Tired of winter? Want to escape to a tropical island somewhere, maybe in the Caribbean? Let’s go…choose your favorite island and get on board Daydream Express. Be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat.
Colors are mirrored on the surface of the Caribbean as a rosy sky prepares for sunrise. The sun needs no further encouragement and pulls free of the horizon. It has business to do; a world to light and heat, plants to grow. The sea shrugs its shoulders nonchalantly and slowly changes back to cool turquoise.
Sea gulls, white and gray winged beggars, dart about in playful groups yelling, hey, look at this, look at this, in gull language. They keep mindful of me, remembering tourists-past who’ve rewarded their aerobatics with crackers and stale donuts.
Okay, okay, I say, tossing pieces of my almond Danish in the air. Any of you guys ever think of trying out for the Dodgers? I ask, as they catch bites in mid-air. Hovering above me, they screech their disappointment when my hands are empty.
My bare feet make clear imprints on pristine, newly washed sand. Tiny, nearly transparent crabs dart this way and that, searching for places to hide. Some will take refuge in the seashells scattered about or beneath the nylon beach bag I put down.
I pause to watch a squadron of brown pelicans flying in low formation over the water before I pull the swim fins from my bag and fit them over my feet. With mask and snorkel in hand I clumsily flop my feet forward into a sea so clear it makes me think of Perrier water. As I fit my purple rimmed mask over my eyes I catch sight of my granddaughter, Kendra. She is awake and begging her mother to let her go with me. Waves wash over my feet while her mother inflates water flugels and fits them over her arms and secures a life vest around her chest. As her mother and Aunt Christy settle into lawn chairs with morning coffee and Danish, Kendra and I, brave explorers we, set off on an adventure.
Floating with our faces in water on this gentle leeward side of the island, breathing through a rubber tube, we notice a flounder ruffling about as it seeks camouflage on the ocean floor. Sand settles, rendering the odd little fish virtually invisible. Kendra points to a Brittle Starfish resting on the first bit of coral we approach. She remembers what I told her about not touching the coral because it could damage it and could also sting her, so she swims around, not over it. There is a wall of silver ahead. Thousands (millions?) of minnow sized fish swim together as one. For safety, I suppose but probably will never know. Maybe they just don’t like to swim alone. How do they keep from running into each other I wonder?
We move our legs the tiniest bit and the swim fins undulate softly as we ease nearer the silver wall. We cannot touch them no matter how stealthy our approach. They quickly move out of our way in organized precision, creating round tunnels for us as we swim through the silver wall touching only water. Looking back the tunnel closes as if by magic.
Is this what our lives are like, I wonder? We think we are cutting a swath through the world, making changes for good, tearing down walls of evil, shining lights where once there was darkness and ignorance. If we could turn and look behind us, would we see that the world looks as if we were never there?
We encounter a school of parrotfish. They are nibbling bits of coral with their little beaks, changing coral into the sand on which we walk. We ease in beside the bluish/purplish fish, careful not to make ripples. They are not afraid and allow us to swim along side. Later we will laugh and tell people how we “went to school” with fish.
A barracuda hovers in the shadow of a coral overhang. He is only about a foot long, but already looks fearsome. He bears a strong resemblance to the submarine in Jules Verne’s, 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. We keep a respectful distance.
Away from the reef four baby squid are suspended in mid water. They float as one, shoulder to shoulder, facing out to sea like tiny little soldiers resplendent in matching uniforms. Did their mother tell them to go outside and play? Did she tell them wait here until she returns?
A green and white sea turtle swims along minding his business and we admire him for awhile. I can see why their skin is prized for boots; it is very beautiful. But no, I don’t think I will buy any, thanks just the same. But, maybe I will have just a taste of turtle soup at dinner. My honor evidently has limits.
The sun is overhead now and not as kind as earlier in the day. We can feel its heat through our T-shirts. We learned long ago not to float about with bare backs exposed. Kendra touches my arm and directs my attention seaward toward something very large. Raising my head I remove my mouthpiece and tell Kendra she should start back toward the beach. I wave to Kerri who is reading while keeping an eye and ear tuned to her daughter’s movements. She waves back, and with a flip of swim fins Kendra heads for shore.
I must get a closer look. Is this a critter or a piece of debris? With curiosity almost overriding my fear I swim closer, never losing sight of the object except when it glides beneath the surface of the water. Wow, it is manta ray, oblivious to my presence as it moves gracefully through the water. I have never been this close to a sea creature this large. I once played with Stingrays near Grand Cayman but they were only three or four feet from tip to tip. This beautiful, black sand white swimmer is two or more times bigger. I have been told mantas are harmless, gentle creatures. I would love to get closer, perhaps swim along with it. Did I mention this thing is really big, as in the width of my kitchen? I decide to err on the side of caution and head to shore.
Kendra is all excited, wanting to know what that thing is. Just as I finish sharing what little I know about mantas and stingrays, the men of the family are back from their early morning fishing excursion. As they clean their catch they tell the women to stay out of the kitchen until lunch is ready. Soon we are sitting in the shade of a sea grape tree eating grilled seafood, fried breadfruit, avocados, coconut bread and mangoes.
Later we walk about the island, stopping to explore whatever catches our interest, picking up shells, and talking to the natives. Near sunset we find a thatched roofed restaurant and order lobster; which we eat sitting at picnic tables with our bare feet scrunched down in warm powdery sand as the brilliant colors of sunset turn the air around us orange.
We stay until the moon has risen, and its silvery light dances on gentle waves that rush onto the beach, fall back into the sea and then tirelessly rush forward again and again…forever.
When we return to our condo, friends from the neighboring condos have gathered outside and invite us to join them. We sit around talking and laughing as a guitar is passed around for solos and sing-a-longs. My grandson, the drummer, has found two sticks that make a just right sound and is keeping rhythm to the music. We sing every island song we can remember at least once.
Sleep overtakes us and we reluctantly say goodnight and tiredly make our way to bed to fall asleep with no effort. To dream, per chance to dream…of manta rays that carry on interesting conversations and invite grandmothers and granddaughters to ride on their backs for miles and miles and who introduce us to dolphins who gossip and giggle and make fun of timid grandmothers who are afraid of manta rays.
Dorothy Hamm © 2006, Originally published in Texas Escapes Words and Music Column.