Monday, June 22, 2009

My First Dive on Kwaj

This afternoon Mike Malone took me out for my USAKA-required check-out and orientation dive. First we pedaled down to the scuba tank house and selected our tanks. Along the way, Mike familiarized me with the lagoon dive sites and some of the features and wrecks there are to be seen. He told me about the flags that might fly above the Harbor Tower: a red flag means small craft warning; black and white pennant means the hyperbaric chamber is not available and diving is restricted to above 50').

Mike oriented me to the tank house. There are hundreds of scuba tanks in numbered racks. Each tank has a number and it goes into the rack slot that matches its number. We tested our tanks for a full fill and loaded them into Mike's Tipke Foldit Cart with Bike Trailer Attachment. Off to Emon Beach we rode.

Emon (I'm told it means "good" in Marshallese) Beach is about 50 feet from my front door. It is a lovely family beach with a volleyball court, large clean sandy beach, a pavilion for grilling and dining, restrooms, and a lifeguard tower that is staffed on weekends. The photo above is from Emon Beach.

Mike lent me some extra gear and we got suited up. The water temperature was about 82 degrees Fahrenheit, somewhat cooler than normal since we had a torrential downpour about two hours earlier. We waded in from the beach and floated out about 200 feet. Then down we went. There was a huge coral head at about 30 feet that was loaded with fish and fry. Attached to this coral head was an enormous carpet anemone. Along the way down the reef there were many more anemones. The thing I noticed was that the anemones were home to scores of clownfish. I am accustomed to seeing just one or two clownfish per anemone, so this was quite a surprise. The other unusual finding was the plethora of sea cucumbers littering the sandy bottom. The coral heads were teeming with a wide variety of small fish.

After a satisfying and relaxing dive (70' max. depth for 52 minutes) we rinsed off our gear in the fresh water tank and packed it back up. I was then introduced to Mike's wife and one-year old daughter. They live just one block from me, in similar quarters to mine. Mike will take the tanks back to be filled when he goes to work in the morning. It was a great experience for my first dive on Kwajalein.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Trip to Kwaj and My First Days

Photo: Sunfish Regatta by Timothy Hall

My parents took me to the Lynchburg airport on Tuesday morning and I boarded the jet for Atlanta. Once there I chilled out in the Sky Miles lounge and later boarded my plane to Honolulu. After arriving in Honolulu about 2:45 pm (local) Tuesday afternoon, I got my bags and checked into the hotel. I had an early dinner and hit the sack early because I had to be up at 3:15 am Wednesday morning to catch the next plane.

My plane boarded and departed on time Wednesday morning and after a 5 hr flight to Majuro (the capital of the Marshall Islands) and a 45 min flight from Majuro to Kwajalein, I arrived at about 11:30 a.m. THURSDAY (we crossed the international date line so the day advanced by one). I was in-processed at the airport, had my photo taken and was met by my friend from Antarctica, Jake Woolery, and a contingent of people from the medical department: Beth Turnbaugh (Hospital Administrator), Stacy Welcher (Administrative Assistant to Beth and me), and Dr. Jill Horner.

After collecting my bags, we dropped them off in my temporary quarters (more on that later) and went to lunch. After lunch was the tour of the medical facilities and introduction to the physicians and staff. The medical facility is a two story structure with ED, pharmacy, doctor's offices and exam rooms on the first level. The hospital, including OR, is on the second level. My office looks out over the Pacific Ocean with gently swaying cononut palms in the foreground.

Right now there are four docs and one PA. Dr. Hallman is our general surgeon, Drs. Horner and Thorne are FPs, Bess Buchanan is the PA, and then there is me. There is an excellent group of nurses who staff the facility 24/7/365.

My house is not finished being refurbished, but I am told it will be available next week. Until then I am lodged in DV Quarters (Distinguished Visitor). It is essentially a hotel-type room, very large though, with a kitchenette. Waiting for me in the room were snacks, Special K, milk, coffee, mixed nuts and some other things. I did get an island tour on my first day and got to stop by my house. It is lovely. It has two stories, two bedrooms, two baths, plus an office. The laundry room and kitchen contain all new appliances. The laundry room even has a dedicated full size freezer in addition to the refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. It has new carpeting, new paint and is very clean. The best part, though, is the view. From the master bedroom I look out over the ocean and coconut palms. It is a million dollar view!

The island has, in addition to the airfield and tracking installations, many recreational and entertainment features. There are two softball fields, a bowling alley, a skate park, two gyms, racquetball courts, an indoor adult recreation center with pool tables and ping pong, two theaters, outdoor bar/lounge (curiously nicknamed "The Snake Pit" but its real name is the Ocean View Club), a small boat marina with boats for rent (sail, ski, dive, & fishing), a Yacht Club, a Country Club w/ 9-hole golf course, a number of gorgeous sandy beaches, a family pool, an adult pool, soccer field, an elementary school, a grades 7-12 high school (ranked in the 95th percentile of all schools, private and public, in the US), and many other features that I am forgetting to include.

There is shopping here too. Surfway is our main grocery - they deliver! There used to be stores called "Macy's" and "Macy's West" but those have been replaced completely by AAFES PX faciities. There is an excellent selection of fresh fruits and vegetables as we get a barge in twice a week with produce from Hawaii and California. The PX faciities are in three different buildings: one is a department store (clothing, gifts, jewelry, linens, etc), another is hard goods (tools, yard equipment, camping stuff, coolers, fishing gear, etc.), and the third is like a convenience store, but larger with more selection. There is a small jewelry and craft store that sells handmade Marshallese items. We have a full-service post office.

Transportation around the island is by foot or bicycle. There are no private cars. There are a few cars & trucks for official use. There are also a number of pieces of heavy equipment, such as fire trucks, loaders and trash collection vehicles.

Since I am in temporary quarters, I have a meal card that entitles me to eat all my meals at Café Pacifica, the chow hall. The food is fresh, well-prepared and tasty. There is always a good selection of items. The cooks and servers are Marshallese and are all very friendly. Once I get into my house I will be off the meal plan and on my own.

This weekend (which, for us, is Sunday and Monday to correspond to the USA's Saturday/Sunday) I am going to ride my bike around to get oriented.

My camera battery is completely dead and I have to mail order a new one, so photos will come later.

Next weekend I am flying to Roi-Namur (an outlying island in the Kwajalein Atoll) to tour the dispensary and visit with John Snook, PA-C who staffs that facility.

My mailing address is:

Don Shuwarger
P O Box 1082
APO AP 96555

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Leaving On A Jet Plane

"Well, my bags are packed,
I'm ready to go.
Taxi's waitin'
He's blowin' his horn..."
(from "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Three days ago the movers came and packed up my things. Two thousand one hundred fifty pounds of my life's stuff is bound for Kwajalein, Marshall Islands. A similar amount will be stored by them locally until I return.

It's sad and interesting that the stuff of my life can be expressed in pounds. How can photographs of my lovely daughter and a gas barbecue be measured in the same units? I clearly value the pictures of her much more than a grill, but in moving company parlance it is completely the other way around.

The packers were gentle and considerate with my things. I trust that most things will arrive intact. Their journey is an interesting one: after being trucked from Virginia to Richmond, California they will be loaded into a container and placed upon a barge. The barge will take two weeks to travel across the Pacific ocean to Kwajalein. Upon arrival in Kwajalein, many containers holding a variety of necessities will be unloaded. Eventually my stuff will be delivered to my home and unpacked.

So, what about my travel itinerary to Kwajalein? Thought you would never ask. Well, Tuesday (09 June) I fly from Lynchburg to Atlanta and then after a brief lay-over fly non-stop from Atlanta to Honolulu, a 10 hr. flight. Arrival in Honolulu is expected sometime around 2 pm local time Tuesday afternoon. I will overnight in Honolulu at an airport hotel. Early the next morning, Wednesday, I take a flight from Honolulu to Kwajalein, stopping first at Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The flight is about 6 hours, but since it crosses the International Date Line, I actually arrive on Thurday, 11 June! Wish me luck!