Sea Change

Janet Campbell

© Copyright 2018 by Janet Campbell


Runner-Up--2018 Travel Nonfiction

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

We hadn’t 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.

We’re terribly sorry to intrude. We paddled that boat from the mainland,” Angus said pointing to our kayak. The man raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Has it got a motor?” he asked in a thick accent.

We laughed. “Just these,” I said and held up my arms, bronzed and taut from a couple of weeks on the water.

His look softened.

And we arrived on Ambergris Cay a bit late and had difficulty finding a camp spot,” Angus continued.

And then the storm came up,” I added.

And we were a bit stuck.”

The man nodded.

We’re very sorry,” I said. We started packing up.

Storms 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.

This great 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.

We had 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.

I 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.

The “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, rather intimidating.

Angus had 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 month.

I could 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).

Belize is 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.

Our sea 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.

Ironically, 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 position.
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.

We were 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.

As we 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.

Adrenaline 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.

As 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.

What 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 night 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.

And then we were simply there. We ducked behind the north end of the island into calm water: no wind, no swells, and no sea spray.

Janet, you can quit paddling,” Angus said. That was difficult as I was still in “paddling to China mode.” I stopped crying.

Want a smoke?” he asked.

I squeezed 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.”

It was 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.

Though 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.

Janet 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.

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