March 14, 2011 in Travel
Chillbear Latrigue’s excellent guide to New Orleans and a need to take my mind off of the nuclear meltdown in Japan got me thinking about traveling. I absolutely love to travel, and I don’t care where I go or how many flights it takes me to get there. Except for one small thing—water. I don’t love water. I don’t hate water, I just don’t love being under water.
I was never a very good swimmer. My first swimming lessons were in an Olympic-sized pool at the National Center for Disabilities, which is the largest school for physically disabled children in the country. It was down the block from my home and they offered after-school swimming lessons, so that is where my parents sent me. A man with no arms and no legs would hold the door open for the kids as we arrived for our swimming classes. The man frightened me so much that I began feigning illness on swim days so that I would not have to see him.
My next swimming lessons were at a summer camp in Riverhead, Long Island. The lessons were in the Long Island Sound, which is cold, dark, and choppy. Kids sometimes cut their feet on hidden barnacles in the water, and one day I saw a girl walk out of the water with blood running down the fronts of her legs. I made up every excuse in the book to skip those swimming lessons.
The last effort to teach me how to swim was in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. That summer camp had a lake filled with murky water and a squishy floor. There were frogs and algae and it was nothing I wanted to dip my face into. I got a note from my dermatologist exempting me from swimming lessons and spent the time sitting on a hill with the sick kids.
My childhood of sparsely attended swimming lessons left me able to float and do a sort of breast-stroke-doggie-paddle combo (with my face out of the water), and I will happily float on my back for great lengths of time. This is usually sufficient to get me through the water portion of any warm weather vacation. One summer, however, things went terribly wrong.
After completing the bar exam, I needed a break before beginning a stressful job search and decided to go as far as my frequent flyer miles would take me. Hawaii. My boyfriend and I started out on Oahu with the goal of seeing as many beaches on the island as possible. Traveling in a counterclockwise direction, we made a few scenic stops and finally settled in at Waimanalo Beach. We lay down our grass mats, blew up the plastic inner tubes we purchased at one of the ubiquitous ABC Stores, and headed into the ocean. The water was wavy but fun. We floated around in our inner tubes, holding hands to stay together as the current carried us down the beach.
The waves got taller and the water choppier as the tide rolled in, but with my inner tube and a chill Hawaiian vibe, I was enjoying the ride. Then one big, awful, terrible wave formed. It was much larger than the others and moved at a rapid rate. My boyfriend shouted, “Swim for the shore! NOW!” but it was too late. All I could do was take a deep breath and hold my nose as the wave crested and crashed and pulled me under.
The force of the wave flipped me upside down and slammed me against the ocean floor, first on my left shoulder and then on my face, before washing me up on the beach like a disoriented baby whale. My boyfriend was standing a few yards away, looking for me way out in the ocean. When he finally spotted me, he yelled for me to stand up. But I was startled and confused and couldn’t move, so another wave slammed down on me, pulling me out to sea and spitting me back onto the beach. After that, I got up.
There were grains of sand embedded in the left side of my face, I had a sore shoulder, my bathing suit was filled with sand, and the inner tube was long gone. The ocean had beaten us, and we knew it. We scooped up our grass mats and books and bottles of water and headed back to the hotel to fully assess the damage.
The drive back quickly turned into a competition over who wiped out the worst. I felt like I was unquestionably the hands-down winner because my face hit the ocean floor and I spent more time under water, but my boyfriend claimed to have done several summersaults, which apparently earned him extra bonus points. At the hotel, I took a few Advil for the pain and began the long process of picking sand out of my nooks and crannies. We took it easy for the rest of the day, driving to a shrimp truck on the North Shore and watching people jump off of the cliffs at Waimea Bay.
When I woke up the next morning, my boyfriend was reading the local paper on the lanai. I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I had a pretty decent black eye and a grin from ear to ear. I went out onto the lanai, pointed at my eye, and said, “I win!”
For the rest of the trip, people wouldn’t look at us. Hawaii is for honeymooners, and there was no place for spousal abuse on their idyllic island. I had fun with it. Every now and again I flinched, put my arms up over my face, and said, “Please don’t hit me again!”
The Hawaiian vacation taught me two things. First, the inner tubes from the ABC Store are crap. Second, the ocean and me do not mix. For the next ten years, I spent my beach vacations sitting under a palm tree. I prefer cold, cloudy beach days, and rainy days are even better. This year, however, will be different. I am going to the Galapagos Islands.
When I planned the trip, I was under the mistaken impression that travelers to the Galapagos spent a week or so on a boat that docked at each island, where everyone neatly disembarked to see the giant turtles, sea lions, and blue-footed boobies. It never dawned on me that swimming would be necessary.
The picture of the 100-foot catamaran with a row of wet suits hanging on the boat’s stern should have tipped me off. Or maybe I should have questioned phrases in the travel brochure such as, “All snorkel equipment included,” “Underwater camera recommended,” and “Water shoes needed for wet landings.” Perhaps I wanted to go to the Galapagos so badly that my mind blocked out all of the warning signs. Or maybe I am ready to get back into the ocean again and just needed a helpful nudge off of the beach chair and into the water. Whatever the case, there is no avoiding it any longer. I will be swimming this summer.