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Honeymoon/Anniversary in Jamaica

Our Trip to Jamaica

Honeymoon/Anniversary????  How can they both be at the same time?  COVID-19 of course!  It’s a question we heard a lot on our honeymoon/anniversary.

STAFF: Are you here for a special occasion like a honeymoon? anniversary?

US:  Yes.

This trip was on our 2nd wedding anniversary, but it was supposed to be 2 years ago for the honeymoon.  So by delaying the honeymoon for 2 years, it was indeed both a honeymoon and an anniversary.

I booked the same trip we had originally planned… Excellence Oyster Bay in Jamaica.  Also, my wife had been hinting at one of those “swim with dolphin” excursions.  I was going to surprise her with it on the original trip.  I was able to keep it a secret up until a couple of weeks before the trip actually happened.

So… here’s my take on the trip.  It was my first time flying outside of the US, and only the 3rd round trip flying lifetime.  I read a lot about the resort and trip before I went, and the blogs and videos were very helpful.  So, here’s another take on it hoping it helps someone out there considering a similar trip.

First and foremost, the staff at Excellence Oyster Bay was FABULOUS.  Everyone was very friendly and helpful.  Every reasonable request was fulfilled, and most within just a few minutes.  From the bellhops to the cleaning staff to the gardeners, everyone asked how our stay was going and if there was anything they could do to make it better.  Some of our favorites were Ryan and Mark from guest services, Tracie from housekeeping, Zodia from the spa, and Latoya.  Without fail, every single time we passed a staff member, we were greeted and shown a genuine concern for enjoying our stay.  A lot of times they would tell us to have an excellent day, taking a play on the resort chain’s name.  It made me wonder if wishing guests an excellent day was like saying “Have a Disney Day” at Disney World.  (If you don’t know, don’t ever say that to a cast member at WDW.  It’s basically an insult.)  But, the responses did seem sincere at least.  A few times we got some responses from staff members that their day wasn’t going so well, but they were always quick to make sure ours was. Our shuttle bus driver for the dolphin trip, Virgo, was also great (but not employed by Excellence).

The ocean views were very nice.  While there were 300 rooms in the resort, they were so spread out that the resort did not feel crowded at all.

We only noticed a few small places where the resort was not well maintained.  For an oceanfront property, it’s in very good condition.

I booked our trip through Ambassador Travel, a company operated by my credit union.  By luck, I ended up getting the wife of one of my college friends as our agent.  Michelle was great, and put up with our last minute fears as my wife was recovering from an infection during a trip to Mexico the week prior.  She also worked with us through all the dolphin trip problems.

All the problems we had were truly “first world problems”.  The staff tried to make everything the best experience we could have, and there were no glaring problems that would be considered a major failure.

Off we go!

Airports are not my friend.  CVG, our local airport, seems to do things pretty well, although I have pretty limited experience with airports.  The lines are long, but they moved along and there’s plenty of seating available at each stop along the way from baggage drop off to the gate to get a few minutes rest before moving along.  The trip through TSA seemed to take forever.  It was nothing in comparison with the rest of the airports, though.

We arrived at ATL to get our connecting flight.  We did ok with only 2 hours for the connection, and even had a little time to hang out at the gate.  The Delta staff had island music playing and was getting people to dance while we waited.  It was pretty funny.

The flight to MBJ was also pretty smooth.  But, oh, the MBJ airport.  Wow.  We didn’t know where to go.  Some people waved us the correct way from the other side of a window.  We got to the immigration line.  The line was very long.  They had about 50 self service kiosks.  After standing in line for a while, we were directed to a self service kiosk.  We scanned our passports, and it took our picture (without any time ro try to look good for the camera).  The kiosk printed out a receipt that had our picture and information on it.  It said to keep that during our entire stay.

So, just when I think we’re good to go, we walk down another couple of long hallways and there’s another line, but this one was ridiculously long.  A greeter directed people to the appropriate line, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to all the different lines.  Social distancing was impossible.  The lines were set up in a way that it was not possible, despite all the signage about wearing masks and maintaining 2m distance.  We finally got through the line up to the greeter.  She looked at our immigration receipts, and directed us to go through a line marked “CREW”.  She assured us that the crew line was the correct one.  So, we went.  We walked to the end of the line, and then found ourselves in customs on the other side.  Somehow, we just bypassed an entire step of the process.  Thank you!

Then, it was off to baggage claim.  Because the lines were so long, we were not there in time to get our bags off the conveyor.  They had been removed and were sitting next to the other half of baggage claim #5.  We were at the first half of baggage claim # 5.  Why there are two baggage claim #5s around a corner from each other?  Good question.

We went to another long line, which was for customs.  Since we had nothing to declare, we went through an express line.  The agent checked our passports, didn’t stamp them, and told us we were good to go.  

We met our Delta Vacations rep in a small room at the airport exit, and was directed outside to the bar.  A minute or two later, we were directed to the bus to take us to the resort.

It’s Not You, It’s Us

I downloaded the Excellence app for the phone a couple of weeks before going.  It’s a must.  All the menus and schedules are on the app. I discovered a couple of things on the app days before the trip that honestly made me ponder if I should have made a different choice.

1.  Pool hours:  The resort is full of great pools from one end of the resort to the other.  I was in the main pool for an hour or so one day, and my wife was in the main pool a couple of days.  I would have liked to try out some of the other pools, but the big problem was that they ALL CLOSE AT 7 PM!!!  I do not deal with the heat and the sunlight.  One of my favorite things to do is to be in the pool at night.  I like the lights in the pool, the stars above, and the cool air.  I’m not miserable at night with the lower heat and brightness.  But, all the pools closed at 7 pm, which was just before dusk.  So, night swims were not an option except for the plunge pool…  which for us was all but unusable.  There were no rails or steps, just a curved seat.  You better be very young and/or very fit if you use it.  Getting in and out was near impossible for me, and difficult at best for my wife.  Plus, the lights on the balcony are not controlled by switches.  They turn on at dusk and turn off at 10 pm.  So, if you get in after 10pm, there’s no light.  The plunge pools also are not heated.  It was a little cold at night.  I got in once, and my wife twice.

2.  Dress Code:  Most of the restaurants require long pants and collared shirts for dinner.  If I’m on vacation, the last thing I want to do is dress up just to go to dinner.  Not only is it not comfortable, it’s another change of clothes to pack and launder.  We noticed that a lot of people didn’t follow the dress code to the letter.  Dressy shorts were tolerated, even though they were not allowed.

But, we had already booked the trip, and my wife had no problems with these rules.  So, we went.

I’m thinking most of the problems we had were not the fault of the staff or the resort, but rather it wasn’t a perfect fit for US.   We thought we would feel like a “fish out of water” with all the high end service.  But, that wasn’t really a major adjustment to make.

This was the first all inclusive resort trip for both of us as well.  Looking back, I’m not sure it was worth the extra expense. With a $6000 price tag, we did have some higher expectations than our average vacation. To get the room type I wanted, we also had to upgrade to the Excellence Club level.  This level adds on access to another pool, another section of beach, a couple of restaurants, upgraded alcohol in the rooms, private check in, and a few other things.  Most people highly recommend it.  We really didn’t use any of those extra things except the private check in.  The front desk wasn’t crowded, so the private check-in wasn’t really necessary. So I feel like that extra cost really wasn’t in our best interests.

I rarely drink alcohol, and when I do it’s one sip and that’s all.  My wife will have a drink once in a great while, but not very often.  We didn’t use any of the alcohol in our wet bar in the room.  The bottles were left unopened the entire week.  I had 3 or 4 virgin daiquiris, as did my wife but with the rum.  That’s it.

 We also didn’t do any of the on site activities.  A couple of the music shows sounded ok to me, but honestly the walk to get from the far end of the resort to the theater was more than I cared to do.  We did watch the pool Zumba class from the side of the pool.  It was reasonably entertaining 🙂  

So, we really didn’t get our money’s worth compared to the price.

Time for Us

This was originally our honeymoon, and now anniversary trip.  So needless to say, there were a lot of times when some seclusion would be top priority.  I did some serious upgrading to the room so that we were on the rooftop and in a suite where the even the balcony was totally secluded.  Well, the balcony turned out to be about 95% secluded.  There was a stairwell in the beach house in front of us that had a clear view of our balcony.  If you were right up on the glass wall at the far edge of the balcony, you would be visible from the ground level if someone looked right at it.  So, the extra money for that didn’t really pay off either. 

Knock, knock!

Speaking of privacy, the room at least was very private.  We didn’t have a problem with people entering when they shouldn’t have.  We rarely even ran into any of our neighbors on the floor level.  The rooms were very sound proof, and we had our privacy inside the room.

But… each day, there was a full schedule of visitors.

10 am  Housekeeping
12 pm  Pool Cleaning
1 pm    Stocking of fridge/snacks/bar
6 pm    Petit-fours
7 pm    Turn down service

While these times were not exact every day, there was a constant flow of people knocking on the door needing to be allowed in at some unknown time.  Yes, the service was very nice.  But, it would have been nice to consolidate the timing.  They did do a good job of doing the housekeeping while we were away at breakfast.

Being a large person, I accidentally broke one of the pool loungers on my one attempt to get into the plunge pool.  I called the next morning to let the front desk know, and arrange payment for the damages.  Instead, they apologized that it broke, and said they would send someone up to take care of it.  They also asked what restaurant we were going to for dinner that night.  We hadn’t even talked about that decision yet, so I told them we didn’t know.  They said they would call back in an hour to give us a chance to decide because they wanted to make it up to us for the problem with the lounger.

We headed out to breakfast, and we returned to a phone call.  It was maintenance letting us know that our balcony floor had been repaired.  (We did notice that several boards were loose, and there was a large gap between some boards under the lounger, but nothing major.)  My wife explained that we didn’t call about the floor, but rather the lounger.  So they again sent someone up to take care of it.  We got a call later in the day that our Adirondack chair had been replaced.  (We noticed one was a little loose, but nothing major.)  Again, we explained that the chair wasn’t the issue.  It was the lounger that was snapped in half.  Once again, they sent someone up.  This time we were there, and showed them the damage.  They took a look at it, and came back a short time later with a metal version of the wooden lounger.   

The phone rang yet again, this time to make sure the proper replacement had been completed, apologize yet again, and check on our dinner plans.  So they said they made us reservations for that night at the time we specified, and asked what we would drink.

Ring, Ring!

Each time some little thing went wrong, we were asked if they could make it up to us.  We really appreciated the follow up and thoughtfulness.  But, it started to get a little annoying.  The same scenario happened nearly every day we were there.  We hadn’t made dinner plans at that time of the morning.  They would call again later to find out, and said they made a reservation for us.  They asked what we were going to drink, but again we aren’t big drinkers.  One even asked what food we were going to order.  So, we’d make our plans in a hurry while one of us was on the phone.

We’re not sure what they were trying to do.  Each time we went to the restaurant we told them, we didn’t have reservations and didn’t get anything special except the first time we received a thank you card.  

Food

So speaking of dinner reservations, there are few complaints about the food.  The one dinner I had that wasn’t exceptional was the trip to Oregano.  It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t exceptional.  I had much better pasta the next night at the steakhouse, The Grill.  Portions at all the restaurants were understandably small to avoid waste and dealing with leftovers.  But, it’s something to keep in mind.  If you want more, order more.  There’s no limit.  But, the portion sizes you get will be small so plan ahead.  
We were surprised at how much empty space was at each restaurant.  The only time we saw a line was at The Grill as we were leaving.  Again, it was not crowded at all even through there were a lot of people staying at the resort.
The only restaurant that made me uncomfortable was one of the Excellence Club only restaurants, called Magna.  It was more formal dining on the inside, and limited seating outside which most people opted for.  I do not like outdoor dining and those tables required a wait, so we opted for inside.  The next time we were there, I wanted to make a point to eat outside since my wife prefers that.  But again, there was a wait and she opted for inside.
I’m not used to upscaled restaurants, and this one definitely felt that way.  It seemed rather stuffy and pretentious.  The chairs were very uncomfortable.  The food, however, was good despite not much of a selection that’s friendly to my palette.  The same was true for the French restaurant, but we never did go there.
We used the room service several times.  The food was very good!  The waffled sandwiches were superb.  I had read that the chicken burger was a definite must.  Since I’m partial to those to begin with, so I gave it a try right away.  I wasn’t all that impressed.  The chicken fingers that I ordered only took up maybe 1/4 of the plate.  There were 4, but more of a nugget size.  Again, expect small portions and order what you want.

Room service did eat up most of one afternoon, though.  When you call room service, they tell you the delivery will be in 45-50 minutes.  Excellence resorts have something we heard about called the X-Box.  No, it’s not the video game console.  It’s a small closet that opens from the outside hallway to the inside of the room.  If you ask for room service to deliver to the box, they will put the food in the box for you so as not to disturb you.  We loved the idea.  So, we gave it a try.  
We decided that I’d call room service for lunch on the first day.  Then I’d go brave the heat with her that afternoon.  So, I called and placed the order.  After an hour, I called and they seemed surprised.  They asked if I had checked the box, and I checked it yet again.  Nothing.  So they said they’d check on it and get back to me.  Another half hour went by, and the phone rang asking if everything was ok with the order.  I told them it still hasn’t arrived.  So, they were checking on it.  About an hour later, I called again.  They explained that the order was delivered to the wrong room, so they would remake the entire order and send it up.  About 30 minutes later (about 4:30 pm), lunch finally arrived, but not in the box.  This is when we met Mark.  He brought everything in, and caught my wife crying.  The day had been pretty rough for her because things were not going according to her plan.  The entire afternoon was spent inside the room waiting for lunch to arrive, and she missed out on beach time.  Mark spent several minutes cheering her up.  And, he shared some of God’s wisdom.  That would never happen in the US.  Mark really saved the day.  We ran into him again later in the week, and he spotted us immediately and asked if things were going better, which they were.
Another time, I ordered room service and asked for delivery to the box.  Everything went as scheduled, but there was a knock on the door when the delivery was made.  I assumed that was just to let us know it was there.  Then another knock, and another happened.  I finally answered the door.  The delivery guy just wanted to make sure we knew it was there.  While that’s appreciated, it does kind of negate the idea of using the box so you’re not disturbed.
The box was nice too for keeping the dirty dishes accessible to the staff without having them sitting outside the front door.
The Kitchen Table for breakfast was far and above our favorite.  It had to be the biggest breakfast buffet we had ever seen.  The number of options was incredible.  Not only did they have all the usual breakfast food, but they also had sushi if you’re into that.  One of the bars also had some international dishes.  The juice bar and milk bar had more options than we even knew existed.  Omelets were made on the spot, and everything was very tasty.  
We also visited Jerk Hut, which is poolside.  We each got a plate of jerk chicken and fries to take back to the room after a hot day at the pool. It was very good too!

Swimming with Dolphins

This was my wife’s favorite part of the trip.  She had hinted at wanting to do this for a long time, and when I saw that as an option I booked it right away.  Again, I’m a very large person and I don’t like to get in water where there are living creatures.  So I saw they had a dolphin encounter that was only in knee deep water and even handicap accessible.  So I booked it for the both of us, and decided to grin and bear it with the fishy water.
Basically the dolphin area was a small part of a bay that was gated to keep the dolphins inside and keep the predators out.  It takes 6 months to a year to train a dolphin.  We were able to see several.  Ours was named Toni.  She was a rescue dolphin from Peru.  The crew had nursed her back to health and trained her.  A very slippery platform was built under the water so you could just walk and stand on it, while a floating dock was right behind the platform for the photographers.  The trainers are also on the platform, and the dolphins come right up to you.  It was pretty cool to actually touch one and pose for some pictures.  There were 3 levels (and therefore, 3 prices):  encounter, swim, and royal swim.  The encounter is just standing, holding, and getting pictures with a dolphin.  The swim adds a chance to swim across the enclosed bay by holding onto a dolphin fin in both hands.  The royal swim has the dolphins  pick you up with your feet and raise you up and throw you off near the other side of the enclosed bay.  What surprised me was that all 3 of these were happening within our groups.  So I could have done just the encounter, while my wife could have done the swim without being separated.
I didn’t realize that we couldn’t do our own photography.  So I did purchase the photos that were taken by the professionals, which cost almost as much as the experience for 1 person.  So just realize that the admission price isn’t the total price 🙂
The big problem we had with this was the booking.  I had booked this months in advance.  They have two locations, both about the same distance from the resort.  What we didn’t know was that they have a shuttle bus to the Ocho Rios location, whereas the Montego Bay location would have been a $200 taxi ride.  So when we talked to our Delta Vacations rep about getting a taxi, she suggested going to Ocho Rios instead.  The price was a few dollars higher, but the shuttle was considerably less expensive.  We said yes.  So she made a phone call, and they agreed to make the switch from one location to another provided we paid the difference.  But, they would need the request to go through the excursion company that we booked it through.  So, I called our travel agent right away and she tried to make it work.  There just wasn’t time to get it done for the same day.  So, our dolphin trip would have to wait until after our anniversary.  It was probably a good thing though, because I was barely moving after dealing with the airports the previous day, and my wife wasn’t feeling very good either.  
We tried to reschedule for Tuesday, but again the paperwork never came through.  So we went for Wednesday, which was our last chance to go.  Our travel agent just booked us with a brand new reservation and refunded the original booking.  We made it happen!

Gift Shop

Nice, but very overpriced.  Shop at the airport or on an excursion gift shop instead.

Time To Go Home

To be honest, I was more than ready to come home.  About the time I had recovered from the physical stress of the airports by Wednesday, we went on the dolphin excursion and the pain started again.

The return airport trip was substantially worse than the arrival.  The MBJ airport is not equipped to handle the volume of people that fly in and out of there.  We waited in line for over an hour just to drop off our bags.  I was ready to fall over, and we still had security and making our way to the gate to go.  I could not find a seat anywhere to rest, nor did we have time because 1 of our 2 hours was taken up at check in.

We made our way to the security line, which again was incredibly long and social distancing once again impossible with how close the lanes were put together.  While this line was longer, it did move faster and we were at the security check within about 40 minutes.  Finally, I saw an empty seat to use.  But by that time, the damage was done.  My knees and legs were done.  My left knee is still hurting two weeks later, and required a trip to the doctor.  So after a minute or two in the seat, we made the long trek to the gate… which was moved to near the end from our original gate location 🙁  I have never been so glad to see an airplane in my life.

The flight was good back to ATL.  Then at ATL, we had to do something I’m not used to doing because I hadn’t flown internationally before.  We couldn’t just go to our gate.  There was no time to stop for the bathroom. We had to go through security again, pick up our bags, and check the bags a second time.  Again, the line was crazy long.    We finally got through security, and then customs was pretty quick and easy.  Finally we could race to our gate.  Again, 2 hours was barely enough.  We got to the gate in time, but there was no time for dinner.  I did get to the bathroom though, which luckily was across the hall from the gate.  The landing was pretty hard, but I didn’t care.  We were back at CVG.  Ahhh. Time to recover.  It took about a week, but finally everything except my left knee was back to normal.

There are many more stories to tell, but these are the things that I hope will be helpful to others planning a vacation in Jamaica.

Downgraded to iPhone SE 3rd gen

Well, I held out as long as I could.  Apple still refuses to include a headphone jack in the iPhone.  My 6S was failing, and had already been through 2 battery replacements.  So, I had to pick a replacement.  I finally went with the SE 3rd gen.  I wasn’t going to lose Touch ID too, and the physical home button just makes me feel better although I guess I could do without it.  It brought me up to true 5G speed and 5G+, which honestly neither is testing faster than LTE at all).  But, the hardware is there anyway.  The camera is a little better, but otherwise it feels like the 6S.  Except of course, for the lack of a headphone jack.  I bought a couple of the one piece adapters to keep in the lightning port that has a lighting port for charging/data and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.  

I’ve been doing fine with it until I went on vacation and found myself needing to use headphones for listening to audio on a flight back home.  The only earbuds I had were 3.5mm, as were the free ones on the plane.  So, my frustration of not having a built in headphone jack struck yet again.  Here’s hoping it comes back eventually, and switch the lightning over to USB-C for charging and data.  Standardization is a good thing, Apple.  I’d really like to have a more powerful version of the iPhone, but the lack of major features like Touch ID, a headphone jack, and a home button just keep screaming NO.

I just “upgraded” to an iPhone…… 6s.

Yes, there are things that I find annoying about the iOS platform.  There are things I could do on my little Nokia flip phone that the iPhone still can’t do…. like use my mp3’s as ringtones without encoding them again, trimming them to 30 seconds or less, and uploading them a 2nd time.  And just plain old drag and drop file storage isn’t there either.  But, after playing with Android a bit, and the lack of FaceTime and iMessage, I decided I’m sticking with Apple again for now.

Normally, I am excited about getting a new iPhone.  I’ve usually pre-ordered or ordered within a week of the release of the latest and greatest phone released every other year.  But last year, I skipped the iPhone 7 because it lacked a basic necessity of a smartphone… the headphone jack.  So, I replaced the battery in my iPhone 6 and gave Apple a chance to put the headphone jack back this year.  So I’ve been anxiously watching all the rumors to see if maybe this new phone being released would have it.  And, as you probably know… neither the iPhone 8 or the iPhone X have one.

Now, before I hear yet again for the thousandth time to go to bluetooth headphones…. I DON’T USE HEADPHONES.  I don’t have to have music playing all the time, and when I do I’m not in an environment that necessitates using headphones.  I prefer to play music out in the open air and not straight into my ears.  Yes, I know there’s an adapter.  Yes, I know it comes with one.  But I’m not going to leave the adapter stuck in the phone 24/7 except when I have to unplug it to charge it.  (I’m not impressed with inductive charging either, but yes it would work as long as I’m home and have a charging station.)

There’s so much more than the headphone jack does besides just being a place to plug in headphones.  And the beauty of the smartphone having a headphone jack is being able to use it on the fly.  Sure, if I knew when I needed an adapter, I could carry one.  But most of the time, I don’t know that in advance.  Sometimes I plug into a sound system to check it or set levels.  Sometimes I plug into a ham radio to decode digital messages or make a recording.  Sometimes I listen to podcasts in my SUV, which doesn’t have bluetooth.  (Yes, I have a bluetooth adapter… and it has to be charged so I rarely use it.)   I record the IDs into the EARS repeaters from playing them through the iPhone into my HT. There are so many times that I’ve thought… wait… I can just use my iPhone for that.  But if I don’t happen to have that adapter with me… I’m out of luck.

So, last night I upgraded my iPhone 6 to a 6s.  I’m underwhelmed.  I would totally have shelled out the bucks for the X if it had a headphone jack.  I don’t care about all these extra features… a captive engine… etc. etc.  I just want a smartphone that works.  The face ID thing interests me, and the screen looks pretty cool.  I’d really enjoy the new camera.  But without a headphone jack, it’s not practical for me at all.  And, I’ve been frustrated with my headphone jack not working just right in my iPhone 6.  It’s 3 years old, and time to do something.  So, the 6s is the newest one available with the headphone jack.  I gained 3D Touch and some speed.  But that’s about it.  But, what other features do I really need?  I’m not missing that much… and I’m saving $500.

All I can do is hope that I can find a phone with a headphone jack in 2 years when I look to upgrade again.

I really don’t blog that much…

Well, somehow today I ended up making a new web site. There was a lot of stuff out of date, and I noticed it’s been a long time since I’ve put anything in the blog. Comcast is dropping their web hosting services that are normally included with internet service. So I moved everything to a new server, AlterVista.org. So far, it seems to be working well. I may start using it for other sites in the future, especially now that GoDaddy’s rates went way up.

Well, life is a lot better than the last time I blogged. I have to admit, it got way worse after that post. Thanks to God, things are much better now. But there are a lot of lessons I learned from that whole experience. I’m finding out that I really don’t know as much as I thought I did. And I know not to take Ambien or Lunesta anymore! But, I’m learning more because of it all. I’ve gone through several heartaches since then, and I look forward to the day when most of those go away too. I’ve met a lot of new, great people. And I learned some things that I’ve been doing wrong, especially in the last month. So I’ve been working on those, and hopefully it will pay off soon.

I recently took a week long trip to Florida. I really enjoyed it. I wanted to do all the things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do since I was single and traveling alone. And that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t stay in one place very long. The longest was 2 days in Miami Beach. It was great to go there, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip. I couldn’t cram in everything I wanted, but at least I did everything I wanted to do alone.

Once I got to Ocala, I stopped at Walgreens to get a SunPass sticker since I’d be using the toll roads a lot. They are $5, and you just register it online or by phone. The toll booths didn’t know my sticker ID until the following day. Next time, I’ll try to remember to do it ahead of time. The scary thing is that some off ramps no longer accept even cash. If you don’t have a SunPass, they bill it according to your license plate… and of course add on a big fee. So my advice to anyone driving in Florida on the toll roads is to do the sticker in advance. I’m probably trading the van at the end of the year, so I’ll have to get a new one on the next trip. But hopefully, they will be compatible with the Illinois and Indiana systems by then.

I spent the rest of the day in the Orlando area. I stayed in Lake Mary. It was the 4th of July, so the hotel rates were higher about everywhere. So I just stayed there, even though it was a bit out of the way. I went straight for Del Taco. I had it on the way home on the last trip, and fell in love with it. So I had to go there. I went to do a few other things, and since I didn’t have anything else better to do… I drove down to Kissimmee and tried to watch the fireworks. There was a pretty bad thunderstorm most of the day, so it was doubtful the fireworks would happen. But, it cleared just in time. Unfortunately, the spot I picked out to park in didn’t give me a high enough elevation. So by the time I found a place, it was mostly over. But at least I was able to see part of it.

The next day after a couple of stops, I headed over to Cape Canaveral to visit Padraig, who was one of my students for the past 3 years. He is interning at SpaceX, where he is working on the old Launchpad 39 where the Apollo missions and space shuttle missions launched. SpaceX is reconfiguring the launch pad for their new rockets. He already loves working for them, even though it’s 12-14 hours a day and 6-7 days a week. I’m really proud of him. He’s done a lot of great things, but this is a big passion of his. He was named Young Ham of the Year 2 years ago, and won every big ham radio award and scholarship possible. He’s going to go even bigger places. I can’t wait to see what the future is for him. MIT missed out on a good one. Cornell is lucky to have him.

Then I went to my room in Indian Harbor Beach, or more or less Melbourne. I really like the hotel there. It’s not across from the beach… it’s on the beach. Every room has it’s own private balcony overlooking the Atlantic. Every time I go, I think to myself that I just need to stay there the whole time and forget Orlando and all the tourist stuff. Sometime I’ll listen to myself. It’s so relaxing, convenient, and not crowded. But there’s still plenty to do not too far away. I really like the Space Coast. I tried out Pollo Tropical for dinner. It was good!

The next day, I drove to Miami. This was my first trip to Miami. My main reasons for going was to check off another NBA area on my list, and to go to South Beach. I have seen so much on Travel Channel about South Beach, so I decided I had to go at least once. So after some selfies at AA Arena, off to the hotel I went. I had first picked the Savoy, but at the last minute I decided to switch to The Hotel of South Beach (formerly the Tiffany). I think I made the right choice. It wasn’t right on the beach like the Savoy, but it was cheaper and didn’t add on a fee for this and another fee for that. Beach chairs were even included. While the room was small, they made good use of every inch. It was a lot slower than I expected. The staff said it was the off season, since hurricaines are unpredictable and it’s hotter than normal. But, the trip to the beach across the street the next day was well worth it. There was a lot to look at, and after a short time a storm tried to roll in. It dried up, but it created a little breeze, and the sun went behind a cloud. It was perfect. I didn’t think I would stay on the beach that long just taking in the scenery, but it was so comfortable after the storm came in that I did. The bad thing was the traffic and parking. I drove around over an hour just trying to find a place to park to go to the bathroom. I went for the valet service at the hotel. It wasn’t cheap, but well worth it. I don’t know that I’ll go back unless I have a reason to go, just because of the parking and traffic. But I’m glad I went.

As I walked back to the hotel, I was looking for a chair to use for a while. I spotted one that was empty. In the next chair was a guy wearing a DX Engineering hat. I decided to sit there, and strike up a conversation. Sure enough, the guy was a ham and frequents the Dayton Hamvention. So we talked ham radio for a good while. He was from the St. Louis area, so maybe I’ll run into him at Dayton sometime. He was also there on his first trip to Miami. He was smart though, and didn’t try to drive!

After that, I went across Alligator Alley through the Everglades. I found a radio station that was about the Everglades. So I learned a lot about how the road was built, and why they built some of the things they did.

The next stop was Sarasota at McDonald’s to see my best friend from high school, Andy. He moved down there several years ago, and I haven’t seen him since. So it was good to catch up with him. I also went to Sun City and visited there.

On the road back, I stopped in Atlanta to see another one of my former students, Brandon. Back at Harrison High School in Evansville, Brandon played on some of my basketball teams. His passion was always baseball, but he didn’t play. So we decided to check into doing some baseball broadcasting. We were able to get a student at WPSR to stay after school to run the board, and we got a cell phone donated that had a mic input. We got a little suitcase with a mixer and some headsets, and about once a week we would broadcast a baseball game. This was his start in broadcast radio. He said we would be on ESPN someday. I ended up moving to Bloomington, so I wasn’t around for his senior year. But he did some radio work at WPSR, and enrolled at Butler and studied there. He did some student broadcasts there, and ended up interning for Stephen A. Smith at ESPN. So one day, he was on ESPN. From there, he did radio play-by-play for a minor league team in Utah, and did some field reporting in the process. He was the radio station manager and radio announcer for the University of Evansville, which was always his favorite team. He then moved to Butler, where he managed the station and did play-by-play. Recently, he accepted a position at Georgia Tech. So now, he is the football and basketball play-by-play announcer there, and is able to do contract work for Westwood One, ESPN3, and Turner Sports during the down time. He has a new gig lined up to add to that list soon as well. He recently did some first round NCAA basketball tournament games, and the Division II championship back in his hometown of Evansville. He’s another student of which I’m very proud. He is working his way up the ladder quickly. So it was great to see him as well.

The trip was a lot shorter using I-69, even though it’s not finished yet. I will be so glad when it’s finally done! It has saved me a lot of miles and hours even in it’s partial state.

So, it’s back to work full time soon… even though I’ve been working a few days already. I will miss the time to travel as much. Hopefully I will find a travel partner soon.

It’s a New Year

I know I don’t post here very often, but the last month has been a very eye opening experience for me. It’s definitely been the most difficult time of my life. I realized a lot of things. I realized how much I missed my extended family and friends, and how much they are always there to help. My co-workers and even my students were there to help me, and show that they care. I realized how much I missed *really* being at church. I forgot what it was like to actually sit down and watch a TV show, let alone a couple of movies, without having to be productive at the same time. I forgot what it was like to have those really intense prayer sessions. I have been so busy trying to keep up with all the big things that I had forgotten about so many of the little things. I forgot how much I miss just having the energy and motivation to get up and do things around the house… put things away, cook, and even clean. I miss those late night Monopoly and Uno games that would seemingly go on forever. I miss sharing road trips. I miss a lot of things I would even complain about. I’ve shared in the pain of others, and understand now more of what they are going through. I am so much more thankful for what I’ve had. And most of all, I realized just how much people mean to me. Some are still here, some have passed on, and some I haven’t heard from in a while or even years. But they all have a special place in my heart. I know it’s easy to say and not truly understand the true meaning of it until you experience it. But cherish those moments you have with those you love. You don’t always appreciate just how much they mean until they are gone. It’s my goal to start doing those things a lot more than I did before.

Shortcomings of the DISH 922 Receiver

In 2008 when I heard about the Sling loaded receiver with a web browser being in development for DISH, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. The big announcements at CES came and went, and every once in a while I would ask DISH about it. They kept saying that they didn’t know when it would be released. On Charlie Chat (which isn’t even an option for information anymore), they said they were really having problems with the web browser. But everything else was working great, and so they were going to launch it without the web browser for the time being. Then they would send the web browser as a software update once they figured out the last of the bugs (which never happened). Well, quite some time passed without a launch. Then, it finally came out. I decided to wait on a deal, because it was going to be too expensive for the upgrade. I was told to watch the announcements, because there was a “big” announcement coming out the following month. Well, that announcement ended up being something totally different. So, I kept waiting. Then, I heard some complaints about the 922 not living up to expectations. Then, it kind of faded away for a while, and it even disappeared from the DISH web site for a while. I was told I could still get one though. Then, the Hopper announcement came out. So, I thought I would wait it out again and go for the Hopper. But then I was disappointed to find out that I couldn’t keep my 2nd receiver if I went to the Hopper, nor did it support OTA. So, the Hopper was no longer an option. But, the 922 was now a free upgrade. So, I went for it.

There are many days that I wish I hadn’t. First, it was installed without the OTA module I had ordered. The installer offered to put one in, but he couldn’t find any on the truck, and said it had been a long time since he had any requests for one. So he was going to call and make sure the module was going to be shipped. I figured something was wrong, because I waited over 3 weeks to have the 922 installed because of my busy schedule and inability to be home. I never understood why they didn’t just ship it and let me put it in myself. But anyway, I waited, and the OTA module never arrived. So I called DISH, and they said they had no record of my OTA order. So they promptly sent me one. I installed it, and it came right up. I was thrilled to find that it would actually send OTA to TV2, which I had not been able to do with my 622. I had to do some crazy wiring and careful modulator channel selection to make it all work before. Now, it just goes through the 922. And, the OTA receiver seems to pull in stations a lot better than the 622 did. Kudos for those 2 things!

What I had NO clue would even possibly happen was that the OTA programming functionality would be horrible. Every time I go upstairs to turn the antenna, I have to rescan all the channels. I guess they think that all TV stations are all in one direction. I watch 3 different markets with regularity, and when the DX rolls in I get several more. I haven’t had a good band opening since getting the 922, but DXing is probably not going to be an convenient option anymore unless they fix the software. I’m frustrated because even my old 622 would give you the option of rescanning without deleting, adding channels manually, or deleting everything and rescanning. I can’t even add manually with the 922. So, I haven’t been turning the antenna as much… which is a real pain. So now I rely on other means to get OTA from the Indy market, which totally defeats the purpose of the OTA module and my decision to go with DISH in the first place.

Another nightmare with the 922 is recording OTA channels, more specifically subchannels. Most, but not all, of my subchannels and some primary channels do not have program listings in the guide. While DISH told me none of them did, that’s just not true. I understand, it’s not their fault. They buy their guide info, and if the station doesn’t provide it to TitanTV (the provider), then they won’t get it either. Of course, no one at DISH would tell me that. They just said that they didn’t guarantee guide information on any OTA channel. Well, I’ve been used to that. It was that way with the 622, or any other receiver with OTA. The problem is that without the guide information, you can’t set a timer on the 922. Yes, that’s right… no manual timer option. That was always my workaround. I could set a manual timer for a channel, day, and time, and take care of the problem. Not anymore. When I contacted tech support, first they tried to tell me there was a hardware issue. Then, they told me it was a software issue, and they would research it and get back to me. When the finally got back to me, they said that manual timers were not possible on the 922 just yet. What I wanted to say was, “Just YET? I’ve waited 5 years for this receiver, 2 years of which were delays due to software development, and the software doesn’t even have a manual timer for the DVR?”

My only options are to either record it live or try to set a large block of time to record. The 922, as other receivers, break up channels that do not have guide information into large blocks of time. Now if these blocks of time were 30 minutes instead of 4 hours, it would be possible to record a 30 minute show, or even a 60, 90, or 120 minute show using the extended time feature. But instead, I have to record 4 hours of time just to get 2 hours worth of WKRP in Cincinnati each week. And, that’s if the receiver doesn’t lock up in the process. I haven’t had much luck setting the large block of time more than 24 hours in advance. The timer just magically disappears after I’ve set it. And, a lot of times it locks up just trying to set the timer. So I have to reboot and try it again. And on top of this, the block of time doesn’t really match up with the time in the guide. So I try to record WKRP from 9 to 11 pm, so I click on 9 pm. The timer comes up at a random time. Usually, it comes up from 3:30 to 7:30. Wait, 9:00 isn’t even anywhere in that block of time! Then, if I go to midnight, it sets the timer for 1:00 am. So no matter what time I select it, I can’t get the time that I need to program into the timer. Sometimes I can get it to work by advancing the guide a day or two ahead of time, and then scroll back to the time I need. But I have to do that each week, because the weekly timer keeps erasing itself. So either the guide needs to be in 30 minute blocks, or a manual timer option is needed. But the 922 will do neither.

As for the missing guide info, one of the workarounds I used was to download the guide info for a subchannel that actually is included in the guide but in a different market but the same network. For instance, I could see what was on Antenna TV in Louisville using the Antenna TV listings from Indy. But, wait… even that won’t work anymore because I can’t save two stations in different directions.

My other big problem with the 922 is the lack of a saved search history… on satellite or OTA. Every week, I have to do searches for the basketball teams I want to record. I never was a big fan of the “DISH Pass” on the 622, which was supposed to set a timer for a keyword. It was not specific enough, and would record way too many things that may or may not even be related to what I want. So, I could at least go in the history and repeat the same searches each week. Not on the 922. I have to set up the same searches each week, one at a time.

So while the menus look sweet, there’s logos for most shows and channels, and the Sling is finally working most of the time… I’m still pretty disapoointed with the 922. I’m thinking of “downgrading” to a 722k and add a sling adapter. At least it would let me set some manual timers and save my searches.

There are 2 things that DISH needs to do immediately on the 922, if not sooner:

1) Provide a manual timer option
2) Provide a way to add OTA channels without rescanning

If would also be very helpful if they would:

1) Divide blocks of time into 30 minute blocks instead of 4 hours that are not listed in the guide
2) Add the ability to save searches
3) Provide a way to add on an OTA rescan without deleting previously scanned channels
4) Allow mutliple OTA channels to be saved that have the same mapped digital channel number (For instance, I get an OTA Channel 2.1 from St. Louis as well as Terre Haute, IN. If I add the one from St. Louis, it wipes out the Terre Haute info. Yes, I know… I shouldn’t be able to pick up St. Louis according to AntennaWeb and DISH. I do during band openings. DISH tells me this is impossible. It’s not.)

I’ve heard rumors that the manual timer issue is because SiriusXM doesn’t wants to discourage people from recording it’s programming. Well, just disable recording of SiriusXM instead of using these huge time blocks to mess things up.

Response to QST Feb 2013 Op-Ed about a 6 year old ham

Many of you have asked me about the February, 2013 QST Op-Ed article (page 99) about raising questions about a 6 year old being able to have a ham radio license. This is it:

I think the real issue that needs to be addressed here is maturity, not age. I’ve met a lot of young hams over the years, and every one of them so far have acted more mature both on the air and in person than some older, much more experienced hams. Being a teacher of young hams, I often get nervous when I hear some of “my kids” from my school getting on the air totally on their own. I am used to being there to help and support them while they operate at school. I have been known to grab my radio and have it ready to jump in… just in case they don’t know what to say or do something they shouldn’t. I have never had to do that. In every case, at least so far, they have always handled themselves properly and sometimes were more knowledgeable than the hams they were conversing with. Over the years, the amateur community has seen many young hams licensed, starting at age 4. Multiple 7 years olds have earned extra class licenses, and some even DXCC. Some I’ve heard on the radio, and some I’ve met in person. And some, I’ve only read about. And, my apologies if there are some younger hams than age 4 that I haven’t heard about which I’m not mentioning. But, my experience has been the same. All of them acted very responsible and mature for their age. They knew how to safely and properly operate. To generalize that everyone under 16 is not mature enough for a ham radio license just doesn’t make much sense to me. I get frustrated at times listening to VHF/UHF and hear how hams that are well into adulthood create feedback with their radios over and over again on purpose, berate other people, and show little respect for others. I have to be careful working with the kids at school to quickly pass over certain frequencies on HF (14.313 among others) because of what might be heard. But to say that all adults that are hams are immature would be going too far.

I was introduced to amateur radio when I was 5 years old, in 1976. My father decided to go to a ham radio class, sponsored by our local club. They placed a 13 year old age limit on the class. After the first week, my father asked if it would be ok if I just tagged along. He assured them that I would not disrupt the class in any way. They went along with it. They also made an exception for a 9 year old girl. So when my dad copied down a letter in Morse code in his notebook, so did I. Before long, everyone noticed that I was copying code just the same as everyone else. Several weeks later at the completion of the class, I had earned my novice ticket, as did the 9 year old girl. I upgraded to technician at age 6, general at age 7, and advanced at age 9. I finally decided to get my extra class at age 18. I made my very first contact at 5 years old all on my own… before auto tuners. I knew what not to touch, and what the dangers were. All this happened because I had good support. My dad, and others, took the time to show me what to do and what could go wrong. I knew the responsibility that came with a ham radio license. Needless to say, the next year there was no longer an age limit on the class.

Most of the young ham experts say that the optimum time for students to get into ham radio is in middle school. By the time they get to high school, cars and boyfriends/girlfriends often distract them and consume more of their time. I think that having an age limit on ham radio would be very detrimental. It could be nice to have a way to require a certain level of maturity for a ham radio license, but I don’t know of a fair and proven way to do that.

My students have had the advantage of having an elmer. It’s worked pretty well for us. In my time teaching at Bloomington High School South, our ham radio club has actively served 68 students, of which 28 have become licensed. Many of them have gone on to upgrade. Many of them have become an important part of our local and global ham radio community. In addition, several students did the same at other schools of which I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. And, most of them did it before earning a driver’s license. One even led his own DXpedition to Cyprus, which you can read about in an upcoming edition of QST, at the age of 15. There are many other similar experiences around the world. If I had been refused at age 5, none of that would have happened.

Neil Rapp, WB9VPG
Chemistry teacher, Amateur Radio Club Sponsor
Bloomington High School South
Bloomington, Indiana

Someone finally figured it out!

Gee, this study is about 30 years overdue! It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure this one out!

http://www.insideindianabusiness.com/newsitem.asp?ID=31512

Study: Teacher Sleep Deprivation Costs $100 Billion Annually
InsideINdianaBusiness.com Report

A new study from Ball State University shows U.S. teachers are suffering from a lack of sleep and admit to being impaired in the classroom. The trend is costing businesses more than $100 billion annually due to workplace accidents, decreased productivity and absenteeism. Nearly a fourth of teachers say their teaching skills are significantly diminished and half admit to missing work or making errors due to a serious lack of sleep. The study also found 44.9 percent of respondents work part-time jobs. Researchers say many teachers are forced to coach, farm, run a family business or work a second job just to pay the bills.

BMV: The Sequel

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I went to the BMV the very next day. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to wait. But, I would trade waiting for what happened.

I went to pick up my plate, which I have to do every year, and only at the specified license branch, because the ham radio plates are special ordered from Indianapolis. So I can’t just pick it up anywhere. Now, the BMV has changed it’s policy. They don’t send the plates to the license branches anymore. So I’m wondering why in the world I wasted all the time and trips to the BMV to pick up a plate that wasn’t even there. So, I asked. Before I could stop myself, I had uttered “excuse me?” because I was in such shock I didn’t understand what she said the first time. She said plates are not delivered to the branches anymore. I would be given a temporary plate, and my plate would come in the mail within 30 days.

So, I figured next time I could just mail my payment and get my plate by mail. That would solve the whole problem. Oh no. That isn’t possible. You have to come into the branch to pay for the plate, and then they mail it to you. I said “well, that sure makes a lot of sense.” And the poor clerk said she didn’t make the rules. I told her I understood. So then I went to re-reserve my plate as I do every year. Then she informed me that I can’t do that until I have the actual plate in hand. Of course, they don’t have it and they are going to mail it. So now I have to go back to the BMV when it arrives to reserve my plate for next year. So now it takes TWO trips every year for a license plate!

So here’s BMV reform at work again. Instead of just sending the whole stock of ham radio plates for the entire year to the branches, they mail them individually to each person. Then after it arrives at my house, I have to take the plate to the BMV branch so they can re-reserve it. So if I have to take it back to the BMV, wouldn’t it save a whole lot of money and effort on both our parts if they just send it to the branch to begin with??????

If this is BMV reform, I’d hate to see a complete overhaul!

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