, farther away, moving left.

Well, that went well enough. It actually does work...! Now, it is time for Ross and Joann. The steps are repeated. The sail is spread, the lines checked and straightened, the harness adjusted and checked. The last minute instructions. The lines checked again. The ribbons watched. The lines... the sail... the ribbons...waiting... Suddenly it is time. "Run, run, run..!"

Ross and Joann take off

The launch is a repeat of the previous one with one difference. As Joann settles into her seat and they make the first sweeping turn, Joann lets out one long scream, not of terror, but exhilaration.


I was the last to go, and I stood in the harness so long, while behind me my pilot, Aldo, waited for the right moment to take off, that the others would have had enough time to climb back up the hill to see what was keeping us. After half an hour of standing there ready I looked at my watch. The best wind was usually between one and three in the afternoon. It was now after four and what wind there was came from the left, not straight up the hill.

Aldo and I wait for the wind

 Finally the wind swung to our front and held. Aldo yelled, "Run, run, run, run..." we moved forward and the wing filled with air behind us. When a wing inflates, but has yet to rise up overhead, there is a moment when it "walls". It became a tremendous force pulling backwards, threatening to pull us back with it. Aldo was still yelling, "Run, run, run..." and as the chute rose overhead, the backward pull lessened and we moved forward faster. Within a few steps my feet were no longer touching anything and as the ground fell away, Aldo told me to take my seat, which he pushed under me with his knee...

Everything became very peaceful after that. I took a couple pictures, but then I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Yelapa from a parasail

Our flight, like the other two, was what the pilots describe as an elevator run. The lift wasn't strong enough to gain altitude, or even maintain it. It was a gradual, ten to fifteen minute downhill ride, zigzagging in graceful turns to a soft, stand-up landing on the beach. Then we were walking forward, the wing still inflated overhead until we had enough clear space behind us, then quickly back a couple steps as the red nylon collapsed onto the sand. I climbed out of the harness as Joann walked up and handed me a beer. We toasted our success and wished we could stay longer to do it again.

The next day was Sunday and the weather was worse for paragliding. Since we were leaving on Monday we knew we weren't going to get to fly again, so we stuck to our original plan, a 40 minute boat ride out to the Islas Marietas, to snorkel and explore the island's caves.

Snorkelling at Islas Marietas

Now, Joann is in the Galapagos, the first stop on her Pacific crossing. I am back in London. The weather here has improved remarkably. Spring is in the air and the sun has been shining. I will be here until mid-June, it looks like. Then who knows what's next? It's a big world...