Category: Travel

Halocline swimming


The speed of light is the absolute fastest limit that anything can travel in our universe. Its speed is assigned the constant c, as in Einstein’s E=mc^2 fame. Its declared speed of 186,282 miles per second is achievable only in the empty vacuum of space. Any medium through which light passes will slow down its velocity; some enterprising and possibly bored scientists have in fact managed to slow light down to 38 miles per hour by beaming it through a cloud of super cold sodium vapor. The ratio of c to the velocity at which light travels in a transparent medium known as its refractive index. This index of refraction is also an indication of how much the propogation direction of light changes as it enters or exits a transmission medium. This can be seen in the everyday phenomena of dipping a broom stick into a swimming pool and having the broom stick appear to bend at an angle as it enters into the water. This refractive property of transparent materials gives us lenses that bend light allowing the construction of microscopes and telescopes. All this theory is most easily summed up as light changes speed and direction as it enters and exits different materials.


Things that are less dense float above things that are more dense. Fresh water can float on top of sea water because the salt in the sea water has brine denser. That is why you float easier in sea water than in fresh water. The cenotes along the Riviera Maya peninsula discharge enough freshwater into the Caribbean Sea to visibly affect the salinity of  the seawater. On calm days, when the outflow from the karst formations is not induced by wave action to mix with the sea water, the freshwater stratifies itself above the denser seawater. The boundary layer between the salty seawater and the less salty freshwater is called a halocline. Ironically, and contrary to scuba divers’ experience, the thermocline at this salinity boundary is reversed with the solar warmed seawater lying below the cool waters just discharged from the sunless cenotes.


Some two and a half feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea at Tankah Bay, Mexico lies the undulating boundary between saltwater and freshwater. This boundary is visible as shimmering layer of water, similar to what cooking oil floating on top of water in a container might look like. This halocline is visible due to the different refractive indices of saltwater and freshwater.

Swimming on the surface, the submerged halocline can be seen as a glassy underwater layer, wavy like antique window panes before the perfection of modern flat glass manufacturing technique of floating molten glass on top of a sheet of melted, liquid tin. The visibility of the halocline is due to its refractive properties and how light bends as it crosses the freshwater to saltwater boundary.  Since the halocline was relatively shallow, it was easy to dip a hand or arm through the boundary layer while finning along on the surface, resulting in a visible plume of disturbed saltwater, like a cloud of fine dust kicked up by a car driving on a rural dirt road. Both the temperature and salinity differences stayed distinct within the region of disturbed water and did not homogenize, leading to an effect of veins of saltwater wrapped around veins of freshwater, forming a visual cloud of waters having two different refractive indices. Diving through the halocline resulted in being surrounded by an indistinct cloud of the disturbed halocline waters. Within the cloud, being made up of a weave of tendrils of different refractive indices, it was impossible for eyes to focus. It was very much like a dive mask fogging up completely. Actually, the first couple of times this happened to me, and before I realized what was going on, I did think that my mask had fogged up or somehow suffered a failure of some sort.

Drifting within the cloud, and concentrating on focusing and making sense of the visual field, the impression was that the cloud was made up of a grid of whorls of haloclines. It was actually somewhat indescribable. Only the limits of my breath holding capacity forced me to come up from this submerged playground.

This was a most unexpected, and most unique swimming experience, and I spent much time playing with the halocline boundary layer, just to watch the almost magical show that would emerge.

The Lesson

We were driving back north to the airport to pick up the last member of our vacation group, who having a prior and unbreakable commitment had to arrive a day later than the rest of us. The drive was easy, the highways in this part of Latin America being constructed mostly in completely straight lines cut through the jungle. The transitos were out in force, and we saw numerous vehicles pulled over by these traffic police, so Mike, who was doing the driving, kept to the ever changing posted speed limit and  drove conservatively. Adding somewhat to our jumpiness were the numerous roadside assistance utility trucks, which provided free assistance for broken down vehicles. These roadside assistance trucks were painted in the same color scheme as the transito pickup trucks and included the same red and blue light bar used by the police. The only way to distinguish the utility trucks from the transito trucks were words painted on the side of the truck, whether it said assistance vehicle or police vehicle.

With three-quarters of our driving distance covered, and still obeying the speed limit, we noticed a southbound transito truck effect a drastic stop past his U-turn access, back up on the highway into his oncoming traffic, take the U-turn, sped up to catch up to us, pulled alongside our vehicle, and motioned that Mike’s seat belt wasn’t on, then he pulled us over. At this point, we were pretty certain that this was a phoney traffic stop whose purpose was to solicit a bribe because there was no way the transito could have seen the state of our seat belts from across highway divided by a generous green space while driving at speed.

The transito approached and greeted us, “hola.”

We responded in kind, “hola.”

“You speak Spanish?”


His face showed some slight disappointment that we barely spoke Spanish. “My English not so good.”

We volunteered, “our Spanish is not so good.”

He then asked us where we were from. We told him Pennsylvania. He responded with “Pennsylvania? Mmm, chica…” while pantomiming the hour-glass female shape with his hands. We thought it wise to agree with him, so we smiled broadly with injections of much appreciative “si, si.”

He then questioned us where we were going. We told him that we were going to the airport; that we were going there to pick up a friend who was arriving, indirectly letting him know that that we weren’t necessarily on a tight schedule and that he wouldn’t have us over a barrel since we didn’t have a flight boarding deadline.

Neil, whom we were going to pick up at the airport, took this inopportune time to call up on the mobile phone. I motioned to the transito that the phone was ringing, hoping that he understood my hand signals that I was telling him that I wasn’t armed, and that I was reaching into my pocket to answer a mobile phone.

“Hi Neil. Can’t talk now. We’re pulled over on the side of the highway making the acquaintance of a very nice policeman. I’ll call you back. Bye.”

Hearing this exchange, the transito complimented me, “your English, very good.” He might never have heard an Asian speak English before, so this could very well have been an eye-opener for him. For all I know, he may have never heard an Asian speak at all before. I thanked him and added that “my Spanish, not so good.”

By now, this meet-and-greet had gone on for several minutes in a hodge-podge of broken Spanish and English. Our initial apprehension had now given away to mild amusement, and I was beginning to wonder when the bribing part was going to commence and how it would be broached.

The transito requested, “your license.” Mike took out his license, and handed it to the transito. He took a cursory glance at it, and then made hand signals of a person walking, and gave commentary, “you tomorrow, must walk, must go to station to pay ticket.”

“We have to walk where?”

“Tomorrow, you pay ticket.”

“We have to pay ticket? Tomorrow, we go?”

“Yes, ticket. Or if you no want, you can pay now.”

“Oh, we can pay now? How much is the ticket now?”

He pondered a moment, and thoughtfully asked us if we wanted the cost in the local currency or US dollars.


He though a moment more, then took out a pen and wrote a number on his palm and showed us: 150.

“Wow, that’s a really expensive ticket,”  and we hesitated as Mike and I gave each other mock concerned looks.

He then opened an avenue for us by asking, “in your home, how much seat belt ticket?”

Well, that’s a mighty fine question. I didn’t know the answer and neither did Mike, but that’s not important. In the previous year, Mike had been pulled over at 3 o’clock in the morning driving up to the airport to catch a plane. Being a debutant at his first bribery outing and somewhat in a pickle to get to the airport for his flight, Mike failed to negotiate and acquiesced to the opening demand of one hundred US cash dollars. After getting to the airport following his encounter, he called us to inform us that he got fleeced on the highway. We in turn consulted Antonio, a local we knew, and he emphatically declared, “you never pay more than forty dollars.” So, the answer to the transito’s question was not how much such a ticket would cost back home, but rather what we considered was equitable, what we were willing to pay as the bribe, and thus the starting point of haggling.

Mike and I looked at each other assuredly, and with much nodding of our heads we both simultaneously blurted out, “not that much, maybe twenty or thirty dollars,” agreeing with each other, then we both looked with innocent eyes back at the transito.

He nodded almost sympathetically, not so much in agreement with us but more of an acknowledgement, as if he himself was sorry for the inequities of the differing penalty amounts between our two countries. He returned his pen and attention to his palm and wrote down a counter-offer, and showed us the revised number: 50.

Mike and I started jabbering amongst ourselves, the gist of it basically came out to that it was still kind of expensive, and the we didn’t have that much money on us, so we raised our offer to forty dollars, which it seemed was acceptable to him, because he iterated the expectations and parameters of this roadside transaction by itemizing, “no ticket, no receipt, forty dollars.” And so it was agreed.

Still trying to work the price down a bit more, albeit belatedly at this juncture, Mike pulled out thirty dollars making a big show of how meager his wallet was and passed the money to me to hand to the transito who had at the onset had approached on my passenger side of the vehicle. I handed the money to him through the open window, which inexplicably took him aback a little bit. He pushed the money back into my hands, and taught me to keep the money low and below the bottom edge of the window whenever possible, and the actual handover was to be done discretely. Having been instructed of bribery etiquette, I handed the money to him again, this time making sure to follow protocol by keeping the money low and out of casual sight.

He looked at the thirty dollars  in his hands and made signs that this was not the agreed upon amount. So Mike went back into his wallet looking through all the dividers and managed to pull out another five, which he handed to me, for me to pass on in the prescribed manner. The transito stood with an expectant look, waiting for the final missing five dollars. With much showmanship, Mike made it seem like a miracle that he was able to find the last five single dollar bills in his wallet, which he pulled out individually with flourish. Having received the full sum of the negotiated amount, the transito was much happy again.

One more piece of learning he wanted to import to us: “cajer.” His hand actions indicated a card being inserted into a slot. “Cajer dollar.”

We were beginning to get the idea that he was telling us that we should use our bank cards to get more money for our wallets. We thanked him for his advice, “yes, we will; at the airport.” The mention of the airport seemed to remind him that our friend had just landed at the airport, so waved us on to hurry to the airport so that we wouldn’t be too late picking up our friend.

I must say that as traffic stops go, both legal and not so legal, this one was the most informative: we received both teachings and advice, and I was personally complimented for my command of the English language, and all this was made possible by a most friendly and affable policeman.

Diving in Bonaire

There’s a backcountry skiing culture that can be seen on the traverse over the Continental Divide in Colorado. At intervals along Loveland Pass, parked in clusters along the lonely mountain road are cars, vans, and trucks, seemingly abandoned with no signs of the occupants, and no establishments for their patronage to explain the absence of the vehicle occupants.

The practice of skiing in the backcountry at Loveland Pass is to pull over at a spot having access to a skiable slope of the Divide, and hop on the slope from the side of the road. At the bottom of the ski run, the skiers will either hitchhike or have a friend with a vehicle to ferry the skiers back to the top of the mountain.

There’s an outlaw, renegade air about parking at where your heart desires, and just hopping off the side of the road and making a ski run down the side of an unmaintained, public mountain slope.

Such was the diving in Bonaire. Most of the named dive spots lining the divable western side of Bonaire island are accessible as shore dives. Along the roads that run along the undeveloped coastline can be seen pockets of pickup trucks seemingly abandoned on the many crushed coral beaches. The trucks being well worn, with spots of rust lent the scene that lawless feel.

Trucks on the beach, ready to dive
Parked on the beach and ready to dive

Being divers ourselves, we followed the local custom of dumping our rental pickup truck wherever there was a dive spot, then donning our scuba gear and wading into the surf to dive, leaving our trucks on the beach unmanned, unlocked, and with the windows open. We had been warned, and there were stickers in the cars requesting “Divers/snorkelers! Help prevent break-ins. Leave your windows down and doors unlocked! Do not leave valuables in car.”

My first real dive in Bonaire, not including the check-out, shake-down dive at the dive resort’s house reef, was Oil Slick Leap. As an introduction to diving in Bonaire, it was unparalleled. Access to the water was both easy and dramatic. After parking in the parking area, it was a short walk to the edge of the island, followed by an eight foot jump into the water; a ladder was permanently affixed conveniently nearby for coming back to land.

Bonaire diving was uniformly good. Great visibility in warm waters with no perceptible thermocline. It is widely known for its abundance and variety of sea-life. Southern dives are characterized by a double reef, whereas dives on the northern end of the island had just a single reef wall. Almost all the dives there followed the same prototype: a shallow rocky, sandy shelf extending anywhere from ten to over a hundred meters from shore, followed by a reef wall that bottomed out at at depth of about thirty feet. On the double reefs, the sandy bottom between the two parallel lines of reefs have a depth of a little over a hundred feet; at the drop-off of the outside reef, the wall could go down to over five hundred and fifty feet.

While most of the diving was similar in nature to each other, two stand out: the two hundred and forty feet length Hilma Hooker wreck, and the Salt Pier night dive.

Mast of Hilma Hooker
Mast of the Hilma Hooker wreck

Hilma Hooker‘s demise in Bonairean waters occurred in the summer of 1984 when she docked at the Town Pier with rudder troubles. Suspicions were raised when her captain was unable to produce her registration papers. She was boarded and discovered to be carrying 25,000 pounds of marijuana hidden behind false bulkheads. The crew was detained and the ship was held as evidence while the authorities attempted to locate the ship’s owners, who understandably never stepped forward to reclaim her. The ship, due to her poor upkeep, soon began to take on water. Fearful that the ship would sink at the main dock disrupting maritime traffic, she was towed and anchored at the Southern part of the island. On 7 September, 1984, the ingress of water overwhelmed the pumps, and she sank in about one hundred feet of water, coming to rest on her starboard side. Unlike intentionally sunk ships that are more correctly called artificial reefs, and which have been stripped and meticulously cleaned to prevent its polluting the environment, the Hilma Hooker is considered a true ship wreck, because with the exception of its illicit cargo, all of her contents had been left in place since the vessel was considered evidence in a developing criminal case. The Hilma Hooker is regarded as a leading wreck dive site in the Carribbean.

Possibly the most spectacular dive experience on Bonaire is the Salt Pier night dive.

Salt Pier
The Salt Pier in the day

The pier is constructed off-shore, forming the end of a conveyor belt that loads salt from the on-shore evaporation ponds to ships moored at the pier. Both the salt works and the pier are owned by Cargill; permission is needed from Cargill to dive the pier, and only when there are no ships moored at the pier; a local divemaster is required to guide all dives at the Salt Pier, which we arranged through our resort. On the night of our dive, we gathered at sunset the resort to meet our dive guide, only to be told that for whatever reasons, and despite repeated assurances from Cargill, the ship docked at the pier still hadn’t left, and wouldn’t leave, so our dive had to be canceled. Our pent up anticipation having been dampened by our disappointment, we nevertheless decided to head out and do a couple of night dives on our own since our dive gear was already loaded on the trucks. We went to a dive site called The Lake, doing the usual ditch the truck on the beach routine, and additionally setting up shore strobes so that we could find our way back to our ingress site at the end of the dive. After the dive at The Lake, half the group wanted to do a second dive; I belonged in the other half of the group who didn’t want to do another night dive. We moved our vehicles up to another dive site that was opposite the airport, and we non-divers promised the diving group that we’d baby-sit the beer, and we assured them that there’d still be beer when they returned. They looked at us suspiciously.

Unlike all the other dive sites we had previously visited, there was no beach parking at this site. We were just pulled over by the side of the road. It was a wonderful night to be sitting out with a beer in hand: the skies were clear, the weather was warm, and there wasn’t much traffic on the road. Being opposite the airport, every once in a while, an incoming plane with its landing lights cutting through the dark would fly its final approach right above our heads to land on the runway that was on the other side of the road alongside which we were parked. The planes weren’t quite as low as the ones at the Princess Juliana airport on St. Maarten, but it felt plenty close enough for us to get a thrill out of being directly under a plane that was to touch down just a few seconds after passing overhead.

A ray on the Salt Pier night dive
A ray seen on the Salt Pier night dive

The moored ship left the next day, and we did manage to get to do our Salt Pier night dive, which turned out to be one of the most unique dives that I’ve done. The lights on the pier had been kept on, and they blazed in the warm Bonairan night, giving us bands of shimmering illumination and shadows as we swam under the pier. Because the pier pilings were canted with a wider base and meeting at a narrower apex, the experience was like diving within the arches of a shadowy, underwater cathedral. While the other dives were characterized by swimming and covering distance and seeing as much of the reef as possible, the Salt Pier dive was marked by a desire to just staying within the confines of the pier, seeing the sea-life wend their way through the pilings, and watching the play of lights as they shone from the surface through the gentle waves and through the legs of the pier. The Salt Pier night dive would certainly go down as one of the more unforgettable dives for its uniqueness.

I got Molly cred

I went with friends of friends to the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Coming out of the movie, I remarked that the actress Gemma Arterton, who portrayed the character Strawberry Fields, reminded me much of Molly Ringwald, to which the others expressed concurrence.

From there the conversation went to listing the works in which Molly had acted. Someone brought up Sixteen Candles; everyone knew this. Then other John Hughes‘ movies were mentioned: Breakfast Club, and of course Pretty in Pink. I nominated a little known gem that Molly was also on The Facts of Life; you know, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life. There was a general round of disbelief. It was conceded that George Clooney had a part on The Facts of Life, kind of like a Schneider of The Facts of Life. Still no acknowledgement that Molly Ringwald was on The Facts of Life. I held my ground saying that she was on only in the early seasons, and also proclaiming that “I know my Mollys.”

Aren’t we lucky to live in this connected world? Someone pulled out his Blackberry and looked up the facts on imdb, and gamely announced that Molly Ringwald did indeed play Molly Parker in the first season of the show. Someone at that point said, “you do know your Mollys,” and someone else gave me my just props and added, “you have your Molly creds.”

So damn yeah, I got Molly cred.

San Francisco

200505sfbound.jpg Went to San Francisco for a quick visit to my sister, who was there on business and expensing her hotel. It was a Thursday thrugh Sunday vacation that included a side excursion to Napa Valley.
200505sftransamericabuilding.jpg The hotel was downtown in the financial district. Early next morning was greeted with a view of iconic TransAmerica building.
200505sfportofsanfrancisco.jpg 200505sfbaybridge.jpg She had to work the Thursday and Friday while I was there, so I was left largely on my own to amuse myself. Walked the couple of blocks to the dock area, and caught the Bay Bridge.  
200505sfcablecar.jpg 200505sflastsupper.jpg Took the cable car up to Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Fell into all the usual tourist trap things, like the wax museum that had, among other things, this Last Supper.
200505sfalcatraz.jpg Out in the water, that’s Alcatraz. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, sea-lions bask in the sun. 200505sfsealion.jpg
200505sfsterlingwinery.jpg Finally, on Saturday, we headed to wine country Napa Valley. This is a view from Sterling winery.
200505sfberingerwinery.jpg The Beringer house that can be seen some Beringer wine bottles at your local boozerporium bodega.
200505sfcoppolawinery.jpg This is part of the Coppola-Niebaum winery.
On the red-eye, at dawn, I returned home. 200505sfreturn.jpg

Watching the ponies

In a trip that was original 7 people, then dropped to 3 until Denise called up to say that she had an interview for an internship and couldn’t go, it ended up with just Val and I going to the 131st Kentucky Derby.

200505derbymintjulep.jpg Took Friday off and drove down to her friend Mark’s place in Indiana just over the Kentucky border. Started in with the mint juleps once we got to his place. Then went to a local hangout called Rumor Mill.

rumormillcoyote.jpg Rumor Mill is eclectically decorated. There’s a stuffed coyote, into which mouth someone had perched a bottle of whiskey. Apparently a lot of the other decorations in that place were bought on eBay: a stuffed daschaund dog, a stuffed buffalo on wheels…

After the Rumor Mill, we went downtown to Fourth Street and hung out at the block party. Wouldn’t you know it, I ran into a hasher Shit Happens I know from Charleston, or Charlotte, or some other “C” city. He’s been coming to the derby for the last 37 years, and that he’d told us that he’d be encamped at turn 3 at Churchill Downs.

200505derbyinfield.jpg Next morning, Saturday, the day of the derby, we woke up and tuned in to the TV to see what the weather forecast was going to be. First on the screen was a yahoo who for the past 19 years has been the first person into the infield at Churchill Downs. Next up was Shit Happens. If nothing else, the on-scene interview gave us a good idea of exactly where in the infield he was pitching his shelter.

That Churchill Downs is one crowded place for the derby. Lots of phenomenal looking women all over the place, and lots of hats. The mint juleps there were $8.00 apiece, but then you do get to keep the complimentary (as much as $8.00 is complimentary) glasses.

Wandered around a bit; got lost a bit. Finally meandered over to Shit Happens’ compound and hung out there for the rest of the day. He was set up right on the fence at turn 3. The races are a slow affair; there’s usually at least half an hour to and hour between races. The in-between times were mostly spent drinking the booze that we sneaked in.

200505derbyponies.jpg A couple of observations: you’d think from watching all that Seabiscuit movie that when the herd of horses come by, it’d be a loud thundering sound of hooves. Not so: the only inkling that the horses were coming were that people started standing up and gawking at the track; you turn yourself around, and get a quick glimpse of the colored silk jerseys the jockey’s wear, and a blur of horses, and it’s silently all over in the span of one second: no sound at all!

All in all, it was a fun time to just do nothing but just party.