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:: Big Sands

Since Amy and I were still worn out from all the traveling we did yesterday, we decided that today would be a good day to just hang out at Big Sands and take it easy. Big Sands is this nice sandy beach that's just on the other side of the hills from T&C's place. It has nice, calm waters that are good for snorkeling, and there's a fancy-but-tiny hotel there that has good food (Amy and I are going to stay there for the last two nights of this trip). We tossed a water-frisbee around for a while and then split into groups to make do with the equipment we had. Amy, Cambria, and I took the first round with the snorkel gear, while Tim and Pete took off in the hotel's kayaks.

It felt good to be back in the warm Caribbean waters. It was quite a contrast to Monterey, where you needed a full wet suit to stay alive. The snorkeling was pretty good- we swam out to a nearby reef and watched all the colorful, local fish going about their fish business. Cambria managed to spot an octopus, but Amy and I missed it because we were on the other side of the reef. The swimming tired me out pretty fast. The current around the reef was a bit rough. Plus, we didn't have flippers, which I've apparently become dependent on from my scuba class. After the swim, we headed back to the beach, where we had lunch and a few colorful, sissy drinks at the hotel's beach-side restaurant.

The water at big sands

Later on, Amy and I gave the kayaks a try. They were single-person boats. which turned out to be a lot easier to manage than the tipsy, dual-person kayaks that we had used in Hawaii (and elsewhere). We were both able to paddle in straight lines and not flip the boats. This was reassuring after the people on our kayak trip in Hawaii looked at us like we were idiots for not being able to control our kayak. We paddled along with a couple of local kids that were taking an old surfboard out to the reef to try a few surfing experiments. I'm not sure what their ultimate surfing goal was with the small waves, but they were all grins, so everything was cool.

Pete said I had the "perm-a-grin" on, the first couple of days

We bummed around the beach for the rest of the day, with Tim making periodic calls to the airport to see if the rest of our luggage had made it in. At the end of the day, we caught Justin's van over to the airport to see if anything arrived on the last flight. Woohoo- my bag at least was there, which meant that Amy and I were in good shape for tomorrow's snorkeling trip. Unfortunately, nothing came for Pete, so he was stuck wearing dirty clothes for another day. Hurrumph. Maybe someone should tell the airline that he's on his way to becoming a big, powerful lawyer. Hopefully they'll show up tomorrow.

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:: Going Back to Union Island

So.. for the last couple of months, Amy's been spending a lot of her spare time negotiating another trip for us, back down to Union Island in the Caribbean. Originally, she was working with our Atlanta friends Steve and Tuba to meet up with Tim and Cambria at some island in the Caribbean where we could rent a house for a week. Unfortunately, those plans fell through, partly because Tuba was having a lot of visa problems. On the brighter side of this, the situation motivated Steve to finally ask Tuba if she'd marry him (to which she said yes). You see, even when we have travel problems, good things happen to our travel companions. That's why you should invite us to go somewhere exotic with you (also offering to pay doubles your karma, btw).

A few weeks after our failed travel plans, we heard out of the blue that our DC friend Pete was planning on visiting "Timbria" during his spring break from law school. We promptly asked Pete if he'd mind us tagging along, and upon receiving his casual-as-always approval, Amy got back on the vacation planning path. The end result is that we're spending the week on Union Island at Tim and Cambria's place.

The trip down to union was of course awful. We started our journey at the unPleasanton BART station at 6pm. Approximately 19 hours and three flights later, we were sipping Bitter Lemon drinks with Tim and Cambria at the Union Airport, waiting for Pete to arrive. The trip was your standard lot of annoyances (BART no longer goes direct to the airport, the flights were crowded, the guy next to me smelled bad and kept fighting for my arm rest even though he had an aisle seat, etc). The oddest annoyance happened while waiting in the ticket line at SFO. This lady that was in front of us started complaining because they wouldn't take her positive form of ID, which was... a birth certificate. Lady, they're no picture on that thing, and they're not going to fingerprint you to see if you match. Ok, so I feel bad for that lady- I think she wound up not getting on her flight.

It's just three hops away

Anyways, as the above map shows, the trip was from SFO to JFK (ugh) to Barbados to Union (on a prop plane). Landing in Union is quite an experience. The runway is situated between the ocean and some steep hills, so the pilot has to dive to get to the runway, and then put on the brakes before he goes into the water. As we were coming in, I looked forward and noticed the only thing you could see through the pilot's windows was the blackness of the runway. The pilot did a good job, though, and everything worked out.

The view from under the wing

At Union, Amy and I went through customs only to discover that my bag was missing (the one with all our expensive snorkel gear). The airline assured us it was on the way, so we decided to just sit and have some drinks at a small cantina next to the airport. We were a couple of hours early, but we didn't mind just hanging out because we were still pretty dazed from the flight. Tim and Cambria joined us, and we all waited for Pete's plane to come in. Pete's flight got pushed back, and when it did arrive, he was missing both of his bags. We caught a van (Justin's) back to Tim and Cambria's place, where they fixed us a nice meal with the fresh produce Tim had bought. It didn't take long for us to conk out.

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:: Domain Expiration Problems

Argh.. so, just before we left for Monterey, I got this email saying something about how my domain name craigulmer.com had expired and that it was being shut down. Huh? I thought I had another year left on it. Plus, I noticed that the message was from a company that was different than the company I had registered the domain with. Knowing that there are a lot of shady people out there in the domain registration business, I decided that the message was probably some kind of scam to get me to switch domain registrars. To be on the safe side, I checked to make sure the website was still up, and that my registrar still had me in the system. The registration site gave one of those dll errors when I tried to log in (which has happened before). I nervously gave up for the day, since I had to drive to Monterey that night.

When we returned on Sunday night, I found that my site had in fact been shutdown. A place holder webpage (w/ lots of popups) was now where my website should be, and email for that website was completely down. Crap. I patched together a new email account and wrote my registrar to ask what was up. After a lot of time, my registrar wrote back and informed me that he was a "reseller" of domains, and that he had just bought my domain from someone else. wtf. Why hadn't he mentioned this when I was buying the domain? I looked through my filtered email and found that the people who had actually registered my domain had in fact sent a warning letter a few weeks ago. Had I known that they were the ones in charge, I would have renewed with them. Fine. Whatever. What do I have to do to get it back?

Here's where it gets nasty. The company that had registered my domain, dotregistrar.com, has a policy of holding on to expired domain names for 30 days. They give you three options for getting it back: (1) you can buy it back now.. at 15 times the normal yearly rate, (2) you can put your name on a wait list to get the name at the end of 30 days at four times the yearly rate, or (3) you can do nothing and hope nobody grabs the domain name after it's put back on the market. I asked the Kellegous and John what they'd do. Both gave me horror stories they'd heard about expired domains getting sucked up by bot scripts run by people that want to sell the domains back to you at outrageous prices. Worse, some people grab up old domains so that they can get all the email that gets sent to the domains (for either spam address harvesting, or identity theft).

Screwit- money solves all problems, right? I decided to just pay the ransom and get my domain back. Easier said than done. When I contacted the registrar, they said that my middleman would have to do it since it was registered under his authority. When I contacted the middleman, he said that I had to contact the registrar myself. Wtf? I wrote a few times, and finally got him to realize that he was going to be the one that had to re-register the domain. I guess on the bright side of things, he gave me the reseller rate on the registration process. Yeah.. it's only costing me $150 this year for craigulmer.com instead of $225. All this because I tried to save $15 last year by registering at a cheap domain company instead of some place like register.com.

While I was at it, I decided to re-register my other two domains for five more years at register.com. Once I get over the shock of all this, I'll probably transfer craigulmer.com over to there, just because this whole thing disgusts me. Domain names are messed up, and are just another sign of how purely capitalist systems screw the public over. Weak.

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:: The Old Nerd and the Sea

We returned to the pier this morning for some more open water diving, after a solid night of sleep. The first dive today was the trickiest of the whole course because we had to perform a few of the more complicated skills. Once we got out into the water, we had to take off both our buoyancy control vests (the thing the air tank is attached to) and our weight belts, and then put them back on. I'd had some trouble with this in the pool since I'm a bit clumsy, so I was worried about doing these in the open water. Fortunately, we only had to do these on the surface, and the water was pretty calm. It took a lot of flopping around in the water, but I eventually got the vest and belt back on and functioning.

Later on in the dive, we had to practice a shared breathing ascent. That's where you're underwater and you "calmly" motion to your buddy that you need to borrow their spare air hose and go up to the surface. Our diving instructor had a hard time not smirking when he described the hand signal dialog that goes along with the acquisition of a spare air regulator. He then admitted, "Ok, so if I'm out of air and you're near me, you'll know I want to borrow your spare regulator because I'll be clawing at your vest trying to get it into my mouth." In any case, everything went fine when I had to do the ascent with my buddy.

Making sure my spare regulator works

For the last dive on the trip, all I had to do was pick out a course and go explore it with my dive buddy. At first, I thought everything would be cool because my buddy said he didn't want to do anything difficult. However, once we get in the water, he tells me that he wants to go through the kelp forest and swim all the hell out to this boat that's a long way away. After convincing him that we should probably not get too far into the kelp, we set off. Before long, we were through the kelp and at the maximum depth for the dive (just 30ft). He signals me that he wants to go to the surface, so I meet him there. Is there a problem? Nope, he just wants to talk about how great wet suits are. Huh? He does this like three or four times during our trip. Given that rising and sinking takes time and effort, this was all kind of annoying.

The seals were not impressed

My dive buddy was also bad at navigation. I kept a close eye on our position, direction, depth, and air supply ("I can't fight this feeling"! or is that REO Speedwaggon?). Every time I'd try to get him back on course (basically just a loop back to shore), he'd start pulling towards deeper water. My air started getting close to the limit that we were told to hit the beach with, so I made him come up, so we could swim back to the beach on the surface. Crap. We were a long way out for this kind of swimming, and as I realized, my legs were already tired from two days of diving. It took a long time for us to get back. At least I was the responsible one.

Back on land, our diving instructor had a BBQ lunch waiting for us. Mmmm.. I learned something else today- guys that are 300 pounds and have their own BBQ rig probably know how to cook good food. We ate it up while collectively scrambling to fill in our dive logs with all the right numbers. It felt good to have completed the class. I'll admit that I was nervous about the whole thing, but now that I've done it, I can say that I feel relatively confident that I can keep my head during a recreational dive.

As we were leaving, I noticed that there was a diver out in the water waving his arm over his head. Funny, I thought, that's like the sign for help or something. At first I figured that it was just a guy in one of the emergency rescue classes (we'd seen people practicing mouth-to-mouth on the beach, earlier). Then this diver yells out "call the coast guard". Crap. Dive instructors on the pier start scrambling to the beach, as people in kayaks start rushing out to the guy. While they're hauling him back, fire trucks and an ambulance show up and rush down to the water's edge. The kayakers bring him back to the EMTs, who immediately put him on oxygen. Eventually, the guy gets up and is able to walk it off.

We joined the rest of the pier in watching all of this unfold. As is typical of bystander crowds, we never found out what happened or how serious things really were. One lady told us that she was a local, and that this kind of thing seems to happen every other week down here. Doah. Good thing I heard this after I did my dives. I dunno.. My friend Gary from work said that when he did his open water dives at Monterey, they were pulling a diver out when he was going in. When Gary came out of the water, they were putting the diver in a body bag. Yikes. Maybe we won't be doing so much diving in California.

Anyways, that pretty much ended the weekend. The only other thing to report from the trip is that there is a town between San Jose and Monterey called "El Bano". Even if there's no tilde over the n, you'd think that they'd pick something different. Yep..

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:: Open Water Dives

Today, my scuba class did its first set of open water dives at Monterey. The day started off pretty hectic. I managed to misestimate how much time it would take to get up, find breakfast, and make it down to the beach in time for our 11am meeting. My nervousness about being late was purely invented, though- my dive class is pretty casual, and if anything, the dive master wondered why we had showed up on time. I had plenty of time to think about this myself, because we spent the next half hour or so by our gear in the parking lot, waiting for our class's turn to get into the water.

Bright flippers make it easier for them to find the body

Ooof. So, one of the things that sucks about scuba diving is putting on all the equipment when you're not in the water. Being that I'm about as buoyant as Pamela Anderson, I've got to wear a weight belt with about 30-35 pounds in it. Throw in a full wet suit, fins, and an aluminum air tank, and you've got one heap of heaviness to carry to the water. My clumsiness was also increased because it was the first time I had to wear a hood and gloves in the water. I waddled into the waves, praying that I wouldn't get knocked over and steam rolled by the surf.

As I was walking in, I remember thinking "hmm, you know, the water isn't as cold as I thought it would be." Then, I put my face into the water so I could see my feet as I was putting my fins on. My next two thoughts were "Holy crap" and "I must not have pulled the chin part of my hood all the way up" as the coldness shot through my face. The shock made it that much harder to tighten my fin straps, get oriented, and over to my dive master. The hood also made it very difficult to understand what anyone was saying. When the rest of the class started to submerge, I figured I should do the same. Easier said than done, though-even with the 30 pound weight belt, I had to constantly kick to stay down. Oof. Fortunately, the instructor had some additional weights with him that he could load me up with. He stuffed the right side of my vest with a sack of weight. This kept me down, although it also made me pitch to one side when I swam. Ooof. We did a few basic skills tests, and then followed the instructor on a tour of the water.

I think these guys lost their car keys or something

There wasn't all that much to see in the bay that day. The water's visibility was only about 10 feet, so we all scrambled to stay close to the instructor. The fish weren't that big, but there were tons of colorful starfish. Our instructor also found a well-camouflaged crab, and this, flabby thing he said was a Spanish Dancer. It's hard to describe the dancer, it sort of looked like an uncooked filet of meat that flapped away when our instructor touched it with a starfish. Odd.

The day's second dive went much better than the first for me. This time I went in with more confidence and got situated in the water a lot faster. We did some more skill tests and another tour of the bay. I paid a little more attention to my breathing, and was able to control my depth better just by taking larger or smaller breaths as I needed them. Pretty cool. At the end of the day, our dive master revealed that he had only used half a tank, while the rest of us had cleaned out two tanks (plus he had gone on one more dive than us that day). He also told us that while he was 300 pounds, he only needed 20 pounds of weight to keep him down. I guess there's a lot you can do to get yourself conditioned to staying underwater.

"Now everyone, punch your neighbor"

The class broke up at around 3pm. Amy and I went back to drop some of the gear off and get changed. We avoided the downtown part of Monterey and cruised over to the south side (pebble beach?). Amy showed me this nice resort where her dad comes every year for a math conference. We walked down to the beach and watched a tai-chi class practice by the water. A few surfers braved the rough waves (and were pretty good). We then headed into town and found this amazing Mexican restaurant.. Mmm.. maybe it was just that we hadn't had a real meal all day, but the food was incredible. We ended the night early, super tired from all the day's events.

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