Copyright 2018 by Janet Campbell
Runner-Up--2018 Travel Nonfiction
seen humans for quite some time. Until this morning. When a fisherman
had returned to his shack to find us there. Chagrinned wouldn’t
even begin to describe how we felt, but it had been a necessity.
terribly sorry to intrude. We paddled that boat from the mainland,”
Angus said pointing to our kayak. The man raised his eyebrows in
it got a motor?” he asked in a thick accent.
laughed. “Just these,” I said and held up my arms,
bronzed and taut from a couple of weeks on the water.
we arrived on Ambergris Cay a bit late and had difficulty finding a
camp spot,” Angus continued.
then the storm came up,” I added.
we were a bit stuck.”
very sorry,” I said. We started packing up.
hadn’t been our only problem. We had been chased from camp
spots by aggressive blue crabs, bled dry by squadrons of mosquitoes,
stuck in mud surrounded by string rays the size of Jupiter, had been
lost in a primordial swamp for a day, had slept in the boat a few
times and been so calorically depleted that I had been able to feel
myself digest nuts. This shack had been the Taj Mahal.
We took a
deep breath, settling down from the surprise visit and focused on the
Promised Land at last: the island of Cay Caulker. Where there was
real food. Cocktails. Hotels. People. Civilization. Seven miles of
paddling would deliver us. A slight wind carried that salty sultry
smell a warm sea creates. Seesaw small swells rocked us as we
adjusted ourselves for our 3 hour journey. A final smoke. A deep
breath. A thousand-yard stare to the next shore we couldn’t
quite yet see.
adventure had been long in the making. Angus, now 39, had owned the
sea kayak for three years. It had been a rough three years for him. A
hotel manager by trade and desire, his first major job managing a
beach resort abruptly ended with the sale of the property. Since
then, he had been in limbo waiting for me, a fledgling Ph.D. graduate
from Glasgow University, to land a position.
moved half a dozen times desperately chasing opportunities with the
sound and fury of a young couple determined to make their place
professionally. Although actually, we were not that young. Both of us
had traveled extensively, lived abroad for many years, and were born
with what my mother had termed “the wanderlust.” As with
the most deeply felt human emotions, lust is a hard thing to control.
While we were both weary of crap jobs and of starting over, we could
not avoid the lure of living, or at least exploring, “somewhere
else.” At this point in our lives, however, we wanted permanent
situations and endeavored to hold our wanderlust at bay.
eventually did land a post near Portland, Oregon and had survived my
first year of full-time teaching. By the end of the school year I was
fully depleted but riding a wave of exhilaration with the completion
of the first year in a profession that, for the most part, consumed
my entire being. Angus, on the other hand, had spent yet another year
searching; another year exploring options; another year scanning the
paper for decent, well-paid opportunities in the hospitality industry
(quite laughable for anyone that knows the field). He had worked in a
maintenance facility at a community college; a job that did not cover
expenses and addled the mind in ways that only banal jobs can.
“struggle”—as we liked to call it—had taken
its toll on our relationship, which had always been quite tumultuous,
but a tumult born of two dynamic, headstrong, and controlling
personalities rather than one born of deeper conflict. In most cases
we were able successfully to ride the waves of closeness and
separation, love and hatred, anger and ecstasy. Towards the end of
the school year we had unfortunately suffered through one of our
worst periods where our words and actions were always interpreted as
a negative commentary on the other’s thoughts and habits. Thus
the idea of spending 30 days together in a foreign land no further
apart than the cockpit of a double kayak was, to say the least,
longed to do an extended trip in the kayak, and the more dismal his
professional future appeared the greater the pull became. For most of
the year, planning for such a trip had been the one safe haven to
which he could crawl. It was the place where he could dream and he
threw his extraordinary skills into making this dream a reality. We
could not afford it, but this kind of time off would be rare when he
became a manager again. The trip was to be for a minimum of one
not imagine ever saying no to an invitation to travel abroad, so I
enthusiastically embraced the idea. As to what it would entail of my
body and person, I really didn’t think about it until walking
out of the airport that first sumptuous July day in Mexico. He had
not planned our exact itinerary, but his idea was to paddle the
Yucatan coast and explore south to Belize and revisit the very funky
island of Cay Caulker. The entire distance was about 400 kilometers
(though ironically I was unaware of that at this point).
an unusual country in Central America. A former British colony, it
has a healthy settlement of expatriates. These are the British
citizens who served so long in the hinterlands that England was just
a glorious symbol of a culture whose ways were to be preserved in
daily routines, but whose shores were as distant from their hearts as
their long-lost youth. They preserved certain British habits, such as
tea time and gin and tonics at sunset. Usually they lived completely
separate lives from native Belizeans and exuded a subtle air of
superiority. Nevertheless the Caribbean was their home and they would
be there for the remainder of their lives. Then there is the Spanish
population who was culturally akin to Mexicans, but only as a distant
cousin. And the black population. Some are Garifuna, a race who
prided itself on the fact that its members were too obstreperous to
be slaves and by killing themselves every time they were forced into
servitude, they stunted that wretched institution. Others are
descendants of ex-salves from all over who speak a
Creole-English-patois mix but will switch to a more international
English when necessary. There is also a sizable Chinese population
due to immigration.
It is one
of the most multi-cultural countries of the globe, relatively poor
but ubiquitously friendly. The lilt of the Caribbean English makes
you want to grow dreads, yah mon. The natural environment is
astounding. Its ocean contains the second largest barrier reef in the
world (second to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). Its pristine
jungle interior houses the ever-shrinking jaguar population, and its
shores are a mixture of undisturbed beaches and mangroves with which
we were all too familiar. Belize also has hundreds of small islands,
or cays, protected from the surf by the reef. Some are privately
owned, some are uninhabited by humans, and others have small
settlements and are tourist destinations. We were headed to one of
those now, the furthest point south in our trip, and a rather long
crossing in open ocean, unprotected by other land masses and bays,
where we had paddled until now. The boat, and we, would be more
tested than we had been, which is saying a lot.
kayak is unusual in several ways. First, it is a double kayak, which
means it is designed for two paddlers. Second, it is collapsible: the
frame is made of aircraft aluminum that comes apart. The skin is
heavy plastic that roles into a tight bundle. The ribs, also made of
plastic, can be removed and stacked so that the whole boat fits in
two bags that do not exceed airplane limits and weigh about 40
kilograms combined. Third, it is large for a kayak, 5.7 meters in
length and about 1 meter in width. The boat also has inflatable sides
that increase its buoyancy and stability. All these features make for
an extremely stable kayak, so stable that it allows both of us in
deep water to leap into the boat at the same time without capsizing.
The tradeoff is that it does not move as quickly or with as much
agility as less stable boats. It takes about 2 hours to assemble. We
have no motor; we have no sails, only our arms. On average we can do
13 to 24 kilometers a day depending on conditions, the amount of
breaks we take, and our needs and moods.
we were not experienced kayakers. In the three years of owning the
boat, we paddled a few placid rivers, lakes, and inlets. We had been
on the ocean exactly once for about 15 minutes and in protected
waters for about two hours. We had completed one 2-day camping trip.
Angus was more familiar with boats in general than I, and had read
about paddling techniques extensively. I trusted him. He was
competent in virtually anything to which he applied himself, and
after living together for eight years and witnessing his ability and
love for me, I could easily say I trusted him with my life. If he
said we could do this trip, I believed him. During the entire time
that Angus prepared for the trip, to me it was a very special thing
in the distant future that I thought about wistfully during the
months of cold Northwest rains as I coped with the stress of my new
We did not
train for the trip. Both of us exercised regularly. I knew basic boat
safety but had not practiced it. I was a good swimmer, and having
grown up on the California coast was familiar with the ocean. I could
get into the boat in deep water unassisted and steer if necessary.
Seamus was 1.8 meters in height, and weighed about 68 kilos with
every ounce of it muscle. He was a rare specimen for his age: despite
prodigious beer drinking there was no belly; despite his age there
was no gray; despite his penchant for butter, sour cream, and any
high fat food his blood work, as the doctor stated, “was one of
the finest he had ever seen.” Despite smoking a pack a day for
more than 20 years, he could probably beat a mountain goat up the
side of a steep ridge. He was a constant amazement to our friends and
family. For me, who does not fit the above description of fitness in
the slightest, it all spelled security. I could completely wimp out
and Angus would save the day.
also not so well equipped with navigation tools. We did have a basic
GPS, which I learned how to use the first day of our journey. We did
have a chart, which I learned how to read the second day. Trouble is
it had no villages marked on it, and unbeknownst to us, the last time
this area had been charted was in the 1950s by the Russians.
Hurricanes had so changed the sea scape and islands that it had been
more confusing than useful. We also had a tourist map, but the scale
was too small to be exact. We ended up tracking our course using the
satellite positions accessed through the GPS and ruler made from part
of cigarette box. Between the navigational chart and the cigarette
box ruler used with the tourist map, we had found the latter to be
more accurate. What can I say? We had survived…until now.
pulled away from the sanctuary shack in a small bay, I let the peace
of motion wash over me. The trip had not been all challenge; there is
a certain mediation while paddling. The rhythm of the strokes, the
predictable drumming of water drips from the paddle, the gentle
rocking of the swells, the tautness of your arms and your core
muscles—they produce a profound sense of presence. Your mind
finds a plane of existence impossible in modern life, where the hours
flow until the gates of nirvana seem near. I quickly sank into the
calm cadence, which lasted the 15 minutes it took us to clear the
bay. Upon rounding the last tip of shore the wind knots tripled. The
swells quadrupled. Ahead was nothing but walls of water. That
familiar sting of bile from abject fear flooded my mouth.
first phase kicked in: this allows apprehension to turn to focus. We
were blown off course, so instead of pointing the boat directly
toward our destination, Angus had to point the boat toward the
horizon. Idea being, we would be blown in the right direction. This
meant that it would take us much longer to cross and that any sort of
break was out of the question due to the ground we would lose. The
seriousness of this crossing doubled. Your first reaction is to
paddle as hard and as quickly as possible, but this is exactly the
wrong thing to do. What were required were long, full, steady
strokes. As the paddler in front I was also the pace-setter, which
means if I screwed up I would also screw-up Angus. My arms began to
tire and I began to worry severely that my energy would go.
providence would have it, something came to my rescue: adrenaline
phase two, enervation begins to ebb. My strokes steadied. The wind
screamed. I was nearly blinded by sea-spray but could see well enough
to witness the horizon disappear behind the water-wall of the swell.
The boat rose as in a carnival ride where the bottom drops out from
under you, until the air-born bow crashed into the water, became
completely submerged, and literally popped up again like a surfacing
submarine. I struck air with my paddle half the time. I cursed myself
for not wearing my life preserver. It was a stupid move, but I
couldn’t stop paddling to put it on. Each direction I looked
brought on a new view of tumultuous chaos.
As we rode
up another large swell and I watched the bow in front of me sink, I
began to think seriously of my death and consequently of my life, and
of course I began to cry. At first I did not want to waste the
energy, but then I found I had morphed into superwoman. Adrenaline
phase three: there was no fatigue in my arms, no back pain, no
nothing but the measured, strong strokes fueled by that AWESOME drug.
At this point, I could have damn well paddled to China.
So I let
it go and amid the spray, streams of snot rode down my cheeks. Part
of me felt lucky that my death would most likely take some time and
thus allow the end of life contemplations that many of us never get.
flashed before my eyes? People. In my snotty, briny state I began to
think of those that touched my life and relive those moments of
intimacy, whether they lasted for an hour, a night, or decades: Sex
and sensuality in all sorts of forms; dancing; riotous and quiet
dinners; lit animated faces around a fire; brushing the tears of
sorrow from a cheek; laughing until your stomach hurts; squeezing
someone’s hand while they’re in pain; the shared
exuberant silence of the sun coming up over a river after a
of revelry; a hug after someone had a crappy day; shared impatience
among line-waiters; music weaving its web among those caught. Like a
photo album on steroids, I saw them all at once. My body actually
reacted to those moments and I was awash with a sense of humanness in
its most emotionally piquant form. Filled with this wholeness of life
and powered by THE AWESOME DRUG I wept and paddled. Half of me spoke,
“You’ve had a great life, and it’s OK to die.”
The other half answered, “There’s no WAY in hell I’m
dying.” I let them fight it out for hours.
we were simply there. We ducked behind the north end of the island
into calm water: no wind, no swells, and no sea spray.
can quit paddling,” Angus said. That was difficult as I was
still in “paddling to China mode.” I stopped crying.
a smoke?” he asked.
out, “In a minute.” I wiped the snot from my face and
began to breathe regularly. But just as I had calmed, I now was
overcome with the urge to weep again, this time for sheer joy, to be
alive and safe and within an hour of booze and a restaurant. I
laughed while crying and rubbed the fine salt crystals that covered
my entire body. They were a bright white and I looked as though I had
been painted to participate in some ancient ceremony. I drew patterns
in them. Angus gazed at me as if I had finally gone over the edge. I
smiled and finding my voice said, “I’m fine, I’m
just happy to be here. I thought we were going to die.”
obvious by his face that the thought had never crossed his mind, and
that he had been completely inspired by the entire ordeal. I wanted
to drop the subject, for it didn’t really matter how accurate
my feelings were, the fact is, my mind and body responded as if they
were going to die.
Part of me
chit-chatted with Angus about the sea-worthiness of the boat and his
prowess as a captain. I believe I carried on a decent conversation.
The other part was reorganizing into a normal state of consciousness.
It was as if someone held a gun to your head, pulled the trigger and
you were still alive, only in very slow motion. I was acutely aware
that not once had I thought of my accomplishments: PhD, articles
published, conference presenter, researcher, and now college
professor, all from a kid with no money and a working class
background. Not once.
I didn’t know it then, that crossing would fundamentally change
my life. Ambition in the decade to come would be almost completely
subsumed to a focus on human interaction. Gone was the desire to
achieve, strive, and work for professional recognition. Gone was the
urge to plan for future financial security. Gone were all the things
society says you are supposed to dedicate your energy to. What would
remain is an intense desire to live. And to share that journey as
much and as intensely as possible with anyone that crossed my path.
All I knew then was that Angus had been titillated at the challenge;
I had been recalibrated as a human being—facing death will do
that, even if the threat isn’t real
Campbell runs a Political Science program at a community college in
the Northwest. After spending her childhood in Southern California,
she lived and studied overseas for 10 years eventuating in a PhD in
legal philosophy. While scholarly and educational writing has its
merits, nonfiction real life stories are her passionate hobby. She
enjoys reading, the outdoors and music. Future dreams include playing
the saxophone in a Jamaican Reggae band.
of the message
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