CDS Column: Traveling, Chaos and Comfort

Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.

That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.

But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.

“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”

Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.

After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.

Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.

“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.

“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.

I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.

“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.

“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.

Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.

On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.

It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.

“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”

“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”

The man driving the bus looked over at us.

“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”

The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.

Paradise was going to have to wait.

International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.

But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.

When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.

On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.

It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.


This column appeared in this week’s Conway Daily Sun.

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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5 a.m.

5 a.m.

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_o5 a.m. The wind and rain from the night before had died. Low tide would hit in an hour and a half, the same amount of time it would take to drive to Higgins Beach.

“The waves look better tomorrow,” Nick told me as we pulled off our wetsuits. “Want to come back?”

I did. We’d spent an hour in the Maine water, riding small waves and slicing across foam. It was the kind of day that leaves you smiling after weeks away, but also the kind that leaves you wanting more.

But the ocean heard our call: the remains of Tropical Storm Bonnie, the second named storm of the season, were still churning the North Atlantic, throwing waves due to hit Northern New England the next day.

So this morning, at 5 a.m., I woke up. I rolled out of bed, pulled clothes on (no need to shower when the first appoint of the day is an ocean), grabbed a biscuit and orange juice carton and started driving.

“Morning,” Nick said, still in need of coffee. “I looked at the webcam. It’s a bit mushy.”

“The tide just switched,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be fine.”

We shoved boards and wetsuits into his SUV and drove the last leg to Higgins. It was still early. A grey light hung over the ocean, clouds unwilling to abandon the morning turned the water dark. Waves barreled toward shore in haphazard fashion, smashing and grinding into each other.

“Oh, this should be fun,” I said. Nick sipped a coffee from Higgins Beach Market .

We parked, suited up and headed for the water. There were a dozen surfers in already. I strapped on my leash and headed in. Nick did the same.

When the first wave hit, a wall of foam and white, it pushed me off my board, spun me and slammed me down. Then another. And another. My board, too big to push under the surface, became a launchpad with each blow. I gasped for breath, regrouped and paddled as best I could, but there was always another wave, and then another.

I watched Nick flip and go under. A wave slammed his overturned board. He popped back up, paddling hard, water churning around him. He got slammed again, but he kept pushing. He was making it out. I was not. Another wave-wall came, pushing me back further. The next one flipped me. I groped for my board, gasping for breath. Then another came. Then another. My arms were left slapping at the water. I was barely moving. They kept coming in fast and from every direction, spilling into each other. I wasn’t making it, the wall had me. So I turned.

It’s a strange thing, giving up. It makes sense sometimes, like when your breath is slowly running dry, but it doesn’t feel good. And if you don’t keep diving into unknown challenges it’s easy to forget what it’s like. In rock climb I don’t often back off a route without at least an honest try. But surfing isn’t rock climbing, and “honest try” means different things in different places. The ocean is something I know far less about. This wasn’t the mountains, wasn’t the dance of movement over stone. So I turned around.

I caught the whitewater of the next wave and rode it in. I was on the beach in seconds, still panting and heaving from the effort. I turned around and watched the surfers in the distance rising and falling, rising and falling. Nick was among them.

Sometimes the waves are just too big. But there is something wonderful in stepping up to the plate at a new challenge, something special in trying while not knowing. When the dance is not endlessly rehearsed there are bound to be failures. I sat on the shore watching the churn.

Then, as I looked out, a pattern emerged. The waves to the right were breaking in chaos, but to the left there was less white, less overlap, not a gap but more quiet. It wouldn’t be enough for an unobstructed paddle, but it offered one with fewer hammer strokes. I kept watching to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. No, it was there. I could get out that way. Or I could at least try.

I waded in up to my waist, still fighting whitewater, popping above it when I could, but watching as I went. I worked my way slowly, waiting for the moment the sea would open for me, the pause that would allow me passage.

Then it came: I saw a gap, pulled my board underneath me and paddled hard. The waves rose but not as high, crested but didn’t break. My arms held, tired but able to pull through the lull. They carried me far enough; I glided past the kill-zone and into the calm. Nick was there, his wetsuit hood pulled around his neck. He waved, then turned back to the ocean. I did the same.

There is something wonderful in movement unrehearsed, in a dance of not knowing. Maybe it makes you give up. Maybe it drowns you. But sometimes it lets you through. Those time are special.

 

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