4 Americans, 2 Australians, and a German walks into a bar

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It always rained at 1 PM in Belize. There was nothing to do. I dozed off on my $14/day bunk bed at Yuma’s House, leaving the screened windows opened to the wind.

By now I have ran out of adjectives and adverbs to describe my island habitat. Words like “slow”, “languid”, “calm”, “turquoise”… started to lose their flavor. Novelty was replaced by stagnant lethargy. Paradise or not it really was an island… a really I-kid-you-not small island. There was nothing to do. If I stay here much longer I will certainly go crazy.

We met another American by sundown and walked toward the Split. There was a bar there, its wooden walls twisting and rotting in the tropical heat. “Too many mosquitoes”. The proprietor of the bar was packing up. So we turned around and wandered.
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And suddenly there was loud music. Rhythmic Soca music. The street, empty a minute ago, now filled with people. A parade of vehicles materialized from the island darkness, each carried way more people than it should. A golf cart led the way, followed by pick up trucks laden with children and acoustic contraptions spewing loud, head splitting music.
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The occasion turned out to be St. George’s Caye Day tomorrow, a holiday commemorating a famous battle off the eponymous island. The parade, which was also held on nearby (noisier) Ambegris Caye, was called the “Firetruck Parade”. As the mysterious name suggested, the island’s lone ancient fire truck was dragged out of hibernation, decorated, and driven loudly around the island. Combined with the heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes, we had a perfect concoction for insomnia.

Listless and bored, we sat our sloven selves around the table at Yuma’s, drinking beer. The moonlight lit up the ocean behind us. Someone had the bright idea of going to the “I&I Reggea Bar”, one of the two “night clubs” on Caye Caulker. (Imagine, a nightclub on an island that took 15 minutes to walk from end to end).

4 Americans, 2 Aussies, and a German named Fred walked into a poorly lit tiki bar with a disco ball…

Isla Bonita

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Brilliant sunrise pierced coconut leaves. Door left ajar. Our small room was inundated by fresh Caribbean breeze. We stirred.
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7:30 AM, the island seem deserted. Only one place opened that served breakfast. Poached eggs with salt and pepper.

We found the dive shop barely awake as well. “You’re a little too early”. So we sat on the couch, squatting mosquitoes and watched time slipping by. Tried to read. Failed miserably.

It was a small dive boat. Edgar was the dive master. Efrain was the skipper. There were two gentlemen from Texas, geared up to the max. “Are you guys experienced divers?” One of them asked. We shook our heads.
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God created this place from the feverish imagination of landlocked suburbanites. There has never been a more enticing shade of blue. The turquoise water stretched out to the reef, where waves broke against an invisible barrier far below the glittering sea.

We dove. Warm ocean enveloped us. The great Belizian barrier reef sloped down to 80 ft. Spectacular. Coral, lobsters, crabs, a multitude of tropical fishes shared our space. I flew.
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We went to the Shark Alley between dives. Protected marine sanctuary. No fins allowed. Jumped in with mask and snorkel. There were numerous rays and nurse sharks in the shallow water. Close enough to touch.

We passed by “The Split” on the way home, the narrow man-made channel splitting the Caye Caulker Island into two halves. There was a bar at the Split. Mostly white tourists swimming and sunbathing.
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Once again, we wandered. Had Chinese food from a Chinese grocery store (I had yet to see a grocery store in Belize that wasn’t owned by Chinese). There was a sign on the side of the street: “Go Slow”. They meant either traffic or life, I couldn’t tell.
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Dream of an Indiana Jones adventure

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The islands appeared like pale mirages on the calm turquoise sea. We were quickly consumed by rain clouds. Heavy droplets pounded the windows. Mainland Belize appeared below. Wet lands, swamps, mangroves… a river. Here and there, faint echoes of civilization buried in thick vegetation.

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Thankfully the tropical rain stopped by the time we exit the airport. Took a cab into Belize City – into the thick balmy Caribbean afternoon. There was a new flavor of English. Not quite Jamaican. Understandable if they take time and “tourist talk”.

There was a water taxi that runs from Belize City to the islands. $90 BZ round trip to Caye Caulker. Had my first meal while we waited: Lobster curry.

We took off, seagulls haunted our wakes. The boat ride took half an hour. Discovered that the GPS app on my phone worked as advertised.

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Caye Caulker appeared sleepy, barely perturbed by the mild Caribbean water nibbling at its shores. There were men and their golf carts by the dock. “Taxis?” they asked.

Yuma’s House was a few feet away from the water edge. A sign in front said “Backpackers hostel”. Bunk beds, shared kitchen, shared showers, we settled in. Our roommate was a French guy named Guy (“Gee”).

The streets were unpaved. Brightly painted houses faded in the overcast light. A few bicycles and old golf carts sputtered by. Everyone contends to wander aimlessly.
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We found a dive shop in one of the cross streets. Belize Diving Services. Booked a dive to the Belizian barrier reef, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Most visitors to the islands aimed for the famous Blue Hole of Belize, located about 50 miles out from Caye Caulker. That had to be saved for some other time.
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The sun disappeared over the water, hidden behind clouds. Had dinner at Rosa’s (recommended by Lonely Planet). Found some hammocks by the dock. Sat and read, until the moonlight lit up the sea.

Sunday

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We couldn’t asked for a better day than this. We left Miami late morning, drove an hour south and crossed into Key Largo. The sun was out, only a few clouds in the sky. No rain.

The dive shop was inside the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the “first undersea park” in the country. It was always a popular stop for tourists: Snorkeling, glass bottom boats, or, in our case, a couple of friends going scuba diving.

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We put on our wetsuits, donned our gears and fell into deep blue. The equipments worked. I quickly forgot about the cold. The sensation was that of flying, floating fluidly above the reefs. Fish everywhere.

There was something about the sea that made a person wanting to sleep. Maybe it was the smell, the sweaty taste of salt. Or the weightlessness. I watched as my dive buddy swam into the void and tried to chase after her. She disappeared into the dark, her trail of bubbles fading away.

Ah shit. There was a large green moray eel guarding the Benwood wreck. It slithered slowly along the sea floor. There were other divers around. I saw their indistinct outlines, their white bubbles floated sunward.

I appreciated the silence. Nothing but the sound of breathing… bubbles bubbling away. What does one think about in this meditative state? The ocean was cold and warm, always full of life.

The interview trail begins

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From the airplane Philadelphia looked frozen like the rest of the country outside of Florida. This was my old stomping ground.

The vascular surgery fellowship interview period has begun. 150 candidates, applying for a little over 90 spots around the country. Statistically speaking, I need to rank about 10-15 programs and have 10-15 programs rank me to guarantee a 90%+ probably of matching. This Match will be more competitive than last year.

With airplane tickets, hotel, car rental etc., it will be a tremendous expenditure of time and money. I wish there was a cheaper way to do this.

I keep telling myself that each $300 plane ticket is nothing compare to my future as a surgeon, but damn they add up.

BCD

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The Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) is the second most important part of a scuba gear setup. It’s essentially an inflatable vest, allowing the diver to control his or her buoyancy in the water. On the surface it acts as an adjustable life vest.

I bought mine new, since there was a good Holidays Sale at Divers Direct. It is a Mares Journey Elite, a back inflation type of BCD. As far as I can tell, Divers Direct stores were the only ones carrying these.

The first thing I did was to attach a dive knife to the inflator hose.

This particular BCD came with integrated weights. These can be placed within pockets that were held by a plastic snap. After some readings online it seems that Mares BCDs have a problem of their integrated weights falling off and get lost, sometimes leading to uncontrolled ascent of the diver.

To correct this problem I’ve take open the weight pockets and reinforced the straps with zip ties so they don’t accidentally slip out and disconnect from the plastic snaps.

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Regulators

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The Edge Epic 2012 was ScubaLab Best Buy for 2013 in the “less than $500″ category. It has a balanced diaphragm first stage, and a pneumatically balanced second stage. I got it for a good Black Friday deal. Also included with the package was an alternative second stage (the yellow so-called “Octopus”) by Sea Elite. I have no idea how good this Sea Elite octo is, but it came with the package so I will use it.
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From EBay, I got a used instrument console which included a depth gauge and a submersible pressure gauge (SPG). This was to be connected to the regulator first stage by a high pressure hose. I was very surprised at how small the hole at the end of the high pressure hose was (see picture). I was told, however, it was supposed to be tiny.
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There’s an O ring at the end of the high pressure hose. I used silicone grease to maintain good waterproof seal.
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The hose screwed into the high pressure port of the regulator first stage.

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The high pressure hose screwed easily into the regulator first stage. Then the next step is to attach the low pressure inflator hose for the buoyancy control device (BCD). Same idea: a little bit of silicone grease on the O ring and some tightening of the nut to make everything water tight.
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The last step was to attach a retractable buckle to the instrument console. This in turn will be attached to the BCD vest, allowing me to view the instruments when needed and have them tucked away when I don’t need them.
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Brave New World

These two videos, despite their commercial nature (The North Face and Redbull ads), really struck a chord in me. “The mountains are calling, and I must go…” You can almost hear John Muir’s words echoing in the back ground.

Is exploration human nature? We’ve certainly gone far. We rose out of the ocean and climbed down from the trees. We crossed seas and landed on the moon. We’ve reached the forbidden depths of the oceans…

This little card is my new adventure. It’s the key to a cold, beautiful, inhospitable world… One of our last true frontiers.

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A combination of Black Friday, Christmas sales, and the EBay used equipment section has allowed me to acquire the majority of my scuba gear. I’ll be assembling them this week.

Sketching life

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How can I illustrate the joy and suffering that make up the human existence? I am sketching a series of figures to represent something about life. The guy playing the guitar stands in for arts and creativity, the farmer digging represents industry, the kid with the kite for childhood… I’m thinking maybe an embracing couple for love? And old woman for wisdom? It will be bright and colorful at the end, because that’s how I see life.

3 steps

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tomb

I took the photo above of the Royal Tomb at Machu Picchu. The stone entrance was cut into a 3-stepped motif, representing the 3 levels of the Inca world. This motif appeared frequently on Inca religious objects. It recalled the Chakana, the Inca version of the Tree of Life.

Many cultures and religions divide existence into 3 worlds. Typically an Upper world for the gods (“Heaven” for example), a Middle world for the mortal living, and a Lower world for the afterlife.

So for the painting I divided the canvas into three levels with the same theme as above. The tree trunk represents the living, the “spectacular now”. The foliage represents heaven, our hopes and dreams for tomorrow. The roots of the tree will be our dead, our cherished past. I sketched the woman first, with the tree roots around her.

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The human body was probably the most complex and difficult thing to draw. We see them so often everyday that when they were drawn out of proportion we noticed right away. I tried my best.

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