Beluga Fever

Beluga Fever

My girlfriend has become obsessed with meeting a beluga the way most people become obsessed with yoga or British television shows, only she never took a beluga class or saw a dashing British-accented beluga on TV—it was genuinely out of nowhere and I have no idea what triggered it.

One morning, in that weird muffled dream space where she says the funniest things, she sang part of the song “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music and said, “Guess what I’m thinking of!” And I said, “What do belugas have to do with The Sound of Music?

She was thinking of elderflower macaroons, which she wanted to try at our local hipster tea house, but she got the name wrong.

Edelweiss flowers are actually poisonous and will kill you.

Most of her waking thoughts are devoted to “How can we see a beluga?” And not just one in an aquarium—actually encounter a wild beluga on its beluga way  to wherever belugas go.

She found out that if you can get to Churchill, a town in the far north of Manitoba known as “The Beluga Capital of the World,” you can take a boat excursion where they actually tie you to the boat by the ankles with a bungee cord and then they pull you along and the belugas follow you and you get to sing to them and talk to them (belugas really like human singing, apparently) all while being dragged behind a boat in freezing cold water.

A was all ready to book this trip and buy us matching wetsuits until I said, “Wait, how do we get to Churchill?” First, we would have to fly to Winnipeg, which isn’t exactly a daily route. Then the only way to get to Churchill from Winnipeg is a train ride that is only 47 hours—yes, just 60 minutes short of two days.

Not having that extra hour would make the trip really fly by.

“We could play card games!” said A. “I have a travel chess set with little magnets.”

“We would murder each other,” I said.

To prove it, I began to recited the 2002 Oscars ceremony, from memory. A counterattacked by rattling off all the finer points of contract law.

“And then Tom Cruise exited to a round of applause and Whoopi Goldberg descended from the ceiling in a Moulin Rouge costume,” I said. “This is what all 47 hours would look like.”

“I’m a contracts law expert,” said A. “I’d outlast you.”

“I’ve seen every Oscars ceremony,” I said. “Before YouTube, I taped them.”

After looking up the train ticket prices and realizing that if we didn’t pay for first class seats, we would have accommodations that did not include a shower, A grudgingly accepted that there are other ways to commune with belugas.

“We can go see the belugas at the Shedd Aquarium. But we won’t get to swim with them, and they’ll be incarcerated,” she sighed.

IMG_9438 copy

We drove all the way to Chicago to see belugas at the aquarium, and we got up extra early so we could get to the aquarium the moment they opened.

Our cashier was somewhat lacking in the warmth and welcoming aspects of customer service. Actually, she was outright mean to us. Normally, I give people the benefit of the doubt, they’ve had a long day, the people before us might have been jerks, etc, but the aquarium had only been open for three minutes. I wish I knew what had happened in those three minutes to make this lady say, “Fuck everybody, I am done with this day.”

A proudly showed the cashier her coupon for being a teacher on her phone and this lady snapped, “You were supposed to print that out. That’s what it says.”

It took her fifteen seconds to take down A’s information by hand, but the entire time she just kept digging in, “You were supposed to print it out.”

A gets especially  stressed out when accused of not following directions, because 99% of law school is just learning how to follow increasingly complicated directions. She tried to explain that the directions to print out the coupon weren’t clearly stated and that most places don’t require you to print coupons out so she hadn’t failed to follow the directions at all, and then this lady barked at me, “Are you an Illinois resident?” and I almost started crying.

A valiantly defended me. “I brought her here! This is her first visit!”

I managed to choke out, “I’m from Michigan,” and the lady scoffed, typed something, and then barked a second time, “ARE YOU AN ILLINOIS RESIDENT?”

“I’LL TALK! I’LL TALK!” I cried.

The lady rolled her eyes and asked if we wanted to add any shows to our tickets.

A said, “Can we see the show with the baby beluga?”

The lady snapped, “The baby beluga is not guaranteed to be a part of the show.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I managed to stammer.

“We’d like to see it anyway!” said A, with giant Tiny Tim eyes pleading for mercy.

I wanted to say, “Lady, we’re lesbians, we know wild animals don’t exist for our entertainment. If the baby beluga isn’t up to performing, we totally understand,” but this point, I was prepared to hand over my watch in order to get these tickets, just to get away from this lady.

Finally, after a concluding scoff, she threw our wristbands at our heads and we booked it out of there.

A always assumes that if we get less-than-stellar customer service, it’s a homophobic thing, because she grew up Catholic, whereas I always assume the person isn’t being paid enough to care about their job, because I’m a socialist. But we agreed that this lady was neither homophobic nor underpaid, she was just over that baby beluga.

A hustled me past the turtles and the seahorses and even the bioluminescent jellyfish, and when the first beluga reared its adorable earless head, she actually screamed. We got to see the belugas do all their behaviors and vocalizations in the show (and the baby beluga was part of the show!) and then we got a front-row seat to watch their vet checks and training session. After that the belugas swam right up to us in the tank with their toys. They were so close we could’ve touched them.

IMG_9420

 

“The wild ones would never get this close,” I said. “This is a much better deal.”

A stared into the tank like Captain Ahab and said, “I intend to be dragged behind the boat.”

I insisted on taking a picture of the information placard with the map of the belugas’ geographical range to prove that they only live in Arctic temperatures.

IMG_9425 copy

“It’s not that far from the rainforest,” said A. “The water wouldn’t be that cold!”

On our way out, we considered going back to that cashier and saying, “We’re in love and we want a joint membership! Can you take care of that for us?” but we were too afraid.

Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Now that Hurricane Irma has passed, and everyone I know who was worried about folks in the path of the storm can let out a sigh of relief, I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the time, almost exactly one year ago, that I got stuck in Disney World because of Hurricane Matthew. This past Sunday and Monday were only the fifth and sixth days in the forty-six year history of Walt Disney World that the parks have been closed, and my dad and I were there on the fourth day, in October 2016.

We try to get down to Disney every fall for the Food and Wine Festival (we don’t like the wine, but we sure love the food). We go for only two full days, and we have our schedule down to a science—no wasted steps, no detours, we spend maybe an hour in the hotel room every day and then only use it to sleep. We hit the parks early and we don’t leave until Jiminy Cricket comes over the loudspeaker to kick everyone out.

My dad is in his 70’s and has survived open heart surgery, and he is immensely proud of the fact that he can dash around the Magic Kingdom at 2 in the morning when teenagers are hitting the wall.

FullSizeRender-5

So when we landed at the Orlando Airport on a Tuesday and  saw this cloud heading right towards our plane, we were undaunted.

“No ominous clouds can stop us!” said Dad.

We landed just in time, because we weren’t even off the plane yet when the rain began. I noticed right away that the airport was not nearly as crowded as usual, and the bus to the hotel was maybe a quarter full.

The sky was dark grey and it was pounding rain as the bus pulled away. Being a Disney diehard, I immediately checked my favorite message boards, only to see that the top threads were not about the new rides or the Food and Wine Festival at all.

“Hey Dad?” I said. “Did you know there’s a hurricane watch for Orlando?”

“Get out,” said Dad. “I checked the weather every day! The forecast just said there’d be some thunderstorms!”

“There’s a Category 4 hurricane coming right for us,” I said. “People have been canceling their Disney trips all week. That’s why there’s no one on this bus. On the boards, they’re saying they might even close the parks.”

“Oh, they’d never do that,” scoffed Dad. “Walt was prepared for this. Hurricanes never make it as far as Orlando. The entire state could be underwater and the parks would still open on time.”

I always take a picture of the official Disney entrance sign, but I couldn’t see it through the pouring rain. This was not your usual Florida cloudburst. IMG_2425

“I hope I packed the ponchos,” I said.

“It’s not stopping us from getting on Soarin,'” muttered Dad.

We got to our hotel, and were relieved to see that the 91-year-old man who greets people in the lobby was a) still alive and b) still working. He tipped his hat to us, and we stopped to say hello. He didn’t seem worried about the weather, so neither were we.

The rain let up just as we entered the parks. It was the perfect set-up to a trip. The parks weren’t crowded at all, we made great time getting around, and we got Dole Whips.

“Hurricane or bust!” said Dad, eating half of mine.

We started flagging just a bit before Epcot closed for the night, so we went to Morocco and split a chocolate baklava. I had my doubts that the singular Disney baklava could be improved upon with chocolate, but the chocolate baklava was kind of like having a firework go off by your head, in a delicious way.

Dad said, “That baklava made me feel like I could walk to Disneyland.”

We only had eleven minutes until the park closed, but now that our feet were attached to rockets, we walked on waves of euphoria to Nemo.

We were totally alone on the ride—there were empty clamshells as far as the eye could see. FullSizeRender-6Some cutesy hurricane-related signage in the aquarium area caught our eye. But surely this hurricane wouldn’t be a big deal, right? The dolphins were swimming around and the manatees were sleeping! They weren’t worried about this storm, and they live in the ocean!

Listening to the chatter of the crowd as we made our way through the exit, it was clear that people were already switching flights and telling family members from other parts of Florida not to make the drive to Disney. The message boards were ramping up—people were now fully freaking out about the Halloween parties on Thursday and Friday, while enterprising folks were grabbing all the dining reservations that had been popping up like crazy as people canceled their trips.

“Are you worried about this storm?” I said to Dad. He replied with a broad smile.

“It’s adventure time! Everybody’s going to be worried about us—this is cool!!”

Back at the room, we had a voicemail from the front desk informing us that normal operating hours were still in effect—for now—and that they were monitoring the hurricane situation and would keep us updated.

FullSizeRender-7

I turned on the local news to find a lot of wide-eyed weathercasters talking about this storm.

Dad stood in front of the TV and said, “Where was this thing yesterday?! This wasn’t on my weather report!! Whoosh whoosh whoosh!!”

The next morning, I woke up to a frantic but cheerful voicemail from A about staying safe and having fun, but mostly staying safe.

On the TV, the governor of Florida said, “We have to prepare for a direct hit.”

There was a very nervous-looking bride in a wedding dress in the hotel lobby.

(more…)