Nearly to the very hour, 5 months from the date I stepped into my new life, I very truly faced my death. Death, at the ripe young age of 31, comes from only so many root sources: illness, violence, disaster or stupidity. Having survived the first two in former years, and undoubtedly narrowly escaping the third more times than I am aware of, I recently engaged in the fourth variety to such an extreme that in retrospect I shall here reference it with a capital S and two 'o's. On Monday, May the 13th, not long after writing a very special letter to celebrate my mother's birthday, I engaged in extreme Stoopidity. Of course, like all Stoopidity, I didn't acknowledge I was doing it until it was too late.
For 10 days I reveled in something of a break from my service project with the Toledo Eco-tourism Association while it's liaison my host/teacher Chet Schmidt and his wife, were away in the U.S of A. for a family celebration. They had left me in charge of their hostel and their teenage daughter, and I was doing an admirable job of playing the roll of delinquent babysitter, leaving as much housekeeping work as possible for young Diane to 'practice' the Roll of Responsibility that would soon be hers following her graduation from high-school. In the meantime, I co-ordinated a ragtag collection of colorful volunteers for the T.E.A and the Paslow Adventure Camp development project. I socialized with the guests, and filled my time with hammock-ing and the occasional T.E.A. chore. I was utterly and completely burnt out from over a month of intense, highly emotional, politically charged writing projects on the topics of deceit, discrimination and racism towards the local Mayan populations. I was experiencing, with some amount of reticence, the success of the Belizean bureaucratic system's method of suppression; offended to a froth, overworked in a spate of passionate activism, enduringly ignored and ultimately, spent beyond caring.
Nearing the end of this 10 day long semi-vacation I was feeling no more rested, and in fact distinctly more stressed about the immanent return of my quasi-guru and his insatiable passion for work. Then an undeniably thin excuse for escape was presented to me. The current volunteer caretakers at Paslow had come back to civilization on a Monday morning, and the resident caretaker, my Mayan friend Santiago Cal, had not returned to Punta Gorda from his errands in time to catch a boat back out. In his late 50's and recovering from a broken collar-bone, I quickly concluded that it was impossible for him to return to his post in the wilderness via a 4 hour long mangrove swamp trail, and that the only solution to keeping the campsite attended was for me to kayak south in a 20 knot wind for a few solo nights in the bush until a local fisherman could be hired to ferry Santiago back in. Putting in one last brief flurry of work for the sake of appearing responsible, with renewed joy I threw together a back-pack and some supplies. I rustled up as many cheap, easy snacks as I could find in town, re-confirmed the inappropriateness of the last remaining kayak and it's flimsy paddle for the current weather pattern, and stared dubiously at the whitecaps offshore. I was damned sure desperate for some alone time, because I was damned sure that paddling out in this festively foamy green sea in a flat-water kayak was a foolish idea, and damned sure I was going to do it anyways. I had a very, very strange feeling. I told myself and confessed to a friend that this feeling was surely not a sense of fatal foreboding, but some other kind of inexplicable psychic sensation, and DEFINITELY not in relation to the kayak trip. Perhaps I was sad to say goodbye to a particular volunteer. Perhaps a jaguar was finally going to eat me while I over-nighted alone at camp. Perhaps the hostel would inexplicably burn down just because I wasn't there to take responsibility. Whatever the reason, I roundly rejected what I inwardly knew to be a very strong primal warning bell dong-ing resonantly in my guts. Secretly psychic people didn't REALLY have premonitions; surely these were just things we made up with our spiritual friends to feel as spiritual as they were.
To calm my outwardly unperturbed nerves I shared an extended goodbye with a visiting friend. But at last, out of excuses for stalling, I lowered the kayak down into the scuttle of waves, and proceeded to struggle for ten minutes to attach my two small bags of groceries to the back of my kayak because the boat kept jostling and swamping. Of COURSE I would be fine I told Kiera, who stood bemusedly watching from shore. If I had anything to worry about it was the reason the campsite so surely needed overnight attendance: because there were people out there who, like the Grinch, would strip an unattended property of everything, right down to the floorboards and nails, people who would kill just to steal a camping pot. Didn't THAT scare me she queried. Nah! No more so than I was afraid of this kayak trip. Nothing could possibly go wrong. I was a professional. I once spent 3 months teaching introductory kayaking to 7 year olds you know.
As Kiera snapped cleavage shots of me packing my gear below, I mustered my courage, and without further adue, pushed off into the great blue-green yonder. With the first three strokes I knew the paddles were crap, too long, too flimsy, and on the verge of snapping in half. I endeavored to make it look like I was in control of the vessel while I guessed that Kiera was snapping priceless travel-shots of my brave adventure behind me on the shore. Another 10 paddle-strokes and I told myself there was no point trying to turn back because the wind was too strong behind me. Although I was maybe only 40 feet offshore, already there was no return.
What an exciting adventure, though I. How blessed was I to have found a gig where I could play Miss Responsibility and Jungle Explorer simultaneously. How grateful was I to be in beautiful Belize. Oh, how I'd always wanted to try surf kayaking back home in Tofino BC, and here was my chance to do it all the way to my distant destination! (with no training and no life-jacket to boot.) These and a dozen other increasingly frail positivities did I conjure up to subdue a rising sense of urgency. What an opportunity! What a neat experience! What fun! Oh boy, gosh golly, gee wiz... The descriptive words became smaller and shallower as the kayak rocked harder and sailed deeper offshore. As I rocketed past the last house on shore I realized that I was quickly going to have to change my attitude to one of more sincerity or succumb to a growing fear.
Only an hour or so before, while I had stood hands on hips, willing the weather to be suitable with my doubtful eyes, a witty volunteer had told me that there was nothing to worry about, for as I knew, once I rounded the point, the weather was a different matter. A different matter indeed. The point approached and was rounded. The sea wasn't festive anymore. It was disturbed.
Bile rose in my throat. White caps and 5 foot swells became my reality. The low, scooped, needle nose of my navy blue day-paddler wanted to play like a dolphin ducking under the rise of each leading wave. The waves wanted to play hard like a over-competitive friend. No matter how I shifted my hands on the shaft of the paddles they were too long, and cupped the water too shallow or were sucked down too deep. I was in some very serious trouble. And admitting it threatened to make it worse.
I have read in many survival books that attitude is one of the key components that determines the ability to survive. One must choose to adopt an attitude of survival, or die from sheer fright, not from lack of ability. Somewhere far ahead at Paslow lay a fantastic survival guide, whose title I have forgotten, written in the '70's by a man who had been intentionally exposing himself to life-threatening situations and environments under the guidance of a Native American elder since he was 12 years old. In it I recalled that he advised against anger in survival situations, unless one was pushed to the extreme, beyond the ability to muster strength of character in any other way. Clearly lacking the strength of character that would have prevented me from embarking on this very Stoopid adventure in the first place, I figured that I should employ the one bit of professional wisdom I could recall. I screamed wordlessly into the wind like a little boy who lives where the wild things are. I raged guttural sounds like the howler monkeys that I hoped now to have the pleasure of another sleepless night listening to. I got the distinct impression I was going to vomit into my own lap and not be able to take the time to wash it off for fear of capsizing.
From the sounds a phrase emerged into my consciousness that I didn't want to have to stoop to screaming aloud. I didn't want to have to admit that such a phrase was relevant. But there was no one around and life was quickly beginning to look short, so I gave in. " AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH I WAAAAANT TOOOO LIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE.
SCREW YOU I WANT TO LIVE!!!!!!!
In a polarized way I acknowledged that I was in very real danger of dying. My kayak was now well over a kilometer off shore, pointed directly south, well past Paslow, even past Guatemala, well and truly headed for the Honduran coast a long way away in the distance. The rip of the tide and the direction of the curl of the waves permitted nothing else. I tried to head starboard to shore for a moment or two anyways and nearly tipped. Honduras looked like my only option.
My only hope was focus. No slack would be cut me from nature. Only a week before, with our volunteers John, Sarah and Ben, I'd had a thoughtful discussion about what nature did and did not owe us, and what respect for her really meant. Having a healthy respect for the sea did not mean she owed me a moments grace. Respect for our volatile mother came only from appropriate, relevant knowledge of how to behave and conduct oneself in her rapidly changing environment, not from a wishy-washy sense of love for all things wild and untamed.
As I battled to keep my tiny boat afloat, I tried to clear my mind. I have never been able to clear my mind. I have been practicing meditation for 7 years and have achieved clarity of mind so rarely in all that time that I can recall each specific occasion, each lasting only for a moment or two. As my head swiveled and my eyes rolled to keep every oncoming roller in focus, my mind bifurcated like the tongue of the devil I wanted to curse for the weather and my Stoopidity. One half of my mind resolved to achieve a state of ecstatic Buddhist clarity, the other half of my mind decided to compose those letters that everyone composes when they begin to think that they might die.
The weight of my backpack began to deadened my arms, making it even harder to paddle, and threatened to throw me off balance. I was quickly nearing the point where there was little strength left but to simply keep myself upright and let the waves do the work of pushing me to shore. But shore wasn't getting closer, and it wasn't rushing by anymore. I was fighting only to stand still.
I began to narrate this chapter of my story in a corner of my mind. Doing so may be what prevented me from puking on my own lap or simply giving up and seeing what would happen if I capsized and tried to hold on. I let my own story pull me forward while my body strained, wheezed and grunted to maintain control. The waves began to swamp the boat more frequently. This was not the kind of kayak with top closed by a fashionable spray skirt. It was the kind with a ass-shaped depression into which one sat, and into which waves inconveniently poured. I was too scared to vomit, and that is the other thing that probably helped me to survive.
At long last I came within 500 meters or so of shore, but already parallel with Paslow. At this rate I would overshoot her by miles and have to navigate the intensely creepy mangrove tangles in the dark, if I ever made it to shore. So against the will of the waves I turned to land and paddled hard against flow. The sea fought to swing the bow completely round and backwards. Corrective paddling put me at the wrong angle in the narrow troughs between the breakers as I neared shore. As is so often the case in ocean tragedies, I was only 200 meters away from safety when I was broadsided and finally lost it into the drink.
I was submerged under a succession of breakers, but held on to the yak and the crappy paddle, for what it was worth. I struggled to flip the kayak right-side up. I hauled myself up and across the belly of the boat, reaching for the handle on the other side to pull her upright. A monster of a wave did the lifting for me and smashed the hull with force into my face. On the other side of the wave I could feel hot blood pouring over my chin and my teeth were ringing. With adrenaline force I hauled myself gracelessly back into the boat. I remember noting for a flash that my only water-bottle floated on the far side of the boat just feet away, and I remember in an equally brief flash thinking 'Goodbye Wilson!" giving no care for my future thirst.
I paddled like hell while my tongue determined that I'd put my front tooth through my upper lip. Cool. War Wound. I had gone in and come back out successfully. Now there was less to fear. My mood improved. I determined to live.
And I did, impossibly putting to shore at the southernmost tip of the Paslow property.
At right you will see the tiny photo of my shit-eating grin for having survived, boasting a swollen lip that looks like a sexy, pouty mouth, and a tiny red gash above where my tooth made it's exit. I was too stunned to remember to get a picture of the blue kayak which I have since abandoned at Paslow, never to be used again, though I think Kiera has pictures of it somewhere. Miraculously my insanely expensive prescription sunglasses hooked them selves to the boat and survived, as did the 3 other objects that remained miraculously dry in my otherwise sodden backpack; my camera, my cellphone, and a loaf of bread. Before the sun bothered to set that evening I ate a very thick peanut butter sandwich, and retired to my tent to spend another sleepless night fearing the rage of howler monkeys in mating season. It is good to be alive.
Renegade Ocean Sports Instructor, Vagabond Art Teacher, Roving Writer: Jessica Lea Salo
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
"Having a healthy respect for the sea did not mean she owed me a moments grace."
"It is good to be alive."