The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.
It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.
In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.
Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.
Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.
Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.
And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.
The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.
And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.
For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.
But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.
Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.
But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.
And somehow that’s enough.