Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 5 Part 1

Previously on 24...

Day 5 began innocuously enough with the ship pulling into the St. Maarten harbor. My Fair Lady and I were again already up and at 'em. It's relevant to note that whenever we go on vacation we realize just how much our shower at home sucks. It's the right height for both of us, but water just sort of falls out of it instead of blasting out. When I clean off I want hot water hosing me down like an animal at the zoo. You know the elephant shower head Kramer bought on "Seinfeld" that blasts him out of the shower?

Yeah, I want two.

While the cruise ship's shower had plenty of pressure it lacked for roominess. You hop in and can turn in a complete 360 direction and that's it. If something fell to the floor there would be no bending over to pick it up. Oh no. There is only squatting and even then your head may bounce off the wall or door.

So after surviving the claustrophobia-inducing shower, we raced upstairs, scarfed down breakfast, and were off the ship immediately. When we hit the docks we found that we were ahead of when our tour guide would show up. While we waited the rest of the tours set off for the St. Maarten beaches. My Fair Lady had it in her head that we could walk off the docks and look around a bit before coming back and meeting our tour guide so away we went. We noticed immediately that St. Maarten appeared infinitely less commercialized than St. Thomas was. By comparison, you can't walk around St. Thomas without tripping over at least three American fast food restaurants or stores. St. Maarten has a lot of this but it's far more focused on the cities and not the remaining countryside. The air, land, and sea also looked a heck of a lot cleaner, and it took but an instant glance at the mountainsides to fall in love with the island's beauty.

For a lot of tourists, Yours Truly included, one of the first thoughts that pops to mind whenever someone mentions the Caribbean is reggae music. Thus far we'd heard none of this, even on the ship's loud speakers, but at the end of the St. Maarten docks was a reggae band who was just jamming. My Fair Lady instantly morphed into Madame Perky at this because she was dying to hear "authentic" reggae music.

"I hope the band is still here when we get back today," she enthused.

"I'm sure they will be," I replied. "They can't miss a better time to serenade for tips than when everyone is leaving."

Since the house was a rockin' we didn't bother knockin' and moved on the various store fronts. I made sure to snag a picture of Madame Perky sitting on top of the "Welcome to St. Maarten" signage like any respectable tourist would. Since it was before 9 a.m. at this point only a few of the stores were opening up. We found a basket weaving place that offered her a purse for only $5 US but we declined. Madame Perky did however file it away for future reference.

We turned around and headed back towards the warfs and once there we found our guide to the "Tree Top Adventure." Yes, it is what it sounds like.

We loaded up with a larger group than we expected and headed off towards the center of the island. For those who are unaware, St. Maarten is divided in half with the Dutch owning the south half of the island and the French owning the northern side. There is effectively a Maginot Line right through the middle of the island where the nice and helpful southerners stop and the snotty northerners begin. We docked on the Dutch side and the bus travelled north. We again held on for dear life as the bus wildly raced along twisting and windy roads, some paved, some not so much. After a good half hour, the bus turned to go up a road barely bigger than my desk at work. This thing was so small and narrow I couldn't believe the bus could get clearance on either side. We get to the end of it, then hung a hard right and turned into this nature preserve where we disembarked.

The tour guide met us at the bus and welcomed us to what she referred to as "the training ground for The Amazing Race." This set Madame Perky atwitter because her life's ambition is to appear on that show. Racing around the globe, performing tasks and finding clues all while in a race appeals to her in a way nothing else can. So the thought of climbing through tree tops and racing down zip lines was something she'd been dreaming of for the last few months.

Oh yeah, that's what I meant by "Tree Top Adventures." For once, advertising pegged the right name for the event in question.

The tour guide also warned us of a friendly neighborhood dog named Eiko. Immediately, Eiko was upon us. I never caught what kind of dog he was, but he was friendly, playful, and anxious for all of us to throw a stick for him. Eventually the stick passed to Yours Truly and I threw it for him. And again. And again. Yet again. This went on for a while and the dog kept bringing the stick back to me so I'd play with him. I swear to all that is Holy I do not understand what it is about dogs and babies that makes them want to play with me all the dang time. I don't even do anything to encourage it! Do I come off as huggable?

Didn't think so. Moving on.

The guide takes off but not before handing us over to our instructor for the course, Mr. Echo. Far from the stoic character he plays on LOST, he was upbeat, friendly, and had a great personality that he shared with us at deafening volumes. He showed us/shouted at us in quick succession how to strap on our harness, how to climb using the safety clasps, and how to hook onto the zip line and fly from one tree top to another. Out of the corner of my eye I catch Madame Perky jumping up and down for joy like a four year old on Christmas morning. Since there were a few families there, Madame Perky and I weaseled our way close to the front of the line so we wouldn't be behind any teens. We lucked out in that you had to be so tall in order to ride this ride. There were only a few men and women in front of us and being the chivalrous gent that I am, I went first. I climbed into the first tree, hooked on my safety clasps, then began the course.

If you are not even remotely adventurous then the thought of climbing over and sailing through tree tops is likely not high on your list of things to do before you die. For me, I was immediately 10 years old again when climbing on trees like a monkey was all I could think about. The first thing I did was climb across some not-so-evenly placed steps (thank God for long legs) to a platform where I connected my harness onto the first zip line and the guide told me to sit down into the harness, hang onto it with my left hand, put my glove-covered right hand on the cable itself, then essentially let go. At that moment the world started whipping by as the trees became a blur and the sound of the harness wheeling down the zip line filled my ears.

A split second later I noted how thick and heavy the padding was on the tree I was aiming for.

You ever have one of those moments where the world flies by your head in slow motion and have you have a lot of coherent thought in the span of two seconds? It ocurred to me at this point to slow myself down because while the padding on the tree would mitigate some of the damage were I to plow into it at full speed, said padding remained wrapped around a tree. Somehow I didn't think it would overly forgiving, let alone flexible, were I to smack into it at the rate I was travelling. So I start to grip the cable and the guy on the other end shouts at me not to do so. I quickly let go of the cable with my right hand and continue to slide down the zip line. When I was closer to the tree the guy motioned to me to stop myself and I again gripped the line.

Apparently I didn't grip it hard enough fast enough because I still plowed into the tree although not at full force. When the stars cleared from my eyes I looked back at the zip line and pegged where in relation to the tree I needed to start slowing down. Future zip lines would not be an issue. This I vowed!

Solemnly, I might add.

My Fair Lady zipped in behind me and the look of excitement and bliss on her face made the entire trip worthwhile. Any and all problems I may have had with the cruise or travel in general vanished then and there. So it was I began the rest of my climb through the tree tops. The flier mentioned how kids were discouraged from attending due to the rigorous nature of the course. The specificity as to why was on the next leg of the course when I had to climb over a rope/plank bridge where the wooden planks for your feet had a nasty tendency to be just out of reach. The result is stretching waaaaay out and hoping you hit it. At least we did this in the daylight.

The entire course took around an hour and a half to two hours to complete, during which time it was not uncommon to find oneself having to literally hang onto the tree for dear life in order to advance to the next cable. Good lord was this fun. Zipping through the trees, climbing over them, walking across rope and cable bridges while sweating like crazy under the canopy of a forrest in the middle of St. Maarten is tough to beat for sheer vacation bliss.

By the way, neither My Fair Lady nor I believe in going on vacation just to sit around. Hell, we can do that at home. I experienced plenty of it as a kid when the family would hit South Padre island on our summer trips. We'd read on the beach and play in the surf, and go para-sailing. Do that frequently enough and you grow bored. So whenever My Fair Lady and I are on vacation we're off doing extreme activities like this. This is something to keep in mind if you're ever anxious to go on vacation with us. "Restful" it will not be.

Once we finished the course, we hung out at the bar and talked to some of the other guests before playing more with Eiko and then hopping back on the bus. We pulled into the wharfs with several hours to kill so opted to hail a cab and ride over to the downtown (about a 20 minute walk from the harbor). We jumped out of the cab and beheld... the exact same stores we'd seen on the previous islands. The primary difference though was the essential ambiance. Perhaps it was the feeling of being in a Euro-designed town, but the downtown markets, familiar though they were, did at least feel more welcoming. No matter, we thought, we'll look through them anyway and see what we could find. This town though was built much like their European founders in that everything was very narrow and pedestrians not only had the right of way everywhere they were, but also could walk in front of and in between the cars on the street. It's something fascinating to watch if you've never seen it. Then, out of nowhere, I heard it.

The Fanfare.

The initial blast of the symphony at once, the rest vanish while the trumpets sound, the rest of the music swells, and the involuntary reaction of my face is to form an ear-to-ear grin while my mind is instantly five again. Only a single piece of music has that effect on me, and it had found me in the very heart of St. Maarten.

Star Wars.

Try though he might through hammering the fans with outright lies and relentless pandering, George Lucas shot me in the head with a movie when I was a small boy and I've never been the same since. Star Wars lives in my blood as a part of me so much so that I will go to my grave loving it and dreaming of flying the Milennium Falcon around the galaxy battling the Empire. But I wondered who the hell was playing it in St. Maarten of all places. My Fair Lady heard the same music and wondered the same thing. I whipped my head around and found it coming from a small alcove off to the side of the main drag. Figuring we may as well check out a Star Wars store on St. Maarten we went in.

The first thing we did was walk up the stairs past some posters and such onto a balcony overlooking the street below. We ducked into the first open door and that's when I came face to face with Yoda. Or at least a good replica. I started looking around and something about the place felt... different. This wasn't a simple Star Wars store because while there was plenty of artwork from the series there were plenty of other pieces as well. Some original, some not, but all of it together told me I was someplace I'd like. Then an older gentleman came out and introduced himself as Nick Maley, a name I couldn't place. Then he told me who he was.

"I'm the one who helped design and build Yoda," he calmly said. He pointed me to a picture of him sitting at a work bench working on the animatronic Yoda used in The Empire Strikes Back.

"Huh," I replied. I think it was this exact moment when my brain literally shut down. As much as I want to meet all the original cast members, there is a part of me genuinely scared to. Oh sure, they're as human as you or me but there remains that part of my brain indelibly attached to Star Wars in a way that goes beyond simple love. I was shaking the hand of the guy who had made Yoda himself. I couldn't think straight. Immediately my head sort of exploded and imploded at the same time becoming a black hole of geekery.

"So, uh, how did you wind up out here?" I meekly asked.

Nick casually explained to us how he and his wife grew tired of Hollywood after one too many bad experiences and went sailing for a year. When they returned they decided to settle in St. Maarten so he set up shop and sells Star Wars artwork as well as his own paintings, which were quite good by the way. I asked him how much one particular thing was and he rattled off a price approaching $1000. Considering what it was, I wasn't surprised. He also noted that it was one of a few things not for sale on his website so you had to know it was there in order to buy it. I made a mental note to call him for it when I became wealthy someday.

In the meantime, we chatted him up about this and that. I seemed to actually skirt most things Star Wars related because I knew that would be opening a floodgate and I wouldn't want to leave. I looked through some of his different prints for the films and since My Fair Lady correctly recognized there was no way in hell I could leave without buying something I found one I liked. It contained a few storyboards and a script page from The Empire Strikes Back and looked uber cool. Nick was even nice enough to autograph it to me so I was fairly hopped up on "Geek" by the time we were ready to leave. We still wanted to look around a bit outside so they kindly held it for us, then we took our leave. As we walked downstairs I was still geeking out and then I actually looked at some of the posters on the stairwell. Highlander, Lifeforce, Krull, The Keep, Clash of the Titans, Superman I and II...

I mean the guy worked on my childhood. How the hell could I not be reduced to a complete basket case?

This one is running a little long so I'll split the rest of the day and night into Part II. Enjoy.

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