18 August, 2007

Jamaica, 1987

[This post originally appeared on my MySpace blog, which no longer exists. The date of the original posting has been lost.]

My father and I entered the warm water of midafternoon from the beach equipped only with his flippers, goggles and snorkel, and an inflatable pool raft with a slender bit of rope knotted to it. He was still in his thirties, still of average build, and wore the green trunks that were old then, yet would make an appearance, ten years later, on our final canoe trip. My trunks were red and, because I was only seven — too young for real adventure stories — devoid of such provenance. Both of us, as well as my mother, bore the darkened skin and sun-bleached hair of Yankees gradually succumbing to the siren song of the Caribbean: glorious scenery, welcoming people, the casual ethos, the culinary pleasures. I still get cravings for authentic jerk pork and an icy bottle of Ting.

Our mission that particular day was primal hunter-gatherer stuff. We would swim out in search of conchs to gather up, return to the beach, beat them from their shells in an exhausting and somewhat foolish-looking procedure involving tossing the shells against the sand over and over again, then present them to a local woman whose restaurant turned them into a hearty, mouthwatering stew. The stew we'd pay for in extra conchs.

The family spent that month in Negril, in a tent, surrounded by a small grove of thin trees at the edge of the beach. The sand, perhaps, had worked its way under our skin as we slept, or too much ocean air had filled our lungs and veins with a yearning to remain — to leave responsibilities and become a family of expat beach bums, browning and crinkling into human handbags.

My parents had gone so far as to ask about schools. Outside of the cities, everywhere you turned was lush and beautifully saturated with color, and the ocean was never more than a few miles away, wide and blue and welcoming. Some may find it unfathomable, but to go and not be so moved would have been the unthinkable thing.

We waded out until the water was deep enough to swim — my father pulling the raft by its rope, and me alternately swimming alongside him and hanging from its edge. After a time, the sandy floor disappeared completely beneath us, rendering the water a mysterious shade of teal. My father swam on. Teal eventually transitioned into darkness, and this was where he chose to stop. It seemed like hours he'd been pulling. Looking back at the island, my field of vision encompassed a wide swath of glistening shoreline; in front of me lay nothing but the undisturbed sea and a horizon of vivid blues. My father pulled himself partially onto the raft. His large mustache drooped with wetness. He looked something like a walrus.

Taking in the surroundings above water, he said, simply, "This is good."

We waited.

When he'd sufficiently regained his strength, he again donned the goggles and, taking with him nothing more than two lungfuls of air, plopped out of sight with the briefest of splashes. Adrift in the Caribbean, my father beyond reach or sight, I should have been frightened. The serenity of the waning sunlight on calm waters, however, was pervasive, and I was too much in awe of my father's aquatic prowess. How he searched at those depths, without light or fear of barracuda (and for so long!), I did not know or think to ask, but each time, without fail, up he would rise with a conch in each hand. Then, several breaths taken, bearings gathered, he would dive again, often without a word of warning, leaving me to mind those large shells and ensure the gentle sway and flex of the raft didn't cause them to tumble away.

As I sat there, corralling those great, horned seashells with my matchstick legs, I looked out to the open sea, at its bold immensity, and contemplated the distance between us and home. It seemed vast — worlds away from our campsite, the friends I'd made, the frigid waterfalls, the misty mountains. How could I return to Kansas City after all this? Certainly I'd visited Jamaica before — twice — and for every day as long, but in that instant on the open water it all seemed different. I was older; experiences like this held more meaning for me.

Literally, then, out of the blue popped my father with three more conchs.

"How many does that give us?" he asked, spitting saltwater away from his lips and breathing deeply.

I counted. "Eleven."

"All right, Kiddo," my father beamed, white teeth, no tusks, but still so lovably walrus-y. "Looks like we've got dinner".

And I forgot all about leaving.