Well, here we are, back in Illinois. And sorting through everything that I had been through on my trip to Florida, my first time outside Illinois and my first vacation ever. (My family pointed out that I had been to Indiana for ten minutes when I missed a turn off and had to doubleback. Why do I bother to tell them anything?)
So what all happened?
Part of it was thinking about what I wanted to do while I was there. Thursday, had to spend with the parents. They were going to take me to Sea World. Oooooooookay. I went and checked out the web site to see what they had to offer. Hmm. I didn't know they had roller coasters there.
Price to get in for the day...$82?!? You can get a two day pass for the same price (second day free). The price for the walk among the penguins tour I wanted was $40. Pet the dolphins? $50.
I have a nasty tendency to be late, even if only by a few minutes. But getting up on time was not a problem. I didn't sleep very well. Jimmy kept trying to talk me down. Even my old aromatherapy trick (lavender bath, blue light) didn't help. I fell asleep at about 1AM and got up about 6AM, just reading stuff on the Internet.
Just before I left, I got a surprise visit. My teacher showed up to say goodbye and make sure I was okay. I was shocked, she's usually meditating about that time, so for her drive all that way really made me feel special. I introduced her to Jimmy with some nervousness. I don't know why, but I tend to compartmentalize my friends, so the different groups don't really meet. Shooting Firewater! was interesting because I never had so many of my disperate friends intersect like that before. She told me to keep calm, I'll be fine, and so on.
As she left, Jimmy said, “She loves you.”
We're just friends.
“Not like that, you dipshit! I mean like family!” I never thought the bond between us was that noticeable, but I guess it is.
Got to the airport. Not a lot of activity, fitting considering it's one of the slow weeks for travel. Jimmy dropped me off right outside the Southwest gate and I went inside.
I wandered up to what I figured was the ticket counter. “Can I help you?”
Yeah, I've never flown before and I don't know what to do.
“Do you have your flight information?”
I gave her the print out of my information. In a flash, I had a boarding pass and was told to go to the escalators over there, down one level, turn right.
I was there over two hours early because of all the horror stories I heard about security. I drift into lines, and get to the scanner and X ray machine. With some coaching, I got my bag on the belt and sent it through. I put my pack in a plastic bin, taking out Kylie (netbook computer), Fermata (tablet), and my cell phone. Shoes off, change in there (eleven cents, two coins), and walk through the metal detector. It goes off.
I put my wallet and watch in a bowl and send it through. Still goes off.
The guard looks at me and says, “Take off your hat.” It's a straw gambler, but maybe there's a store security tape in there or something. I got through. Jesus Christ.
I then stop at a table where a TSA guy is patting people down. And I wait. After a while, an agent comes up to me and asks, “Can I help you?”
I'm waiting to be patted down.
“You got your stuff?”
And so, I enter the main area. My boarding area turned out to be aaaaaaaaaall the way down at the end. I get there and ask the people at the counter there what happens next.
“Well, we don't board until about a half hour before the flight takes off.”
So I'm free to do whatever?
So I wander around the airport area to kill time. What was the airport like? It's kind of like a mall. Seriously. There's a food court and a lot of shops selling books, magazines, food, and even a music store. Small, but still an actual music store. A jewelry and trinket shop called Spirit Of The Red Horse. There was even a small kids toy store there. It reminded me of the mall back when there were actually stores there I wanted to go to (music stores, book stores, etc.). The only difference was, instead of a bunch of stores I had no interest in going in to like Chess King, there were boarding areas.
You can learn a lot about what kind of people use an area by what is around. As I looked, I noticed that, other than the food places, every place except the music store had books and magazines for sale. A lot of stuff lower middle class or higher, but other than business magazines, nothing for the upper classes. I enjoyed browsing the bookstores. There was one (Hudson Books) that reminded me my favorite bookstore, B Dalton. The kids' toy store reminded me of Kaybee Toys. I just enjoyed stepping back in time for a little bit.
Actually, I understand why those stores are there. Every time someone goes on a trip, someone asks them to bring them back something. With this, you can pick something up after you get off the plane, you don't have to figure out how to put it in your luggage or whatever. Kind of a slick idea, actually.
I would estimate that a full quarter of the food places there had a full blown bar in them. Whether for business travelers or people needing a jolt of liquid courage, I don't know. Having never flown before, I didn't want a full bladder or anything that would upset my stomach, so I just toughed it out. I would tank up after I landed in Florida.
I eventually made it back to the boarding area. I did a quick wifi scan and found two public networks. One, however, was for Southwest employees on their break and needed an access code. The other was a Boingo network. $10 a month for unlimited usage, including on some planes, and $7 for 24 hours. I love my Internet, but I'm not THAT desperate. Once again, I'd wait until I landed.
I was in group C, so I was one of the last to board. Walking down the hall, I soon came to the plane proper. I didn't even have to step inside before I could FEEL how small the area was. I got around the corner of the galley, and saw what reminded me of the longest camper trailer I've ever seen. Very little space, and I understand this is generous for an airplane. I know movies fudge reality a little bit, but this was just mindblowing. I wandered until I found a seat with an overhead compartment with open space. I stuck my carry on in there and sat.
Once seated, I got a look at the area under the seat. My pack is just big enough for Kylie, Fermata, and a couple of books. Turns out I could have used a decent sized laptop case. I made a note to measure the space before I completely deplaned (simple measuring trick – a dollar bill is approximately six inches). Rough size – 18 inches by 18 inches by maaaaaybe 10.
Unfortunately, I didn't get a window seat like I wanted. I took an aisle. Fortunately, I fit just fine in there despite my...ahem, huskiness, although I'm glad I've lost twenty pounds in the past year. The seat next to me was open, and the guy at the window seat slept the entire time. However, the passenger to my left was a nervous flier. She flies frequently, and it apparently always freaks her out. Her friend was trying to use me to give her some confidence -- “Look at that guy! He's never flown and he's actually excited!” My background as a science nut came in handy as I discussed the physics of flight and talked her down from the ledge.
Eventually, I felt the plane moving. I started looking out the window, trying to commit everything to memory, watching them check the flaps and all. The stewardesses started giving the safety talk. I listened intently. I mean, they're doing this, the least I can do is give them my attention. I think I surprised the stewardess, because she looked half bored as she went through the spiel and I think I was the only one actually paying attention.
The plane then started moving forward. I'm watching out the window with rapt fascination. I look to my left, and the nervous passenger looks like she's on the verge of a panic attack. Her friend is trying to calm her down, but it isn't working. She curls forward in her seat, head against the seat in front of her. I reach across the aisle and say, Want to hold my hand? She nods and puts a death grip on my wrist and hand (thank God I'm a righty). So my attention is split between saying everything is fine and being cool and memorizing the sensations going through me. Eventually, her friend says we're up, and she starts to uncurl. She smiles apologetically at me, but I wave it off.
So, the sensation of flight – it's unbelievable. The forward motion isn't really noticable, it's kind of damp. But the elevator, when you are climbing, that near zero G feeling, is just incredible. As the plane flew, I could feel every little tilt and pitch of the plane, it was quite awesome. I was continually doing my trick to pop my ears. No pain or anything, I just don't like it when it sounds like I'm listening through cotton. The plane did shake a little from turbulence at times, although I've ridden in cars that shake more than that. I figured it was just normal, planes fly through this all the time. A voice in my head asked, “What makes you so sure?” I looked around for a moment, then responded, The stewardesses. They are walking around, doing their job, AND LOOKING BORED OUT OF THEIR MINDS. If there was a problem, they wouldn't be so sleepy. And the voice was silenced.
I looked out the window as much as I could. Seeing the houses, the highways, everything from up there, just mindblowing. The world looks so different up there.
Fermata's speakers are kind of weak, and hearing anything on her was nearly impossible. Kylie's are a bit better, but not quite good enough. My headphones were in the carry on, but I was able to enjoy games and typing as I went.
The plane left more of less on time, I guess, I don't know for sure. We weren't waiting or anything like that, we were moving almost as soon as I sat. At about 12:10, the pilot said we were approaching Nashville. I could feel the plane starting to tilt down, so I figured we were leaving cruising altitude and coming in for the stop. I looked out the window. Green landscape and autumn brown everywhere, a wonderful sight.
The nervous passenger had had a couple because she was unconsciously holding her glass tilted at an angle. I figured she was mellowing out. Nope. As we started coming in for landing, she started hyping again. She started reaching out for my hand and I gave it to her. She let go just long enough to let the stewardess pass by, then latched on again. I kept telling her things would be fine. As the plane came in for landing, she really started losing it. When the tires touched down, she tried to shoot across the aisle and into my arms, the only thing preventing her from doing so was the seat belt. Hugging her as well as I could and trying to be soothing (something I don't have a lot of experience with), we eventually started slowing and she unfolded.
She apologized for her behavior. It seemed she had been on a plane that hit turbulence and sent flight attendants flying down the aisle. I told her it was no problem, we look out for each other. We talked for a couple of minutes more, I mentioned I was a writer, and gave her a Hannah Singer book. Her friend took a picture of us together to put on her Facebook. The flight attendants thought the two of us were a couple because of how we interacted and were shocked to find out we were just two ships passing in the night or whatever poetic metaphor is appropriate for this. We said our goodbyes and they took off.
(I noted with some humor that, as we were landing, the overhead announcement's accent changed from Midwesterner to Southern. That's preparedness.)
With everyone off, we were allowed to switch seats if we wanted to. I immediately scoped out a window seat and took one by one of the emergency doors and with a full view of the turbine. I had a primo view of everything, and more room for my swingin' size 14 feet. Before long, more people were boarding, and it was time to get ready.
This flight was much less eventful. The woman next to me was listening to her iPod, so I got to see the runway, the mountains, and eventually, flying above the cloud layer. I also made a note to consider where I would be sitting if I flew again. When we took off, the sun was high in the noon sky. But as it set, I was starting to get glare from it. Next time, coordinate where I am on the plane with what time of day it will be.
The view out the window was amazing and beautiful. The clouds below us seemed to form their own landscape, a winter scene painted in white and slate blue, with rolling hills and parts where the clouds thinned out looking like a lake. The cloud cover ended when we got out over the gulf. It was like spun sugar, stretching out for all eternity. My first view of Florida was mindboggling. Water everywhere, with land popping up at various points like zits on prom night. It was my first hint that I was going to be in a completely new environment.
We landed, and I waited politely for the crowd to die down before I got off the plane. I got inside the Tampa airport proper. It felt like a blend between a mall and an airport. Feeling a bit hungry, I looked over the airport offerings. One was bragging about two hot dogs and a regular drink for $9. They were bragging about what a deal that was. Yup, I'm definitely not in Illinois anymore.
I eventually made it to the car rental company (this place also had bookstores and the like, but I didn't want to browse, I wanted to find myself a McDonald's so I could check the Internet and load up). I got to the car rental company and showed my information for my reservation. I had reserved from Dollar Rental for about $300 for the week, unlimited mileage. Having my own independence was vital. The guy started ringing up insurance, I went with the most basic. He offered to prepay a tank of gas, which I passed on. He said if I didn't bring it back gassed up, it would cost me $9 a gallon. Awesome, it's like I never left Chicago! He mentioned a Sun Pass – there are some toll roads in Florida that only take this electronic toll pass, no cash or anything, and if you blow through one, it's $25 per incident. In Illinois, if you blow through an electronic toll lane, you still have five days to get online and pay it. Not here. Never thought I'd see a place less citizen friendly than Illinois, but apparently there is one (maybe the voters who approved this nonsense were confused by the butterfly ballot). I'm in a completely new environment, and don't want to run afoul of the law, so I opt for the Sun Pass, unlimited.
Grand total? About $550. Can you say, “highway robbery?”
I get the Ford
I rented a compact car, what I'm used to. I got in and noticed two things. First, it had satellite radio, but it wasn't paid for – the only station you could hear was their hype station. Second, no cruise control. None. I haven't seen a car without it in some form since the early 90's. Power locks, anti-theft, dot matrix display announcing the car was a Ford Focus, aux line in for an MP3 player, but no cruise control. Survey says, “What the fuck?”
I turn on my GPS. Should have done that outside the building before I went to the rental car. My GPS was unaware it had moved and I could hear it screaming, “Where the fuck am I?!?” as it acquired the satellites. It took it a couple of minutes. Once done, I selected a McDonald's. I followed the directions to a fenced in parking lot. The road was accurate, but there not only wasn't a McDonald's there, but you could tell from the parking lot there never was. I select another, hoping this one is right. It is. I get there and ask if they have wifi. They say they do, and I grab Kylie out of the car. Prices are about what they are back home. I had some McChicken sandwiches and loaded up on tea.
During this time, I reactivated my cell phone. I got a message from Mornblade. They were already at the house and was I okay. I told them I had just touched down and was eating a bit. According to the GPS, I was a little over an hour away and would be on my way soon.
Driving was a nightmare. It's not that traffic was bad. It was culture shock. Once I got on the road, I was riding entire stretches of highway going over water. Guard rails underscored the fact that you couldn't just walk anywhere, you were on the road and you kept moving. It's unnerving to realize you can't just stop and walk anywhere you want, you need some sort of vehicular assistance to travel, either on the road or just over that gulf of water. You are completely at the mercy of your vehicle. And if you don't have enough gas or whatever, you can't just hit the next off ramp and tank up, you have to prepare in advance. I started wondering to myself if maybe coming here wasn't such a good idea.
Continuing to drive, including over a bridge whose size made it look like a friggin' mountain, I also saw Tropicana Field, where I guess the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play. The place looks like it's deflating. No kidding. The dome is actually tilted at a noticeable angle, like a squashed layer cake. I know that was probably intentional, and it's still better than the space age toilet bowl that Soldier Field resembles, but it still looked damned ridiculous.
It was nighttime before long, so I couldn't really get the lay of the land anymore, just going where my GPS was telling me to. I just wanted to get there, look at the beach, and go to bed. While driving, I got a phone call from my mom. Needless to say, my voice reflected a distinct lack of enthusiasm at this point. My mother's distinct lack of faith in my faculties came to the fore as soon as I said, Hello?
“What's wrong?!?” No, hi, no, how are you, immediately she asks what's wrong.
The last thing I want from her is a bullshit pep talk, saying that I shouldn't be feeling this way and selling me on all the wonderful stuff I could be doing if I opted to get a place close to them or in Orlando. The light inside me was not strong enough to keep the darkness from escaping and wreaking havoc. With a sigh, I told her, I'm still in Chicago.
I was detained by security and they wouldn't let me on the plane.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?!?”
They wanted me to turn on my laptop. I did, and they said they wanted to search the files. I said that was a violation of my civil rights, Homeland Security is only allowed to do that if you are traveling out of the country. We started arguing, and they hauled me down.
“OKAY! JUST CALM DOWN! YOU'RE DAD IS WALKING THE DOG! HE'LL BE HERE AND HE'LL THINK OF SOMETHING!”
I knew I shouldn't have tried this.
“No! This isn't your fault! You are paying for terrorism! If it weren't for 9/11, this wouldn't have happened!”
I'm just going to try to get a refund on my ticket.
“No! See if you can transfer it to tomorrow! I'll call your aunt, you can stay with her tonight! You'll be close to the airport and...here's your dad!”
Dad comes on the phone. Cool as a cucumber, he asks, “What are you still doing in Chicago?”
I'm not. According to the GPS, I'm about five minutes from the house.
Long pause. “Oooooooooooooh.”
We talk for a couple of minutes about the flight and stuff, then dad says, “I think I'm going to have to go. Your mom is giving me that look.” My mom has this look when she is confused by listening to only one side of a phone conversation. It's that look your dog gives you when you switch the ball from hand to hand. I say okay, we say our goodbyes, and I hang up. The battery on my phone is low, so I switch it off, meaning mommy can't call me until I'm ready.
I get to the house, and I'm greeted warmly by my brother and his lovely wife. I plug in my phone, knowing I'm going to need it in a little bit, and start hauling stuff in. My other case and radio is already waiting for me in the bedroom that will serve as my base of operations. Eventually, I reactivate the phone and get ready to call friends to let them know I'm okay. Immediately, I hear the ringtone that sounds like a warning siren. It's my mom. “THAT WAS A ROTTEN TRICK YOU PLAYED ON ME!”
No jury would convict me.
“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?!?”
I did nothing. Just like always, if I don't answer the phone sounding like a squirrel on helium, you start pounding me with questions about what's wrong. I'm not putting up with that tonight.
Realizing I am seconds away from hanging up and turning off my phone, she calmed down and she asked how my flight was and such. Eventually, we hung up and I finished my calls.
Before bed, I went down to the beach. It was the most amazing sight I had ever seen. From the placidness of the water, waves would rear up over the top and stampede up the beach before running back into the gulf. I stood there in the water, just taking it in. Occasionally, the water would wash away sand under my feet, making me sink in and depositing more sand on top of them. “Don't go yet, stay awhile. Let's get to know each other.” But I had to go. I ran a hot bath with lavender to help me unwind, set my MP3 player to run my chill music on a continuous loop (once again, ambient noise), and I slept for ten hours uninterrupted.
I wake up the next morning and shower and shave. There's a private bath connected to the room I'm in. It has a very generous shower (it's bigger than my bathtub) and a shower massager. Not a dial shower head like I have, the the kind that...uh...the sisters in the alternative lifestyle communities swear by (no, I didn't do anything with it). Mornblade wants to go to the Sarasota Ren Faire, and I want to go with. It starts at 1030AM. I haven't checked the Intertubes or anything, so I decide to combine everything. I jump in the car and locate a McDonald's. I also make a note to stop by a grocery store and get a few items and do some research.
The McDonald's, thankfully, had wifi, so I was reading and catching up on stuff. I also noticed that it was pretty much like back home. The places in my area each have a regular morning crowd that congregates and catches up there (the one near where I work is populated with farmers, for example). Even the topics I overheard them discussing weren't that much different from back home.
The fact that the environment wasn't exactly completely different continued when I got out. The Mickey D's was next to a Winn Dixie. I wanted to get a couple of things, and went inside. The grocery store and pharmacy layout was almost like Dominick's back home, with even the party supplies and magazines in the same physical area and layouts. I make a detour through the health and beauty aisle. They have the Tom's Of Maine toothpaste I use, no artificial sweeteners. If I come down here next time, I can pretty much just pick up toiletries down here instead of packing them.
(I mentioned to dad on the phone that they had the brand I used. “Well, you could just use any toothpaste. You're only here for a week, the artificial sweeteners won't kill you.” And I thank you for your support.)
Winn Dixie is sort of like Dominick's in pricing, too. I wanted ramen. They had a “name brand” ramen (the plastic bag is actually good quality) for 60 cents a pack. But looking down below, there was the store brand ramen, a block of six packs, 3 for $4. THAT'S more like it.
A good traveler leaves no footprints, so I opted for ramen in a cup and a box of plastic forks (toss them, no dishes afterwards). Also got some lemon tea and a small bag of sugar and a roll of paper towels for the bathroom to wipe down the sink and stuff after I shave.
Once I get back, it doesn't take me long to get the stuff I need put away, and Mornblade and I are on the road to the Ren Faire. On the way, I stop by a hardware store and grab a couple of blue lightbulbs for the lamps in my room. I'm calming down, because seeing the sheer stretches of water is more beautiful than frightening now.
We get there and park, me grabbing my straw gambler to keep the sun off my head. One of the selling points here was the Tortuga Twins (or one set of them). So we paid and went inside.
This had probably the smallest carbon footprint of any festival I've been to. There were a couple of rides, but they were actually human powered and really interesting from a physics perspective. I was trying to pay attention. Rennies have a unique culture. I like to think of it as a Disneyfied version of history. There's a book called A World Lit Only By Fire which tells you exactly what it was like living in Medieval times. It wasn't this happy or easy (Neil Gaiman touched on this in one of his classic Sandman stories). Rennies tend to focus on customs and living in a time of chivalry and honor, where customs are known and lines don't get stumbled across. In other words, it's like a virtual reality or MMORPG, more immersive than anything technology can come up with.
This meant getting in their rhythm. The way of speaking, interacting, the humor (puns multiply like gerbils there), things like that. There were pony rides (no, I didn't take one) and lots of handcrafted items for sale. Mornblade commented that the biggest anachronism he saw was a guy in period-perfect clothing but talking on a cell phone. My biggest moment of cognitive dissonance was the food vendors, which was offering a “Philly cheesesteak”. That and, for a setting that is ostensibly an English forest, there were palm trees popping up every once in a while.
One of the vendors was offering “haggis and chips.” I started laughing and making jokes (there's an upcoming issue of Sound Waves where Rhapsody goes to Scotland. Her host offers to treat her to an authentic Scottish dinner and she blanches. “You've heard about haggis, haven't you?” Rhapsody responds, “It actually turned me vegan for a week.”) Mornblade said he was thinking of giving in a try. I looked at him like he lost his mind. He asked, “What exactly is haggis?”
You don't know?
“I've heard people say it's gross, but I figured it can't be that bad.”
Haggis is the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep boiled in its own stomach.
There's an old Polish proverb that says, With some ethnic food, the less authentic, the better. Like menudo.
“I thought that was a band.”
It's beef balls and broth.
He had a cheesesteak instead. I guess I'm more surprised I didn't kill his appetite.
The Tortuga Twins show was going to start, and we got seats at the front. One thing to keep in mind about comics who use a lot of spontaneity is the risk that you will become fodder for the show. Well, guess who one of the victims was? Hey, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. I wound up marrying the Sheriff of Nottingham.
After the show, as we wandered around, we ran into one of the Tortugas. He thanked me for being a good sport and the three of us had a good conversation, Mornblade about the history of the troop (he saw them ages ago at Bristol and loved them since) and me about improv theater. We were told, if we come to the next show, we might see the Red Riding Hood show if the crowd is big enough, and if I return, I am guaranteed not to be a victim this time. We went to the second show (which was the Robin Hood show again), but I think it's safe to say I'm not scarred for life.
Monday was an off day. While looking over my GPS, it mentioned a Checkers relatively close by. There used to be Checkers burger pits in my area, but they all closed up. So I went there for a walk down memory lane. I miss those burgers and those fries. Once finished, I felt like an energy drain hit me, so I went back and took a nap. I woke up, and realized there wasn't much time left in the day. I decided to keep it simple, and went to Mote Aquarium.
Mote Aquarium is actually a marine research facility. The main bragging point on the web site is a 23 foot long preserved squid. I'm not much of a squid fan, but they did have a penguin exhibit and dolphins, so I put on my penguin club shirt and headed thataway.
There are three main exhibit sections of the park. The main aquarium area is the first place you enter and there are a lot of fascinating fish there. They also have a moray eel that, I swear to God, was yawning. There was an exhibit showing mangroves and lionfish and other stuff. And a few tanks full of jellyfish. I'm not sure what it says about me when I look at all the jellyfish and lionfish and such and I don't think, “That is so wonderful, nature is so amazing.” All I can see is danger. Lionfish are poisonous, and jellyfish are...well...a Whitman's sampler of misery.
There was an absolutely huge shark tank that also had gigantic groupers in it. And I'm not talking casual, the one that was sitting outside it's home was about the size of a sheepdog. Sharks swam by, and everyone went ooh and aah as I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't inside there.
The shark tank was across from an exhibit with an open top. It had a lot of crustaceans in there, including horseshoe crabs. A sign invited you to reach in and touch them if you like. HAHAHA! FUCK YOU!
The shark tank was a left turn from the intersection. Turn right, and you find the penguin exhibit. I had a suspicion what kind of penguins I would be looking at, and I was right. They are blackfooted penguins, also known as the jackass penguin because of the braying sound they make. They live primarily in South Africa, where they are considered pests for building nests under people's houses (in Illinois, we have that problem with stray cats, but at least they keep the mice away). Something tells me their request for a few of these birds was not met with much resistance. So the exhibit reflected their temperate surroundings, with rocks and water and such instead of ice and snow. Yup, they were penguins, they had the attitude. There was a gift stand right next to it with all kinds of penguin merch, including a four foot tall one that I thought about getting until I realized, to get it home, I'd probably have to buy it a seat on the plane.
The next section was “Save Our Seabirds,” a bird rehabilitation and sanctuary area. Lots and lots of owls in here, and a few dipshits wondering why the owls were sleeping during the daytime. Jeeeezus. The last section had sea turtles and manatees you could watch swimming around. Unfortunately, the dolphin tank had no windows, so you couldn't watch any swimming except up top. Only one dolphin, the other had passed on about a month earlier. But it was still interesting to watch.
As I exited the park (the path takes you through the gift shop), a couple of people working there wanted to know where I got the penguin shirt and were disappointed to find out it was a custom job. Work it, girl, work it, girl.
The aquarium also had the infamous Mould-A-Rama. It's this odd contraption that, you put money in, and an injected plastic model is made in front of you in about a minute. I didn't even know they were still around. I don't think they make them anymore because the heated plastic can be problematic in our litigious society. They had one for penguins, one for sharks, and I think at least one more, but I don't remember what it was.
Got back home in plenty of time for the sunset. I was done fucking around. I threw on my swim trunks and went to the beach. I was going in the water, and no one would stay my hand. I went in, got acclimated to the temperature, then dove under. I splashed around a little, mostly just staying in place as the water danced with me. Yes, danced. I can't describe it any other way. It was almost like a waltz, lifting up, moving a little, and setting back down, a little turn and a little movement, gentle and dignified. I resisted a little because it was moving me towards the shore and I didn't feel like ending this yet. I saw the sun set from the water, nothing but the waves between me and the view. I got out, and even the next day, I could still “feel” the lift and lower of the water's rhythm.
Tuesday came, and it was the day everyone was looking forward to for different reasons. I was looking forward to it because it was the day I was going to hit the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Mornblade and his lovely wife were looking forward to it because it was the day of Peter G vs. the all you can eat pancakes and sausage special. This clash of titans played out at the Anna Maria Island Cafe under overcast skies and ended in an honorable draw. The guy saw plenty of people take a plate with three cakes. He had seen some for seconds. He was not expecting the Polish Wonder to get four plates, 12 cakes and 12 sausages total, and finish them all, not throwing out anything. I have a suspicion I'm on some sort of future watchlist now.
With breakfast out of the way, I jetted off to Weeki Wachee. There were toll roads. Now, yes, I had paid for the SunPass, but I don't trust technology. I found a booth that took both cash and the SunPass. I rolled up and asked, I rented this car. Does it have the SunPass activated?
“What does the sign say?”
It says, “Toll $1.”
The guy looked at his computer. “No, I'm not showing you have it.”
Well, thank God I went to a cash lane. I made a note to bitch about this to the rental car company. Apparently, the areas most likely to be SunPass only are around Miami and the Keys. Which means me bombing out of Jules' Undersea Lodge was one of the best things that could happen to me.
I made it to Weeki Wachee, and got my first hint of what was happening when I pulled into the parking lot. Is the place even open? It was. Sort of. I thought Mote Aquarium had a skeleton crew. At least all their exhibits were open and there were still some people around. This was almost like I had the park to myself. I remembered that this was during the week and a dead week as far as the tourist season goes, but even in my wildest imagination I did not envision something like this. I saw more peacocks wandering around than people. I mean, yeah, I'm a solitary person and borderline antisocial, but this was ridiculous.
The park is more or less split into two sections. There's the show and concession section to the left, and the Buccaneer Bay water park to the right. I went left as soon as I entered and was wondering how I would even get to the other side until I completed the circuit and saw the entrance. See, I wasn't just going for the mermaid show, I also thought I would hit the water park and have some laughs.
Well, there was a smallish beach that was open. Everything else? SOL. Every water slide was closed. And these things were bone dry. They weren't just turned off that morning because things were slow, they hadn't been on in a while (a clock in the area was still set for an hour ahead, it hadn't been adjusted for daylight savings). All the float toys, like swim rings and such, were put away and locked up. Wandering in the back by the picnic areas, I found an outside road access gate that was unlocked and open. Presumably, I could have slipped in or out there and no one would have been the wiser.
There was only one food place open, the rest were closed. This was right by a section where they did the animal show. They were in the middle of a show when I got there, the next was at 215. One of the mermaid shows, “The Little Mermaid,” started at 300. I figured that, since the mermaid show is the main draw of the place, the animal show wouldn't last that long.
With the place practically dead, I debated what I would do. No water park, so I would be doing nothing but killing time and maybe catching the reptile show for a while. The voice in my head asked, “So what are you going to do?”
Why did I come here?
“Because you have a borderline obsession with mermaids that you will deny up and down to anybody that asks.”
Then my mission is clear.
I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the areas, did a little meditating, and caught the reptile show. The host gave up on his general patter and was pretty much talking to the audience one on one. They also had two Mould-A-Rama machines. One made a woman on a sea horse, the other a mermaid. As you might have guessed, I got one of each. Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for, 3PM. The theater was open, so I went inside. Biggest crowd of the park there. In fact, I didn't even know there were that many people there. Music played on a Windows Media Player – all the screens were showing an XP desktop. It was playing a steel drum version of Tequila. Before the show proper, they showed a music video shot there (I think the band was Supergrass, but I'm not sure). Then they announced the start of their performance of The Little Mermaid, and the curtain came up.
And there they were. The closest I will ever get to actual mermaids. For the uninitiated, Weeki Wachee was started by a US soldier who was inspired by hose breathing exercises he had to do in military training. The Weeki Wachee Springs proper, you only see a glimpse of it – where the underwater theater is, the “stage” is about 35 feet underwater, the airlock the performers enter and exit from is about 65 feet, but the actual depth is not known. They have gone down 400 feet and still haven't reached the bottom. So the performers had rubber hoses that they would take breaths from so they could stay down there without going belly up. It was interesting to watch how they kept a grip on them or within easy reach without it getting in the way of the performance. (It also gave me a moment of snark. When the little mermaid first gives her prince the air hose to breathe from when he falls overboard, I thought, “Chill, dude, have a toke on this.”)
The show was fine enough. You aren't supposed to be thrilled by the story, after all. After the show, I was getting up when they announced a photo op with an actual Weeki Wachee mermaid by the gift shop. Oh, yeah, I was there. So, didn't matter that so much of the day was spent doing nothing, I got more than I came for.
I wake up Wednesday with that familiar feeling of dread. The one that I sometimes get on the weekends back home, when I realize the fun and liberty of my time off is coming to an inevitable end. In two days, I will be returning to my bullshit life. The exploration and enjoyment will end. I just laid there in the bed for a little while, debating if I should have even come here because now, I know what I'm missing. I ultimately decide that I didn't come here to depress myself, I came here to give my life at least a little bit of the joy I have missed out on or denied myself for the past forty years, so just get on with it. Save your money, work on your writing, and you'll get a chance to do this again next year.
While I was at Weeki Wachee, I had picked up a bunch of tourist fliers to see if there was anything else to do. And one of them was for helicopter rides about the Tampa area. Ooooo, that sounds fun! So after breakfast, I called the place and made arrangements for the basic tour to see what it was like.
I drove to a small airport. The pilot was a swell guy. We settled on the tour and he weighed me to make sure there was enough fuel (254 pounds, so I haven't put on much of the weigh I lost. Thank Elvis for that). He answered all my questions as he went through the preflight and everything. Helicopters are very fascinating devices. Eventually, things were put in motion (it took a while for the gauges to get to the right level), the chopper next to us, a news chopper, lifted off, and we took off.
The helicopter ride was outrageous. The ability to move in any direction regardless of which way you are facing is stunning. We went up about five hundred feet and took a casual spin around the area. He had to remind me I wanted to take pictures because I was too busy enjoying the view. I come back next year, I am DEFINITELY going for the full blown tour.
However, there was the question of karmic balance. The pilot mentioned a couple of other things to do, like the Tampa Aquarium. That sounded great, and there was still time. So I put it into my GPS.
And the nightmare began.
The initial route was blocked off with road construction. The alternate route was blocked off. And the next route was going to take me on a crosstown tollway that only took SunPass, which we've previously established is not active on my car.
I wound up spending forty minutes running a maze of blocked off routes, road construction, one way streets, truck access only, and dividers that weren't on my GPS. It doesn't help that the Florida highways will fray off and weave themselves into a tangle of roads, sometimes with exits so close together you don't know if you are jumping the correct one or not (and half the time, you weren't). I was actually screaming in frustration as I kept being directed to a stretch of highway with no way to cross to the other side five times total. Bonus: there was a hospital there. Thank God there wasn't an actual emergency or the delay could have been fatal. Before long, I was wishing I could drag the guy who created this mess out into the street and shoot him, was questioning why I came to Florida in the first place, screaming, “FUCK THE AQUARIUM!”, and just wanted to get my ass out of Tampa. I eventually stumbled across JFK drive, which spit me out on 275, the main highway I took out of the airport.
I needed to calm down, so I entered a McDonald's into my GPS and went for some comfort food. It was only now I could marvel at how fucked up the road layouts of Tampa are. Getting to the parking lot proper would have taken a U turn. Coming in on the side street, there is only room for cars looking to use the drive up. I know your older cities weren't designed for cars (i.e. Boston), but this is the most frustrating drive I've had in years.
The next day is Thursday, when I meet my parents. We went to Sea World. First stop is breakfast, where I tell them about some of my adventures so far. When I start bitching about the highway system, my dad just nods his head.
Sea World was relatively slow. They were gearing up for the holiday season, so they had Christmas trees and decorations and music playing. Dad told me this wasn't how the park usually looked. Does he really think I'm that fucking stupid? Mom and dad have a season pass and love the animal shows. I wanted to wander around. We came to an arrangement we both liked – I bought tickets for the pet a penguin exhibit and the pet a dolphin exhibit. I would meet them for the Seymore And Clyde Take Pirate Island show afterwards. Once that show was over, I would hit the roller coasters I wasn't even aware they had here, and meet them for the final Shamu show of the day.
I had to book – the penguin exhibit would be gathering in about twenty minutes, and I still had to navigate part of the park. The maps they give away are only moderately helpful. They show the layout of the place, but don't mention where the entrances and exits (especially for the roller coasters) are. Fortunately, the ticket seller marked on the map where the gathering places for the penguins and dolphins were, so it cut things down. The paths bend and curve in weird ways, there's no real direct path anywhere.
Mom had banged her foot earlier in the week. She has a bad leg from a car accident and her not doing her therapy exercises. This only made her walk worse. Mom and dad were there the day before, and dad offered to rent her a Rascal scooter. She felt everyone would be staring at her, and wanted a regular wheelchair. Today, she insisted on a wheelchair instead of a scooter. As dad is pushing, he starts saying he thinks he overdid it, because his shoulders are aching from pushing the wheelchair.
My mom looks at him. “Would it help if I took off the brakes?”
My dad and I just slowly turned out heads to each other and stared for a moment in silent communication.
I also killed a little time at the dolphin nursery. This was where I got my first hint of how difficult taking pictures of dolphins would be. My camera has like a half second delay between when you push the button and it takes the picture. A dolphin would appear, I'd hit the button, and it would be gone by the time the camera recorded the image.
So I'm waiting for the penguin tour in my penguin camp shirt, and people are asking me where they can get one. I caution them before the tour starts to stand in FRONT of the penguin, not in back of it. When asked why, I tell them because, when penguins defecate, it isn't a drop like they are used to. It's like a burst from an air texture gun.
The group gets split into two, one half goes to the penguin habitat and will hit the incubation room last, the other starts in the incubation room and finishes in the habitat. I was in the latter group. So we meet a keeper and Kai, a Magellanic penguin with “attention whore” written all over him. He tried knocking over a garbage can, crawling under the fridge, and it took the tour guide and the keeper to keep him corralled in the room – he kept trying to walk out like he was going to get some coffee. He decided to go for his show stopper, and a spray of yellow fanned out on the floor. Ah, yes, nature is beautiful. I could see everyone look in surprise and say silent thanks they did as I said.
We then went to the habitat and the big moment. It used to be you could walk through the habitat, but today, they just kept us off to the side by the gate that led to it. They brought out two king penguins who weren't fully mature – they still had some of the grey down that chick have, but they were big, probably a few months before full maturity. Each of them did their thing, too. Partway during the tour, two rockhoppers by the gate started a screaming contest, drowning out the guide. When it was time to put the penguins back, they opened the gate, and two Adeles dashed out. You could almost hear them screaming, “Make a break for it!” They then got up to the main door and just stood there staring at it. I don't think they thought their cunning plan through. The kings were put back, and the Adeles, being small, were simply picked up and placed on the other side of the gate.
I was then on my way to the dolphin tour. I had simply given up trying to get pictures of them. We started with the feedind and some training at the nursery. I started noticing how they operated – the trainers gave a hand signal, and the dolphins would do it until the whistle sounded. They stayed in a loop until they heard the whistle. We also got to do a scatter feed, tossing fish into the water for the dolphins to eat.
We then headed for dolphin cove and were split into groups. I got the group with the alphas of the tank. The other dolphins simply game up to the ledge and waited for fish. This group actually went on the ledge and nearly shoved their heads over the dividing wall. We were also told that, to protect our cameras, they were taking pictures of us and we could pick them up afterwards. Well, that's one less headache for me to deal with. An 8x6 was $20, additional pics were $5 each, or you could get a CD with all of them for $40. I went with that one.
The Seymore And Clyde show was very amusing. They have a pirate mime who warms up the crowd and is a real ham. Great stuff. Afterwards, it was time to hit the coasters. There were two I wanted to ride, the Manta and the Kracken (they have one in the kiddie section of the park that looks like it's designed for people who can't handle The Whizzer). First was Manta. Manta is a suspension roller coaster that tilts you up so you are parallel to your vector of travel. Coasters are all about elementary physics, and this gave lots of loops and twists. My only complaint was it was a bit on the short side for my tastes, they could have made it longer.
Kracken, however, was a gas. The “train” isn't what you expect. Instead of a bunch of cars, there are beams that ride the track, and the seats are like benches stuck on top of them. To get on, the floor is in two sections. They swing in and rise up, then drop and split back to the sides before it leaves. It was quite cool. Kracken was just the right length and came complete with a banana loop that had me saying, “That was NICE!” Rode them both twice, Kracken was definitely the better of the two.
Also looked at the dolphins' underwater viewing area. One of them dropped a deuce in front of us, and the guy next to me said, “Ugh! That's disgusting!” What, he thinks the dolphins have private bathrooms in the wild?
Some more touring around and I got to the Shamu show. This was actually the worst part of the day. The area has four giant video screen that slide together, apart, and rotate. There were flashing lights. Water jets everywhere. A whole multimedia thing about we are one world. Several trainers doing a sort of dancing bit as the whales jumped around. It was excessive. I mean, you're talking about some of the most magnificent creatures right here in front of you. Are people really that jaded that they need a whole multimedia experience to be amazed?
Fast dinner, then home to prepare for departure the next day. I got on the road and my GPS said I would get back about 1015. Understand, if I didn't have the car back by 1030, I'd be charged an extra day. That didn't leave much time. It wasn't helped by suddenly everyone driving slower on the highway, including one I was stuck behind as I missed my exit, went to the Lois Drive exit (which seems to exist solely for people who miss the airport exit), and almost back to the terminal. I get to the garage and ask, How do I stop the clock? The guy asks what time I had to be back by. I say, 1030. He looks at his watch. I had five minutes to spare, and being the garage, even if they didn't get to me for another twenty minutes, I was still back in time and was fine.
I do one last check to make sure I don't forget anything. Nearly forgot my pack with Kylie and Fermata. Unfortunately, I forgot the little bag I put in the glove box. Inside was my emerald rosary. Real emeralds. I even looked in the glove box and just never registered it. Lost and found is no help. I hope whoever found it appreciates it. I fucking hate me.
Got home after a quick fill-up at Portillo's. I do so miss my familiar turf. I have been getting back in sync since, and seem to be fine despite the loss of my rosary. I would love to go again next year.