Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Dash

I’ve heard and read about the concept of the dash between the years. You know… on a gravesite headstone. There’s the year of birth, a dash, and then the year of death. The dash represents everything that happens from the time a person physically comes into the earthly world we know and then departs from it. Everything. That’s a lot of stuff for most people.

Many of us have the same routine from waking to sleep. There are a few hiccups in the routine, but for the most part, we do what we know to do, go where we know to go, say what we know to say, see what we know to see, hear what we know to hear. It’s rare that we step outside of our box of knowing and do something totally unknown. Something different.

I live for those rare moments in life. I hunger for stories shared by others. I listen with rapt attention as my husband unfolds stories of his business travels to other countries or when my studio clients tell me about their travels and life journeys. Out of the norm experiences that make the dash jump, twist and bend. Experiences that make the dash seem yards longer than the mere centimeters long it is to our eyes. Experiences that, when shared, make for great stories that last well past the date written to the right of the dash.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband made a business trip to Japan. He called me one morning and reported that “group exercise” was being performed in the park outside his hotel window. I suggested he partake in the exercises, and the next morning, he did! My 6’ 0”, solidly-built, dark-skinned, African American husband donned a pair of red basketball shorts and a grey t-shirt and joined the large group of native Japanese people of all ages and both genders all wearing white in the park. I could only imagine how he must have stood out – bigger and more colorful than the native people. Different. When they swung their arms, he swung his. When they bent over then reached up, he bent over then reached up. When they leaned briskly to the right and left, he leaned as quickly as his larger frame and new-to-this-program mind could handle. He was slightly behind the rhythm and timing of their moves, but he was there, doing it all. He heard a group of Japanese women behind him giggling and commenting, but he kept at it and reported feeling good afterwards. What an experience to add to his dash between the numbers!

Is our dash experience always a positive one, or can it be a traumatic learning experience that shapes the direction of our lives? I have a variety of emotions attached to my dash, but my most recent addition to the dash – the bioluminescent tour – is a combination of comedy, education, and… Hm. I can’t really find a word to describe it. I’ll leave it up to you to define it.

The BioBay

A few weeks ago, I was browsing Islands Magazine and read an interesting blurb about a rare microorganism that glows in the dark in deep recesses of water. There are only five places in the world for tourists to experience this unique phenomenon on the water’s surface. Cool, I thought. Then I kept flipping through the magazine.

When my husband and I arrived in San Juan, PR to start the celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary, we turned on the television in our hotel room and started watching the information channel about things to do in Puerto Rico. One of the info clips was about the BioBay – one of the five locations in the world where people can experience bioluminescent microorganisms creating streaks and blinks of light in the dark water. Cool, I thought. Then we started flipping channels.

When we went down to the lobby to find out about rock climbing, waterfall hiking and zip-lining through the rain forests, the clerk handed us a flyer about the BioBay and the unique nighttime adventure of exploring bioluminescent microorganisms. Okay, three times is too many for a coincidence… so we signed up for a tour with a company called EcoAction and, later that day, drove an hour to a funky (and I do mean the nasty smell funky) little corner of Fajardo, PR.

The first clue that this was going to be a dash-enhancer was the fact that there were three scraggly-looking street dogs pooping, farting and peeing in and around an open space where I happened to be sitting near the edge of water where nasty, brown seaweed and muck was washing up on a dry patch of grayish brown land.

I looked around at the ten to fifteen BioBay tour companies dispersed not far from us and planned my escape from the dogs. “Let’s go found out where our company, EcoAction, is located,” I suggested to my husband, even though we’d arrived about forty minutes early. As we walked away, I cut my eyes in a warning slant toward the panting, scrawny dogs jogging behind us like we were their owners.

In my determination to get away from the dogs, I didn’t realize that none of the flags or tents or brightly-colored t-shirts on the tour guides had EcoAction emblazoned on them. Not one. “Excuse me,” I asked a professional-looking guide wearing a KayakTours red shirt. “Do you know where we could find EcoAction?”

He didn’t hesitate in pointing out the spot where I’d been sitting. The exact same spot where the dogs had been pooping and peeing at the edge of the muckiest part of the bay. Hm – not a good sign.

“EcoAction has a yellow truck and they’ll be over there in a few minutes,” he said. Then he smiled at me, with just a hint of sympathy in his eyes, before turning back to his well-organized group of tourists in matching red life vests standing in an orderly semi-circle.

I grudgingly returned to the bench near the poop, pee, muck and funk and waited patiently with my husband. We watched row after row of brightly colored kayaks parade in even lines out into the bay and disappear behind the shored boats through a tunnel of low-hanging trees.

Within minutes, a tattered-looking Toyota pulled up to the curb and a young man with his hat turned backwards jumped out. He nodded to us and proceeded to wave down a junky-looking yellow truck. The window of the truck was shattered as though someone had thrown a brick into the passenger side window. A white cardboard sign with the words ECOACTION BIOLUMINESCENT KAYAK TOURS was haphazardly taped to the window in an effort to simultaneously cover the spider web of cracks and inform customers that their tour guides had arrived. The driver pulled to a stop next to the young man and jumped out to give him a hand slap and a man-hug.

I tried not to judge this situation even though it was becoming harder and harder as each new element was making our situation seem more dire. The driver of the truck was wearing brightly colored plaid surfer shorts, thigh-high purple water socks, a pair of electric blue and black water mocks, a multi-colored surfing wet shirt, and a long tail of curly black hair peeked out from the back of his trucker hat. My eyes briefly met my husband’s.

Let me digress here for a moment. My husband, Maurice, and I have been married for fifteen years and we dated for five years before that. We don’t need words to communicate at this stage in our relationship.

The look on Maurice’s face and the communication from his eyes said:


“This is some shady, unprofessional $&!#.”

“Maybe we can get a last minute sign-up with one of the other fifteen companies out here with a more professional set up.”

“We should get in the car and get the hell out of here RIGHT NOW!”

Yep, his face said all of those things to me in one second. Literally – one second. I sighed heavily and I’m sure my shoulders physically sagged as I leaned depressingly forward and rested my head in my hands.

We looked around desperately and realized we were the only ones waiting in this section. I considered going back to the hotel right then and there and getting a free night’s stay for them booking me on this crappy tour, but in my infinite Yoganess (is that a word? I just made it up), I decided not to judge this situation from what my eyes saw. I took Maurice’s hand and softly said, “Let’s not judge the book by the cover.”

The look in Maurice’s eyes replied that he had judged this situation and was about to get the hell out of here. But he felt my Yoganess taking over, and simply stood there in his Chicago-stance. (There’s no way for me to describe the Chicago-stance. If you know someone from the Southside of Chicago, you know what I’m talking about.)

Wait a minute… was that multi-colored surfer-guy tour guide pulling kayaks out of the back of that beat-up truck and pulling it over the dog excrement into the brown foul-smelling muck? No way. No way. Yoganess gone. Maurice looked at me. My eyes and my mouth told him I was having a serious problem with this. I couldn’t – wouldn’t walk in that water right there. I couldn’t – wouldn’t step on the sacred city-dog-blessed-ground.

But we didn’t leave. It was as if we were determined to create a dash moment together. A traumatic experience that would bind us together for rest of our dashes. When another couple looking as dubious and cautious as we were walked up, we almost hugged and kissed them.

I will spare you the details of the two beat-up minivans pulling up with more tourists and squealing young girls speaking rapidly in high-pitched Spanish. All with reservations on EcoAction.

Eventually, multi-colored surfer-guy pulled out life vests and handed them to us. For some reason, I think Maurice’s life vest was a joke. It looked like it would have been more appropriate for our 9-year old than his height and size required, but I kept that thought (and a smile) to myself and listened while Peter, the head of this operation and our lead guide, began to explain – VERY rapidly – how to use the oars to steer the kayaks.

Peter further explained that we would be paddling a mile and a half in the pitch black through a tunnel of trees called mangroves. If we accidentally crashed into these mangroves, they would be slimy and we’d have some problems getting out, so we should try VERY hard to stay in an even line following the glowing light of the lead kayak. As he said this, he looked towards the kayaks and pointed, but there were no lights. He stopped speaking and stood still.

¿Dónde están las luces?” he angrily inquired of the young guy with the hat turned backwards.

“No se,” Hat-back replied and walked away as though it was okay that he didn’t know where the lights were for our kayaks. I quickly glanced at Maurice and immediately looked away after seeing the set of his jaw.

“First couple!” multi-colored surfer-guy called as he stood in the muck.

No turning back now. I sighed as Maurice and I gingerly made our way over the areas we knew had dog poop on it and stepped tentatively into the waiting red kayak. At least I didn’t have to step in the water.

“Wait by the red boat!” Peter called to us and four other couples that had safely made it out into the bay. That was easier said than done considering the waves of the boats and other kayak tours paddling out were causing us to be pushed into the shallow mucky water at the base of the mangroves. We tried to paddle our way into a little group, but kept running into each other, bow first. The shallow water was full of seaweed and as I tried to paddle us into position, the seaweed would get trapped on my oar and then fall into the kayak on my lap and on my head. I whimpered silently to myself.

Where was the guide? Where were the lights? Were we really going to try to stay in this one spot until all twenty kayaks got in the water? There were only five us in here now and things were not looking good for the five of us as one couple drifted into the mangroves and another headed straight for us. Everyone was fighting and fussing with their kayak-mates. I was immediately reminded of the Amazing Race, one of my favorite reality shows.

I watched another kayak company’s kayaks rowing out in orderly fashion past us. A red light glowed on the back and a green light glowed on the front of each one of the fifteen kayaks gliding silently and professionally past us. No arguing, no fighting, no Amazing Race drama.

Eventually, multi-colored surfer-guy waded through the shallow water up to us and placed a bright green glow stick in a little hole at the front of our kayak. He did the same for the other ten kayaks now milling about in the bay. He jumped into a red kayak without a colored light or glow stick and flashed a little light into the air. “Follow me in a single file line, people!” he shouted as he expertly turned his kayak and began stroking out into the bay.

More chaos ensued as the now fifteen kayaks (and more coming into the water every minute) tried unsuccessfully to get into a single-file line. We broadsided each other, we crashed, and Maurice and I got turned completely around. I know we looked like a circus side-show to the other tourists. I know each and every one of them was silently thanking their creator they hadn’t signed up with EcoAction.

Eventually, about six of us got it together and were gliding in a line toward the tunnel of mangroves. I hazarded a glance over my shoulder and saw the three-ring circus of the rest of our group crashing and bumping in the bay behind us, their frustrated voices bouncing off the surface of the water. But I didn’t have time to think about them. I got into a rowing rhythm with Maurice and we sliced silently through the dark water into pitch black.

There are no words to describe rowing in total darkness knowing that fish, eels, birds, bugs and trees are so close to you, you could reach out and touch any of them at any moment. Everyone in our small group must have felt it, because no one dared to speak above a whisper as they gave directions to their rowing partners. A fish streaked past us under the water and Maurice and I both gasped. The water around the fish was glowing bright blue and green and left a streak of illumination in the dark water behind it. Awesome.

We crashed into slimy mangroves, we crashed into kayaks going the other direction in the narrow tunnel, we crashed into our own sister kayaks. It was so dark, it would be impossible not to. I felt my eyes stretched open as wide as possible as I tried to make out the outline of anything, but to no avail. The only things I could see were the glowing green sticks on our kayaks and the outline of leaves against the backdrop of the lighter sky. Every couple of minutes, a flash of light from the multi-colored surfer-guy’s kayak would flash through the tunnel of darkness illuminating exposed mangrove roots and the rowing outlines of the people in front of us. When I looked back there was nothing but Maurice and total darkness. Awesome and amazing.

Eventually, we made it out of the narrow, winding tunnel and cruised into an open area about half a mile in diameter. When I looked down into the water, it was glowing an icy white-blue-green. Fish jumped out of the water leaving a spray of glowing water behind it. I passed my hand tentatively through the water and it glowed white-green. Luminescent bubbles surrounded my fingers and left a wake of glowing water in the trail of my movements. The water that had pooled inside the floor of our kayak was dotted with glowing light. I scooped up a palm-full of water and held it close to my face. The glowing water was alive and moving within my palm. It was truly unreal and amazing. Now I know why Island Magazine dedicated a page to this phenomenon and suggested it as a must-see experience for its readers.

After being a part of the actual tour, the foolishness that is EcoAdventures was forgiven (but not forgotten). Would I have had a story like this to share with you if we’d gone with KayakTours? No. Would my experience be as memorable? No. Would my dash be as abundant? No.

My prayer is that my dash moments live on to bring amusement, entertainment, education and joy to others, even when the number on the right is etched in stone.