The toilet got fixed, Gary returned to his body-appreciation post behind the binocs and the Feisties appeared with their delightful son Michael in tow. Michael was visiting for a luxurious two weeks and we spent a relaxing spate of time hanging with him. Then it was time to move on to our last Venezuelan destination--Los Aves. The thought of leaving Venezuela forever was unbearably sad and almost physically painful. For me, anyway. On the other hand I could almost hear Gary panting like an overheated cocker spaniel for a hardware store. The country, as usual, did not disappoint. As if to say, “You’re making a mistake, you know,” Venezuela presented us with one last burst of idiosyncratic beauty.
The islands were named for the
many species of birds early explorers found on the islands.Today that variety is
considerably reduced but the place pretty much belongs to the gaggles of birds
infesting the mangroves and the sky. Spending time in the Aves is being
transported inside one of those museum or zoo dioramas called “Tropical Wading
Birds and Boobies of South America.”Except
it’s real and all of Nature seems to operate at a speed mimicking the
archipelago’s primary inhabitants.
The islands were named for the many species of birds early explorers found on the islands.Today that variety is considerably reduced but the place pretty much belongs to the gaggles of birds infesting the mangroves and the sky. Spending time in the Aves is being transported inside one of those museum or zoo dioramas called “Tropical Wading Birds and Boobies of South America.”Except it’s real and all of Nature seems to operate at a speed mimicking the archipelago’s primary inhabitants.
The current flows by at a rapid, efficient pace, as if
it’s got no time to waste. The shoreline mangroves are unusually tall: two or
three times their usual height, with thickets of exposed woody roots. Their
roots, multi-fingered, gray-claws plunge down through the water, grasping the
bottom to keep from being swept away.
The slim mangrove
trunks rise, leaning, from these elaborate root systems, holding aloft
flat-topped clusters of foliage resembling giant green berets.
The current flows by at a rapid, efficient pace, as if it’s got no time to waste. The shoreline mangroves are unusually tall: two or three times their usual height, with thickets of exposed woody roots. Their roots, multi-fingered, gray-claws plunge down through the water, grasping the bottom to keep from being swept away. The slim mangrove trunks rise, leaning, from these elaborate root systems, holding aloft flat-topped clusters of foliage resembling giant green berets.
Above the tree line the baby-blue sky swarms with graceful black bird shapes--hundreds and hundreds of them flying--sweeping in great, unflapping loops and fast-forwarding in sharp-beaked streaks. Groups take turns flying--swooping, and diving and remaining aloft for long, long time spans. Is there such a thing as A.D.D. birds?
With no distracting nearby female bodies I could train our binoculars on the trees, where a World Series-worthy audience of birds rested on branches: black ones, gray ones and white ones, most with rosy webbed feet: the local Red Sox fans. And in constant conversation. Their daytime communications are short, genteel, harmonious, most likely logistical--having to do with flight plans, landing locations, lunch menus. But at night, it’s like you’re eavesdropping on a not very affable bull session: a bunk of teenaged girls taking turns criticizing one another. Attack after shrill attack, followed by rounds of offended, staccato defense. Gary and I lay on the stern deck one night listening to their continuous din while gazing up at a multitude of sharp, clear star-points in the black sky. The sky was so dark and the quarter moon so bright, it lit the nearby shore far into the trees like a searchlight.
Land and birds on our starboard. To port, excepting one thin bar of white sand beach, unending water: water scampering forward in ceaseless, low wavelets, rendered shiny and metallic by the bright sunlight.Hardly monotonous, this seemingly uninterrupted swath of water is nuanced by submerged reefs into broad stripes of clear colors: deep aqua, pale aqua, bottle green, cobalt. Out at the distant horizon, a long, slender line of white breaking surf. It seems entirely possible the color aqua was invented in the Aves and from there dribbled out to the rest of the world losing intensity along the way.
One afternoon the four of us got into our dinghy and put-putted along the shore, looking into the trees where we found wall-to-wall birds. Quiet and still while resting; when these birds spoke they sounded like doors with creaky hinges.
Suffering few or no natural predators they allowed us to come almost within touching distance. Primarily we saw red-footed boobies: brown, white and black adults, all with long tapered pale blue and pink bills, perched on nests or on branches. In nearby foliage everywhere, adorable cotton balls of fluff. The baby boobies. Floating amidst the fluff, stiletto beaks and beady close-set Raisinet eyes. Faces a monkey mother might mistake for her child’s.
On the way back, skimming across the water, coming straight at us, we saw 10 or 20 small, black fins. Dolphins! Suddenly they were upon us, swimming all around us, surfacing in short little leaps. Dolphin babies. Bored easily, they soon swam off, but as they pulled away two exhibitionists put on a brief show-one seemed to be practicing his flips--he leaped high, twisted quickly and plunged back in--more like ski- than water ballet. The other was the equivalent of a human infant head-banger. He leaped up, forward and back down with great slams of his head into the water. We revved the engine, calling them back, and sure enough, back they came. Dolphins are attracted both to engine noise and the swift passage of boats through the water.
Thus, on passages particularly, dolphins frequently join us. But regardless how often, it’s always a happy surprise when these graceful mammals appear, like silent silver torpedoes. Along the way to Blanquilla, for example, we were joined for a few hours by a school, 50 to 100, more than any we’d seen at one time.
It’s clear they possess an awareness of each other, of when to jump, of where they’re going.They’re so obviously capable of purposeful behavior. They whizzed through the water, skimming just beneath the surface, a playground’s worth. Mostly young and unscathed, they cavorted down LULU’s length, in medleys of three or four suddenly arcing up and out of the water, leaping and landing in simultaneous jetés--pure chorus line stuff. Other groups broke off and congealed at the bow, streaking left effortlessly, swerving in unison, then streaking right, weaving over and under each other in graceful syncopation.
Tireless, they eventually they move on to their next diversion. Still, I always hate to see them leave, so I drag out my best dolphin-speak” -a series of high-decibel, staccato squeaks, eeps and urps--hoping to keep them amused by speaking their lingo. Aside from these communication skills learned over years of “Flipper” episodes I think dolphins have a natural affinity for me. At least that’s the meaning I took out of my encounter not-so-many years ago with JoJo.
JoJo and I met about 10 years at Club Med Turkoise where Gary and I went to learn how to scuba dive. At the traditional Club orientation, we were told about a wild dolphin named JoJo who had attached himself to the Club. He loved interacting with guests, jumping and swimming around them, so we might expect his appearance during our stay. But we should all remember he was 9-feet long and weighed 2,000 pounds. Ultimately, he was a wild creature; we should allow him his frolic, but we should not touch him.
At that point, those sentimental old Flipper episodes represented my entire personal experience of dolphins. Plus, I'd heard the guru Ram Dass speak reverently about ecstatic, otherworldly experiences of love and communication swimming with a porpoise named Rosie. None of this prepared me for my underwater romance with JoJo.
We met during the third scuba lesson. The class had dropped down in 10 feet of water, maintaining "neutral buoyancy," which means you stay on the floor of the sea by regulating your breathing--by not taking in too much oxygen, you don't go shooting up to the surface.
This particular thing was not going well for me--was being bounced from the bottom, up to the surface and back down again to the bottom with startling regularity. I looked more like a round pink Spalding than I did the kind of self-contained, composed, in-control scuba unit I‘d been hoping for.
This was also the lesson we were to remove our masks underwater and look around, then remove the regulators from our mouths and reinsert them. Which is to say we were going to have both our vision and our air supply cut off.
Now, I was, at the time, already dealing with the kind of creeping recession of vision that is part of our Golden Years (the tarnished part.) But, as a former asthmatic, the idea of having my air supply cut off felt akin to having to run the NY marathon in a pair of Manolo Blahniks.
At that moment, JoJo put in his very first appearance of the week. And picked me. Suddenly I was being cruised by this 9-foot, 2, 000 pound dolphin. He's circling me and he's sniffing me and he's butting up against me and, the next thing I know, he's behind me burrowed vertically into the sand, with his flippers beating madly about, around and against me. In short, JoJo was having his way with me.
Too late to take up badminton, I now remembered that they did say he was a mammal, but they had not added "with the normal sexual appetite one can expect of a single, 9-foot male.” I was now being dry-humped by a dolphin-clearly, JoJo hadn’t watched any Flipper episodes. For my part, I was less than enthusiastic about being selected his Girlfriend du Jour. I like being in control; I like picking my own boyfriends. It felt just like the time I realized I was swimming in shark-infested waters--without a tampon.
Attempting not to hyperventilate, I tried treating the situation philosophically: I reasoned I couldn't stay THAT interesting to him--most men, I’ve discovered, are not into overlong foreplay sessions. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly familiar with the sexual habits of dolphins
As this mating ritual progressed, I tried to fight my oncoming fear by telling myself I should look on this amorous attention as in some sense reassuring. After all, for the past few days I’d been marginalized by the all-pervasive Club religion, which centers on the full time worship of the youthful, the sleek--in fact, the perfect--body. The Club’s G.O.s--the equivalent of summer camp counselors--are an appealing assortment of young sybarites with sun-streaked hair who boast honeyed bodies, which they deck out in clothing designed to display as many well-turned parts as possible without it falling to shreds around their ankles. (I believe "velvet skin" is a job qualification; the highlight of the employment process is probably a Pore-Per-Inch Count.)
So, at Club Med, it wasn't just that I was over the hill--I was irrelevant. Men had passed by me all week, their glances sliding off me like I was Teflon. Thus, my underwater discovery that--droopy buns and mushy thighs notwithstanding-I was still attractive to a male besides my husband--even if he was a dolphin--I could try to look on as, if exactly not a turn on, some kind of thrill.
Notwithstanding, this was a scuba class not an emergency therapy session and with JoJo anchoring me to the sandy floor of the sea, my scuba career seemed just about over. The rest of the class looked like a frightened school of fish, staring at me--and JoJo--with bug-eyed expressions of horror--as in, "What’s next for that poor woman?" Even Gary was looking more anxious than jealous. As for rescue, Alain, the instructor, having swatted at JoJo, hoping to drive him off me, was whacked right back by the inflamed suitor. The cut he sustained from that powerful fin raised a perforated line of blood. So, abandoning my lost cause, he now sought to divert the class by moving them away and teaching the rest of the lesson.
With JoJo clearly calling all the shots, I could no longer hold terror at bay. What if he kept me there till I ran out of air? After all, I hadn’t yet mastered figuring out exactly how long my air supply would last-if, in fact, I could keep myself breathing. I was alternating between rapid little spasms of panic and prayer. It was the ultimate Fay Wray experience but, unlike Fay, I didn't even have the satisfaction of being able to scream.
And then, just as suddenly just as he'd arrived, JoJo swam off. Maybe, he got bored. Or he got satisfied: class members later reported seeing a sudden spasm or two and a milky cloud around me. I told myself it could’ve been sand.
Weeks later, I was talking to a friend who said that on her next vacation she wanted to swim with dolphins. They were so "human"...they were so adorable...and those uncanny modes of communication! She was sporting that glassy-eyed, pre-swoon look you see on New-Age-consciousness groupies.
I launched immediately into my "Oh, no you don't!" mode, recounting my experience of trying to contend with this giant mammal with a mind of his own, not to mention other disorderly parts. She looked at me oddly, laughed, and said, "And whatever gave you the impression that you were ever in control in the first place?"
Well, it was a thunderbolt experience. (Maybe even better than JoJo’s.)
She was right: We like to think we're in control. But it’s nothing more than soothing pretense to believe we can affect the outcome of things, expect them to be a certain way; insist on them happening that way. In the final analysis, we're not in control of any of it. We never were and never will be.
What we have is the opportunity to respond. We can choose our attitude about life's little incidents and accidents. We do control from what stance and in what state of mind we go out to meet our lives.
Maybe I'd missed an opportunity. It’s possible that my unruly fear, as much as my unlikely companion, had kept me just as frozen to the floor of the sea. Could I have been interacting instead of merely reacting? Could it actually have been possible--and, if so, might it actually have been fun--to swim with that dolphin, as Ram Dass had with Rosie? In giving in to my fright, my lack of control, had I missed more than my scuba lesson? Had I missed the opportunity inherent in the moment?
There are two ways to respond to challenge. One is to defend -- to hide, to protect, to refuse and ultimately to disappear to possibility. The other is to dance -- to play, to participate, to give, and to be received.
The readiness to dance can also be called freedom.
And it’s experiencing freedom rather than giving way to fear that ultimately propelled us on this watery path we’ve chosen. If JoJo had anything to do with that, I’m wholeheartedly glad he didn’t buy my headache routine that day.