Archives for: November 2008
It is a common misconception that snorkeling in the Caribbean is popular for its intrinsic allure. Sure, hovering weightlessly over hulls of shipwrecked vessels bedecked with clinging corals and haunted by schools of brilliantly colored fish can be an exhilarating experience. It's like floating through a giant tropical aquarium with an added bonus of being able to poke the fish in their little rib cages with your pinky toe.
But after I embarked on a snorkeling expedition in Barbados, I came to the conclusion that the main attraction of such enterprises is a racy character of a well weathered captain, whose antics have the same effect on the vacationing passengers that a fresh buffalo carcass dripping with blood would have on a group of undernourished sharks. Being undoubtedly selected for the physical likeness to Kurt Russel, his general recklessness manifested by steering the ship with a foot on the rudder and casual attitude towards rum produces more colorful memories than any tropical fish can ever aspire to.
Our captain introduced himself as a "retired pirate with a valid license to rape and plunder", which immediately engendered quite a few expectant giggles on the part of middle aged ladies in our tour. After pausing for admiring looks to refocus, he vaguely pointed to a chest of life-vests and authoritatively declared: "Those are our emergency suits. If you see me donning one of those and jumping the ship, you know what to do." His navigational prowess was being showcased by spraying each and every passing watercraft with jovial hollering: "Are we in Venezuela yet?" - which we clearly were not, since at all times we were just skirting the island of Barbados at very close distance. And when we finally anchored at an old wreck site, he made sure that we all knew how to swim with a cautionary observation: "There is 26 feet of water down here and I don't see anyone 27 feet tall. So..."
It was fun. But when I crawled back on the catamaran and surveyed the rest of our group still floating around the area, something started to puzzle me. English has a sophisticated system of collective nouns for various groups of animals - a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, a litter of puppies, a school of fish. So what do you call a bunch of snorkelers having fun in the turquoise Caribbean waters?
I turned to the Captain with an inquiry and he only bared his teeth in an amused grin and said: "Have some rum and you'll figure it out." Hmmmmm, could it be a school of thought?
Cruise ship is a very interesting ecosystem. From a distance, it looks like a huge mixing bowl of raw human dough, where you may find random selections of people at any given place at any given time. But when you look closer, you will realize that different strata of this biosphere have their own groups of endemic species, much like tropical jungles do. If you start frequenting specific places, you will indeed see similar sets of faces every day. Different critters inhabit the ground levels, swarming through an underbrush, different critters swing from a trunk to a trunk on long vines and lianas, and different critters occupy the cruise liner's lofty canopy. Each and every nook and cranny will eventually be found by some life forms and made home to them.
If I was a zoologist, I'd spend hours roaming the decks and recording their curious indigenous fauna. The teenagers gathering around the hot pools, the gym crowd strutting on an oval walking track around the fitness center, the mature ladies tempting their luck in the casino, cigar puffing gentlemen pretending to appreciate the live piano music at the Safari club, the gangs of little kids on a basketball court, the couples and pairs enjoying the daily productions at the theater, the young and restless crowd gathering in the Vortex nightclub, and last but not least, the ubiquitous drunks converging methodically to ship's numerous bars.
Speaking of intemperance: cruise ships can really be thought as large and very realistic simulators of drunkenness sans the annoying hangovers. What with the hull swaying incessantly from one wave to another, anytime you go somewhere - and it is especially true for the long and narrow corridors - you get nearly palpable feeling of being completely drunk, except that you are completely sober, so you can actually enjoy and appreciate this fluid sense of disorientation. At first, it feels rather unusual, but eventually you get used to it and your body develops a completely new framework for walking. A little skill that I like to call the Cruise Control.
The Magic of Moisture
One thing which truly amazes me about our universe is how singularly uneven the distribution of natural beauty is.
Just consider a thought experiment in which you fly in a low orbit over our sister planets - Venus and Mars. Its just bare rocks and dirt, a habitat so boring and inhospitable that even an idealistic scorpion would be hard pressed to call it a real estate. There is nothing you could put on a postcard. Just miles and miles of the same desert like landscape. And then there is Earth, the mystical blue orb with its steaming volcanoes, sprawling prairies, patches of green ferns, ramified linden trees, thundering waterfalls, majestic sequoias, skippy kangaroos, moss covered boulders, sinusoidal sting rays, fragrant orchids, stern tundras, rows of cherry trees, you name it.
Nowhere can you see this baffling display of morphological exuberance better than in a rain forest. I recently visited the island of St Lucia, where we took a relatively short hike winding through its original jungle to a mineral waterfall. We started in a little village, not far from the famous Pitons and ascended along a narrow path through a sugar cane field into the forest. As we were leaving the village, our guide would often reach into a dense foliage and uncover some bizarre looking fruit, the kind you usually see prominently displayed in the produce section of supermarkets. While in the mild climate forest you can count up to 5-6 kinds of trees, in here it seemed that each tree is its own species, emanating intoxicating smells and spreading its convoluted branches thirstily in all directions. Soon we came to a small waterfall, whose sulfuric waters smelled of healing powers. And I bet at least half of the wildly entangled plants surrounding it could cure you of your ailments too.
Being a garden variety Earthling, I simply marveled. But if I was a Martian, I would be infinitely envious.
We, mathematicians, can be pretty dangerous grocery shoppers.
Every Saturday, I take a trip to a local Giant food store to replenish my stock of consumables. On most days, I just grab a cart and pretty efficiently run through the gamut of aisles, having long memorized all the requisite stops. But this time I wanted to get a Mango Tea, so I parked my cart at the entrance of the tea/coffee section and went on a prowl. I found my tea pretty quickly, tossed it in the cart and rode off into the Sun-Dried Tomatoes Land.
I also wanted something sweet, so for a while I was criss-crossing the store in the hope of finding something outrageously delectable. I passed many shelves filled with food items that I have never seen, some with a lot of nutritional value, some with less so, and some without it altogether. I would classify many of the finds as barely edible. In fact, I'd be better off quenching my hunger by xeroxing pancakes than gorging on some of the articles I saw on display in the canned meat department.
Anyway, at the end of my exploratory voyage I ended up getting some kind of syrupized strawberries that looked both sweet and healthy. I was about to place a jar of them into the cart when I noticed a very strange thing. My cheeses and nuts and yoghurts were all gone and the only object lying at the bottom of my cart was a large sack of apples. I have nothing against apples, but I remember distinctly that this particular weekend I didn't need any. Consequently, I didn't buy any. Apparently, as I was searching for the Mango Tea, I must have abandoned my cart and snatched mistakenly someone else's upon return.
Ridden with guilt, I dashed back through the store into the tea aisle and found that my cart was still there - unattended. There were only two people in the whole aisle: a guy seemingly distraught by the baffling variety of coffee brands and some teenage girl with a hairdo so eccentric that I was tempted to ask whether she made it herself while watching the final stages of the American Idol. Both of them had their own cart, so there was no point trying to apologize to them. I parked the apple sack inconspicuously next to my old cart, placed my hands slowly on its bar and drove it away. Silently. Although I did consider whistling.
The gentleman didn't notice me, but the girl was clearly amused by my swapping maneuver. I am sure by this time she's told all her friends to be careful at Giant Foods. An apple snatcher is on the loose.