Monday, January 23, 2012

Skin Deep

The Caribbean highlight reel continues: At the island of St. Thomas, we decided we should try a little open-water snorkeling, which is a tourist staple, of course. The idea here is that you pays your money and you get ferried a few miles out to sea where your (hopefully) expert Captain outfits you with fins, a mask, a snorkel, and a lifetime of experience before throwing you overboard to meet some fish.

As often happens in my family, there was disagreement in selecting an appropriate excursion - the majority of these involving a leisurely half-day on a catamaran with complimentary rum and sunburns. This is where my wife and daughter wanted to spend their time. My son and I felt the need for speed and were more interested in the Captain Nautica rock'n'roll powerboat snorkeling excursion.

So, we split up for the day - the ladies reclining on their catamaran while the The Boy and I signed on to Captain Nautica's crew. In the end, I think my son and I made the better decision. We started early in the morning and, since we were taking a very fast powerboat, we were able to make the 18-mile journey to Turtle Bay, Buck Island long before any other snorklers. As a result, we had some ocean and Green Sea Turtles all to ourselves.

Our boat disgorging snorklers (The Boy is furthest on the left).

Swimming over some curious turtles.
Curiouser yet.
The Boy, his turtle friend, and a bad re-enactment of 'Free Willy'.
After 45 minutes or so in the water with these creatures, we dragged ourselves back into the boat to make a second stop on the opposite side of Buck Island where there was a sheltered bay. There we attracted various smaler fish with bits of melon rind, saw a shipwreck, and even got Barry the Barracuda to pose for pictures.

The Boy summons his horde.
Gliding over a shipwreck.
Clever Barry waits under the hull of our boat.
In contrast, the ladies barely saw just one turtle and only got to snorkel in one location. That said, they got all the rum they could drink. And that ain't bad.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sell You Pictures, I Can

You need to read the title above in your very best Yoda voice. Practice it a few times before you read any further. Be patient - this will all make sense in a moment or two.

So I've been away, chasing warmer breezes somewhere south with my family. We spent a few days at DisneyWorld and then floated towards a Caribbean New Year's Eve on the Disney Magic. In the past, I would have written a post for each day of such a journey, but not this time. I think we're going to go with a highlight reel - in no particular order - of things done and seen that might be half-ways interesting.

Let's start on the island of St. Maarten. Like pretty much every Caribbean island, St. Maarten caters to the cruise crowd's affinity for shopping. And that means a shopping district just steps away from the gangplank where vitamin-D deprived North Americans and Europeans can pick up high-end jewellery on the cheap. I don't why this is or how it started, but I'm talking about entire streets where jewellery stores stand shoulder to shoulder, selling diamonds and gold at prices that are (apparently) very reasonable.

I'm not a shopper, let alone a shopper interested in jewellery, but after we had finished our family trek down a rainforest trail that morning, my son and I dutifully followed my wife and daughter down such a shopping street. While the ladies poked around in store after store, us menfolk simply shifted our butts from one shady bench to the next, passing the time by sweating and looking for free wifi.

Positive that there was nothing on that street that spoke to our manly interests, we spied something very much out of context:

This picture is stolen from the Web. It's better than the one I took!

We found Yoda Guy. On a Caribbean island, in a shopping oasis full of diamonds and gold, we found Yoda Guy. Perplexed and slightly dizzy from the heat, we had to check out this Yoda Guy.

You can read Yoda Guy's story here, but the short version is this: Nick Maley was part of the creative crew that built the Yoda puppets for the Star Wars movies. At some point in his career as a movie artist, he, along with his wife Gloria, ended up on the island of St. Maarten. There they run Planet Paradise, selling movie memorabilia and Maley's artwork, along with running a movie museum in the same building.

My family and I had to check this out, of course. We're geeks. Walking in the front door, we found a winding staircase lined with photos and explanations of Maley's movie work - mostly Star Wars related stuff. At each step leading up to their store, we grew a little more excited at the prospect of maybe, just maybe, taking home a little piece of Star Wars and maybe, just maybe, hearing a really juicy Carrie Fisher anecdote from Yoda Guy. See what I mean:

Just inside the front door.

Further front door clarifications.
I cannot disagree with this.
Up the final flight of stairs towards the gallery.
It was at the top of the stairs that things got weird(er) and any visual evidence got lost. We first encountered a full Stormtrooper costume in a glass display case. There was a sign on the case that read something like this:

If you'd like to have your picture taken with the Stormtrooper, 
we'd be happy to open the case for $7.

Unsettling, we thought. Were they really charging a fee for a picture with this costume? And how did they arrive at $7? Why not $5. Or maybe $10?

Further down the hallway we entered the store proper. It was more or less a small art gallery with a display case in the center of the room and a sales counter in the corner. In that display case was a life-sized statue of Yoda and, again, we encountered a helpful sign:

Photography is reserved for Customers!

I put my camera away at this point. I got the fact that cameras in an art gallery might not be a good thing, but the sign added to my 'unsettled' feeling about the place. From the counter behind us there was a "Welcome" from Gloria Maley. Friendly enough, she launched into a pitch that I'm sure she has given hundreds of times. The upshot was this: there was all kinds of stuff for sale in the store and the price was not carved in stone. Since we were tourists from a cruise ship, we could get an additional discount. Now, if we spent $39 or more as a family, we could go into the museum for free. If we didn't spend $39 or more, we could still make a $15 'donation' and go through the museum anyways.

The word 'donation' seemed interesting, so I asked her about it. Their goal, said Gloria, was to raise enough money to be able to buy the building next door and turn it into a re-creation of the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. It was unclear to me what they would do with a cantina, although I supposed it would involve a fee. I just chuckled and assured Gloria that theirs was a noble goal.

Free to peruse Planet Paradise, here's what I noticed:
  • We were the only people in the store
  • From what I could see, the memorabilia amounted to framed, photocopied pages out of a Star Wars script, autographed by Nick
  • There were the odd bits of Star Wars trading cards and comic books
  • There were pencil drawings of Tauntauns and the like, all done by Nick
  • There were some pieces of original art done by Nick, all Caribbean themed
  • Nothing had a price tag that I could see
  • The museum entrance was a rather dark doorway off the side of the store, which suggested that the museum was likely quite smallish
  • Pictures from inside the museum suggested it was pretty much a collection of costumes from Star Wars and a number of other movies
It wasn't too long - like 45 seconds or so - before Han Solo's words were in my head, "I've got a bad feeling about this." There seemed to be no actual memorabilia to be had - at least none that interested me. The vibe in the place felt a little bit grasping. I realize that people need to make a living, but the requests for money felt a little icky (although I'm open to better words here).

I decided that we needed to leave (nothing to see, move along...). Being the only people in the store, and under the watchful eye of Gloria, we would need to use a subtle bit of shuffling towards the door before making our break for daylight. But there was a problem. My kids were on the other side of the gallery and, as I strolled over to whisper a few words to them, Yoda Guy himself emerged from the back room.

Now, I found Nick to be a very nice chap, but his first few words after "Hello" were basically a repeat of the instructions we had just received from Gloria. When I mentioned the fund-raising plans for the next-door cantina, Nick chuckled a bit and called the whole thing 'his folly'. I searched my brain for a Star Wars question to fill the oncoming conversational void, but Nick had already wandered off to confer with Gloria. It was our opening! The four of us quickly, but coolly, made our way back down the stairs and out the door.

I admit feeling a a bit disappointed with myself afterwards, like maybe I should have bought a little something. Nick and Gloria Maley seemed like nice-enough people trying to make a living for themselves on a lovely little island. Maybe I shouldn't have been so turned-off by the fact they were so very up-front about 'money for something'. But in the end, it was all very off-putting. I wish them well and I hope they build their cantina someday (all without a visit from a LucasArts lawyer). And if "Nick's folly" ever becomes reality, I'd like to pay a visit and hear that juicy Carrie Fisher story over a cold mug of Jawa Beer.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Found Wandering

I've been elsewhere doing other things without the decency to leave a note so you wouldn't worry. I'm back - sort of. The majority of elsewhere and other things has been a long-ass vacation in warmer, Disneyfied environs. I'll share a few stories about all that real soon. Just to be a tease, those stories will include Segways, sea turtles, and tropical Yoda - all wonderous and sometimes bizarre.

The vacation is over now, but I'm still AWOL on a working trip to Canada's capital city. There are no stories to tell here beyond the despair of hotel bachelor living.

Watch this space!