January 2nd, 2003

Happy New Year, Everyone!

    Deborah and I have had a great year, and we want to thank those who've sent us cards and letters.  We both still teach school, she doing Grade 4 and me doing science and woodshop for four schools of grade 7 and 8 students (about 500 of them, all told), in my centre just across the playground from her school.  We enjoy our jobs, but in case mine comes unexpectedly to a close because of evaporated funding, which seems to be an ever-present threat from year to year, I've also taken Part One of my Principal's qualifications, and will probably finish Part Two by July.  This keeps me pretty busy with classes, readings and assignments.

    But we have wonderful high points in between the months of work and study.  Some of you have already heard details of our summer, but I'll mention them anyway, and include a few photos.  On the July 1st weekend we sailed down to the National Yacht Club for a C&C Regatta.  We brought home a trophy for a "cruising" competition - I was smart enough not to enter in the racing category!  Our boat can be seen here, in a photo taken that weekend by one of our competitors.

  Then for a week Deb and I went to Sosua, in the Dominican Republic.  Our resort was on the reef cliffs below, with jacuzzis cut right out of the reef rock, to sit in looking out over the ocean.

    We went out for a half hour horse ride in the forest one day, and then for an hour and a half the next day. We went through a beautiful meadow between high limestone outcroppings with caves, and identified lemon trees, oranges,  mangoes, breadfruit and avocados.  The avocado tree was in full fruit.  We returned to the stables via a deep, wide valley, so that as we rode along one side of it, we saw a magnificent panoramic view of the other side.

    I did eight dives, Deb did three.  The diving was only really good for a few of them, one of which was a wreck of a cargo ship called the Zingara at 118'.  It was covered in coral and sponges, with schools of fish all around.  The water was clear and the light was surprisingly great for that depth, although the current was fierce that day.

    We sailed, and snorkelled in Sosua Bay around a huge coral head, which you can just make out below the surface in this photo. The resort was pretty good for a three star.  We always enjoyed our meals.  There were three jacuzzi pools built right into the reef rocks, overlooking the bay - great view.  The water was clear and clean, and I didn't see any seaweed anywhere.  The area has been seriously overfished, which is the only drawback - not as much to see under the water.  And the reefs are not spectacular; a diver should pick only the best half-dozen dives (Airport wall, the Zingara wreck, Canyons, etc) the rest are a waste of time.

    The Dominicans were really lovely people, and we enjoyed walking through the little town or along the row of 200 vendor stalls on the public beach.  We came home with some hand-painted t-shirts and some "extra-viejo" (extra old) Brugal rum - delicious, just like a liqueur.

        Here's a photo I like of a boy vendor selling hard-boiled eggs along the beach, complete with salt shaker and a warm smile:

    As we were leaving, the current President of the country, Hipólito Mejía, dropped into our resort for an unexpected visit.  We were sitting on a bench by the front entrance with our luggage, and no-one told us to move or what was going on.  Dozens of gov't vehicles and all different kinds of police and secret service type guys, the Presidential Guard, as it turned out, swarmed the entrance, but still no-one spoke to us.  Finally a series of vehicles arrived and guys jumped out and ran into the lobby, and then a big SUV stopped and a guy stepped out.  He saw us, smiled, and marched straight over to shake my hand and give Deborah a kiss on the cheek, while cameras flashed and all the security guys stared at us.  I had to stumble to my feet when he offered his hand, since everyone else had been standing for his arrival and I had stubbornly kept sitting, writing notes in my diary. I thought he'd just breeze right past us, and didn't consider the protocol of standing up out of respect when a head of state comes by; and part of me didn't want to show any respect, because he is a rascal.  He asked where we were from, and told us that his daughters studied in Montreal, wished us well, and then headed into the building.  Bizarre.  I had been told enough about his political record over the last two years to be a little uncertain as to whether I really wanted to shake the man's hand, but it was an interesting event, all the same.
    The DR's economy is in tatters, and many building projects are stymied.  Each president can only serve for four years, and can't be re-elected.  The previous guy was amazing - disbanded the military and put the money into education and infrastructure, taxed the wealthy white rural population, and stamped out corruption.  The new guy is a classic politician who appealed to the voters with his down-homey style, promised them the moon even though the few voters who could do the math saw that there was no way he could deliver, and for the past two years corruption has returned full bore, starting right at the top.  He took out a 3.5 billion dollar world bank loan at 9%, and parked it in a swiss bank account at 2%...when people ask him what the money is to be used for, he says, "don't worry, it's all part of my plan, you'll see..."  He's only got four years to make sure he and his buddies get even for being taxed under the previous guy...four years to make out like bandits, and he's making the most of it.
     We took out a small sailboat at the resort, something like a Sunfish.  It was supposed to be airtight, but it took on water, perhaps through the seam between deck and hull, but definitely also through two rivet holes in the cockpit that had never been blocked.  After about half an hour of sailing, we noticed that the stern was dropping, and tried to sail back to shore, but the inner hull was full of water by then and we couldn't point properly - and when we tried to tack, it went right over.  If it had been empty inside, we could have turtled it and climbed back aboard, which we've trained to do, but since it was waterlogged it just sloshed over and rolled the boat again instead of allowing it to stay upright.  We sat on the upside down hull and waved our arms at the shore. Fortunately the resort people had binoculars, and came out for us in a rescue boat.  Then before they even started to help us out, they told us we'd have to pay $25 for the "rescue"...I resisted the temptation to tell them to just leave the boat there, and agreed.  When we got into the beach and they pulled it up and pulled the drain plug, it poured like Niagara Falls from inside the hull. So we just ignored our promise to pay for the rescue - after all, they'd sent us out in an unsafe boat.  Fortunately, they didn't apply a charge to our bill.  I suspect they try to pull that one on many of their customers, and just hope they'll volunteer to pay up on the spot - a way to generate "tips".    In general, though, the resort was very good for a three star, food was great, and we like the Dominican people.

    The weekend after we returned, we spent twelve hours in the emergency room hallway at Scarborough General while I passed sand out of my kidney...they got the demerol into me just as I was about to pass out from trembling and sweating and gritting my teeth, after the pain had built up over two hours to a level that put me, as the Australians describe it, "around the twist".  I woke up at 3 a.m., which I've learned is typical of this kind of an attack (it's my first, but probably not my last), and Deb took me to the hospital at around 5 when I finally admitted there was no way it was just a gas pain.  She was amazingly devoted, stayed at my stretcher all day and helped me to deal with it, get to the bathroom, etc.  She didn't get much sleep.  I got a bit of shut-eye after being thoroughly stoned on demerol at the moment of my final deepest, writhing pain - what an immediate relief that was!  I've got some Endocet to carry around with me, in case I'm out on the lake, or somewhere equally inconvenient, when it happens again.  And the urologist has told me I ought to drink beer! It's a diuretic, you see...

    We spent a week ponysitting at Richard and Kim's farm.  Kim has seventeen lovely Thoroughbred horses and Welsh ponies, and lots of lovely photos of them on her own website, http://www.pendragonfarm.com/

    We flew to Edmonton for Thanksgiving weekend, more or less to compel my family to throw me a 50th birthday party.  They rose to the occasion, and I had a great party.  My Dad enlarged a lifetime of photos and created this unforgettable display:

    When we got home to Scarborough, I had another surprise party that Deborah had arranged for me at the Yacht Club - but I went down to the boat to meet someone, and bumped into her down there as she was setting up, and discovered the surprise!  She was furious.  But the party was great fun, and a few weeks later we threw another one for her Dad's 80th birthday.

    We just got back last night from a drive to northern Florida.  We took Maxie with us. It took us eleven days, seven there and four of driving, more or less.  I drove sixteen hours yesterday.  We drove around a lot while there, also, finding out where everything was that we wanted to see and do, knocking around Gilchrist County and neighbouring counties.  We had a great visit with Ed and Virginia LeMaster in Kentucky on the way down.  My main objective was to swim with manatees, which we accomplished at Homosassa Springs.

    Manatees are cool - their closest relative is the elephant.  Their nose is prehensile, like a very stubby elephant's trunk.  We scratched their backs and they rolled over for us to rub their tummies.
    We also very much enjoyed the wildlife park and manatee refuge, and I dove in a spring boil and a big sinkhole at Manatee Springs, 72 feet deep.  I was going to dive at Ginnie Springs, which is well advertised, but they wouldn't let us in with our dog, even if we kept her in the trailer or her wire corral, and I discovered that there are better - and much cheaper! - dives in State parks.  Ginnie Springs is for cavers, and I'm not into overhead environments and dark, tight spaces much - even when I penetrate wrecks I'm careful to stay close to the exits.  And we enjoyed just camping in the warm air - ten degrees cooler than Florida usually is at the end of December, but very comfortable compared to Toronto at this time of year.  We spent one fabulous evening and morning in a campsite right on the beach - spectacular sunset and sunrise. We had a little ceramic electric heater in our tiny Boler trailer, which came in handy at night.

    So - it is 2003!  And yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the internet as we know and use it (the TCP-IP form that replaced the original military version), which was launched on January 1st, 1983.  That makes it all the more fitting to be able to create and send this to everyone as a web-letter on the internet, which allows me to include photos and links so that you can see some of what we've experienced with your own eyes.

    Wishing you all a Happy New Year and sending you all our love,

    Steve and Deborah Gilchrist

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