“The pirates were on the beach burying a chest. I watched from behind a palm but they spotted me. I bolted and they gave chase–deadly weapons in hand. Scrambling through the sand, I was halted by a wall of giant hermit crabs. Caught between the crabs and the buccaneers, I knew I was done for. But then, out of the sky a giant frigate bird swooped down and carried me over the water.”
“I woke up.”
Jen shook her head. “Your unconscious imagination is in overdrive. You sure you haven’t overdosed on sunshine or been clunked on the head by a falling coconut?”
“Not to my knowledge. All this tranquility can get to a person. My mind isn’t used to being so disconnected. What can all this time for introspection lead to?”
As I bounced around in the boat, the hues dazzled me. Waters of teal, turquoise, and azure disappeared into the deep blue of the depths. Patches of dark green mangroves and palm, edged by strips of snowy sand painted a picture of paradise. Salt water spray stung my eyes but moderated the hot wind as the open vessel cut through the choppy waters. Clear skies turned cloudy and soon pelting rain purged me of salt. Porpoises flew in and out of the waves like an aquatic escort. After a little over two hours, we docked and began our tropical adventure. It didn’t take long for me to settle in and absorb the landscape. I could image shipwrecked men crawling onto the shore and thinking, “salvation” only to realize later that it’s not. Water, water everywhere but…
Wisps of cotton float across the topical sun as the hermit crabs convene before the Coast Guard station. Thirty of them assembled, but no human knows why. Perhaps they are negotiating who will get whose shell when it’s time to up size.
The red-footed boobies are in mating mode among the ziricote trees. They bob their heads, fluff their wings, and fan their tail feathers to dazzle potential mates.
A visitor can explore the entire island in 20 minutes, more or less. The Audubon Society is present for protection of the barrier reef and its wildlife. Flat sand hosts a native bush-like tree and the coconut palms. In the right season, the atoll attracts nesting turtles.
Sturdy vinyl tents, where we camp, line the beach edge behind the seawall of bleached coral and eroding conch shells regurgitated by the sea. An iguana suns himself on the rubble. Beyond the protective barrier reef a few hundred yards away, the waves rumble, urged on by the tide and wind.
Our temporary homes have a wooden floor impossible to keep free of sand. It invades everything. One gets accustomed to scratchy clothing and itchy sheets, but we try to restrict it from orifices. The tent stays erect through a strong, metal frame secured into the sand with stakes and lines. A flexible flap covers the entrance to our tent that can roll up for air flow. The system seems adequate but at night, while trying to sleep, I question my security. Incessant east winds batter the vinyl structure. With each gust the frame creaks, the flaps flutter violently, and the whole shelter shudders. I grew used to creak, flop, shudder and thud as the coconuts fell to the surrounding beach. A nightly symphony of sorts.
The male frigate birds are inflating their scarlet gular sacs at the rookery extending their gigantic wings to attract the females. All this energy seems wasted energy to me since the ladies were catching the wind currents at the opposite side of the island where our group camps. They soar in large numbers over our tents. With an eight-foot wingspan, I liken them to mini pterodactyls, threatening anything beneath them. They give “whitewash” another meaning. Nothing on the clothesline is safe. Any item not secured with a pin can disappear on the wind.
Ah, the luxury of clean. Without a water catchment system on this atoll, survival is unlikely. (My imaged castaways must be clever salvaging wreckage to survive on this sandbar.) Tepid water from our modern tank reservoir system and a bucket are the tools to wash clothes. We have shower stalls which use the same water system. Great to be free of salt for a while. Composting toilets, water reservoirs, and a small village of temporary housing get stored for hurricane season. Each evening we jockey for a place on the one power strip to charge our devices and lanterns. With only generated power from 5 to 10 pm each day, no connection to the rest of the world but for radio communication through the Coast Guard, this is not a place for one addicted to the internet.
Each day we venture into the warm waters to absorb the beauty of the reef ecosystem. I am privileged to witness the collage of textures, shapes, colors of corals, sponges, fish and other sea creatures. Damsels, parrots, butterflies, angels, rasp, tang, triggers, jack, trumpet, grunts, snappers, sergeant majors, the varieties of fish boggle the mind. A brittle star dances in my hand and a peach – hued rasp hovers near unafraid. Am I accepted into the neighborhood? The nurse and reef sharks just ignore me.
I’ve spent so much time in the water either snorkeling or trying to stay cool, I’m feeling like a fish myself. Guess what’s on the menu? Fish. A supply boat brings any other compliments to the meal. Such is life on a Caribbean atoll 50 miles off the coast of Belize.
My friend convinced me that a trip like this would be the getaway I needed from my stressful role as caregiver. Ten adventurers and support staff occupy this strip of sand along with a small contingent of Audubon and Coast Guard. Between eating and swimming, I found time to stare out to sea and contemplate. We are on this isle dependent on the periodic boats for survival. In a sense, we are marooned–stranded–trapped. With a little imagination, I could see a horror movie plot or an Agatha Christie mystery–And Then There Were None.
Stifling my imagination, I realized that life strands many humans. Maybe not in a place surrounded by water, but by circumstances that limit mobility and options. Some people are born stranded in a toxic environment of violence, fear, abuse, and poverty. Others get stranded by the bias of culture for the hue of their skin, a gender identity, or a chosen way to worship. Measured by the expectations of the greater culture, the homelessness or addicted live on the fringes of society. We’re marooned when our workplace closes, our retirement funds disappear, or we’re forced into bankruptcy. Now stranded, we’re wondering what to do. How many of us become targets for those who traffic in humans? Lured and held captive, we’re enslaved.
Sometimes we strand ourselves by accepting responsibilities, knowing they will bring us limitations. Though we can’t know the full extent of the limitations, we take the risk anyway. We accept what goes with the children, the marriage, the job, the house, the chosen lifestyle. However, sometimes our expectations do not match reality and we feel trapped. There may be a way out of the trap, but the cost of our escape to those we cherish may be unacceptable. We stay stranded and try to bear the pain.
It’s an unpleasant fact that one poor choice, at a critical point in one’s life, can wreck a future and leave one stranded. Escape is difficult and the weight of stress can be overwhelming.
I find it ironic that my friend convinced me to exchange one kind of stranding for another. But living with the boobies and iguanas was a change, and I know when the boat will rescue me. The same does not apply once I return home. I’ve learned to cope. But can we avoid becoming stranded?
When we have some control over our circumstances, careful thought may prevent distress. Self-awareness of our human biases might prevent us from stranding others. As compassionate humans, we can strive to recognize those with limited options and offer help. Ultimately, the stranded decide whether to attempt escape. I have a friend willing to offer me this brief rescue and I am grateful.
I hear the conch shell alert, so it must be time to don the mask and fins again. The reef awaits. Oh, did I mention the sand fleas?
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