I thought I would offer this little Saturday Matinee for your reading pleasure. An e-buddy and I have collaboratively birthed this humorous travelogue baby (the travel was all his, I assure you. The B.S. was mine).
Or you can read on for the story (comments here on the GreenPorch would give us some much needed feedback on whether to submit ourselves to more public humiliation or not!)
Curacao Dives: The sublimely absurd
A dream come true. This was our natural response when my wife and I received the chance to live and work on the small, Caribbean island, Curacao.
Oh Curacao, land of rolling white beaches and feral pigs. Home of crystal clear azure water and deadly jellies. How was I to anticipate your jarring juxtaposition of the sublime and absurd? At dinner parties punctuated with inane chatter (“Curacao! Where’s that? Oh my God, what I wouldn’t give for a tan in February.”), my wife and I could not conjure the startling image of a tanned, hardbody drinking pina coladas while brushing fire ants from his sweat-glistening limbs.
“I know,” we would respond. “It’s an island in the Caribbean between Aruba and Bonaire.” Then I’d dab the corner of my mouth with a cloth napkin and frolic in feelings of smugness. That’s right. I’m going to spend a year with my lovely wife on a Caribbean island.
I did not know mosquitos could exist on a desert island. I hadn’t seen the Dutch disembark from their exploratory vessels so many generations ago. Nor had I imagined the reverberating shudder of their axes felling an entire islands’ worth of hardwoods to launch a hundred more ships in every direction of the compass.
And my idea of a pig had been of a friendly chap wearing trousers and announcing with stuttering tone, “That’s all folks.” How was I to know they were equipped with ugly tusks capable of waging war against all things green and growing? Oh Curacao! While drifting into a wine-induced slumber and spooning my wife in our queen-sized bed tucked away on a distant Chicago loft, I did not know we were floating toward a battlefield bristling with fangs and spikes. (Did you chuckle when you envisioned me dreaming of your paradisiacal blue skies?)
Then we got there, and became students of the sublimely absurd.
My co-worker, Todd, and I stood on a hill close to the beach on an exceptionally tranquil night–warm and still. The near constant winds rested, leaving the ocean’s surface asleep under a yellow half moon. A continuous high cloud cover showed as a black absence of stars. We stood, mesmerized by the intensely bright moon shining from a singular gap between a darkened heaven and earth, the same color and shape of the world’s largest streetlamp. Moonlight striking the water ran in undulating streams of yellow light right to the beach at our feet, leaving everything else black.
It was breathtaking. Todd stood as I sat atop a picnic bench watching the movements of the clouds change the shape of the moon’s reflections. Entranced, Todd said in a low voice, “Incredible. Absolutely incredible.”
Before I could respond he began to dance, his movements sporadic and broken. Flailing his long arms and legs into the air he began to chant. “Ow! Ow! Oh! Crap! Ow!” And then again. When he started slapping at his legs and cursing I finally realized he hadn’t been suddenly possessed by an Irish muse. Still slapping and dancing, he leapt with deft agility from the agitated fire ant mound and onto the table. Shortly thereafter, while hosing the ants off of a rapidly pustulating Todd, I laughed at the absurdity. A decision I’ve come to regret.
On another tranquil, moonlit night I got mine.
Once a year, a few days after the midsummer full moon, the coral around Curacao spawns. After releasing thick clouds of larva, other, normally diurnal, fish gather by the thousands to create the perfect environment for a night dive. The cloudless sky and full moon, combined with Curacao’s amazingly clear waters, created a truly irresistible event–sublime in every way. I had yet to learn the islands’ number one lesson.
We put in from the beach in front of our apartment. Wading into the warm waters for a short way, we swam toward the dropoff – an underwater cliff that dropped over a hundred meters. The moon shone so bright the sandy floor of the ocean glowed. The waters themselves were alive with phosphorescence. Every moment of our hands and flippers left whorls of shimmering light in their wake.–stunning slights of magic.
We swam to the 25-30 foot deep zone, turned off our lights and sat stunned on the bottom. While missing the height of the event, several corals still pumped out clouds of spawn, attracting a reduced crowd of fish compared to the night before. We sat on the ocean floor for several minutes, casting spells with our hands, until eventually following the shelf towards our takeout.
Along the way, something odd (close, but never too close) caught the beam of my flashlight several times. As I swung the beam from side to side, it bent mysteriously at a sharp angle. Swinging the light more slowly, the refracting beam swept through a 180 degree arc like the light on a lighthouse before shining straight into the blue darkness again. I hailed Todd. The mystery was too much.
Swimming to investigate, we found a cigar shaped jelly fish. It’s clear form acted like a variable prism bending the light–another magical effect during a magical dive. Continuing on our way, we ran into a small octopus hanging admits the old bottles, tires, and cans of a rubbish heap–a nearby hotel’s solution to the garbage problem on a small island. With its ample nooks and crannies, little critters liked to call the dump home. Just as curious about us as we were about him, our octopus friend took turns latching onto our wiggling fingers.
And I knew the evening couldn’t get any better. There’s something uniquely exciting about such an intimate encounter with a creature of the wild. Or at least I remember thinking something like that at the time.
As our dive time limit approached, we broke off our play with the tiny octopus and swam for the take-out point. We had selected a beach enclosed by a long semi-circular boardwalk, the interior flooded with lights. The effect was again sublime. We stopped to look at some seahorses hanging around the wooden piers of the boardwalk before swimming into the entrapment. Swimming slowly, we began to spot more and more of the cigar shaped jellies, lounging about like preteens who’ve run out of quarters loitering outside an arcade. Finally we reached the shallows and stood up to walk in.
An uneasy feeling settled over me, something I couldn’t quite arrest. What was it about Curacao? Always sublime and what?
Taking off his mask and regulator, Todd turned to me. “Are these jellyfish the kind that sting?”
I shrugged. But thinking back, I must have known. Certainly the classroom of Curacao had taught me that much. Maybe I thought denying the sudden knowledge could somehow avert the inevitability of it. Then it happened.
In slow motion the electric whips began licking every submerged surface of my flesh. Or maybe the calamity started with a single sting that boiled toward a symphony of punishment after Todd and I began flogging the water with our swamp-thing bodies, surging clumsily toward the shore. Whichever way it played out, the end result was the same. When we finally pulled ourselves out of the water, we were well and truly stung.
Imagine a wasp sting. Now imagine a hundred stings. Now imagine a hundred wasps buried inside your skin, pulsing their venom directly into your veins like constant IVs of poison. Apply said pain liberally up and down arms and legs with a natural horse-hair paint brush (two-coat for best results) and you have an idea of the sort of pain those little devils can deal out. Really unpleasant. Really painful.
But I was cool. I turned toward Todd and spoke with calm intensity, “Damn. That hurts.”
He grimaced at me. What could be done? Let continuously excruciating pain spoil a majestic evening?
We slogged steadily back toward the efficiency apartment Maria and I shared over a dive shop. Soon it became clear I had been hit much harder than Todd. Due to being a tall, skinny walking stick, he needed a wetsuit. Always one for efficiency, I wore my wetsuit under the skin – like a seal. After tromping up the stairs, we regaled Maria with tails of octopi and jellyfish–sublimia and absurdia.
I found that yammering helped distract from the constant waves of agony washing up and down my arms. What’s that saying that old people always use after someone loses an eye or the third digit on their index finger? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I remember thinking, “Well, at least it won’t kill me. But I don’t feel any stronger.”
My wife, always the practical one, wanted to know what we were going to do about the situation.
“I heard you can neutralize jelly-fish stings with urine,” Todd offered.
“What is this? A 1,000 Ways to Die Episode #38?” I rolled my eyes, but unfortunately we must have seen the same episode.
“Hey, on the beach or in the bathroom. Your choice.” He grinned.
“What a pal.”
“No problemo. It’s the least I can do.”
Always thinking above a middle school grade level, Maria had gotten out my PADI certification and called their emergency number. But when she asked them what to do about jellyfish stings, the answer was, “Not much. Leave it alone and watch for any adverse reactions.” Then as an after thought the voice on the other side of the receiver continued, “And for God’s sake, don’t pee on it.” She hung up.
While we were laughing about that, our neighbor, Gary, came in. Sort of the combined Kramer and Seinfeld of the group, Gary was a big New-Yorker. The definition of laid-back, retro cool, he played jazz sax, loved Godzilla and had come to the island to help his brother run an internet sports-bar. He told everyone who asked he was only on the island long enough to make a million dollars before heading back to New York to live on the interest and do nothing but play jazz and read.
We told him what had happened. Eventually the conversation evolved into swapping dive stories, each ending with a harrowing brush with death more cinematic than the last. By the fourth sequel I had to stand to keep from passing out. I paced, then weezed, parsing the moment perfectly. “Uh, hey guys. My chest is getting tight.”
Their reaction couldn’t have been more gratifying. Everyone started talking at once, jumping up and down and scurrying around the room. Despite the chaos, it took only moments before we were headed out the door to the hospital. The only problem, no one knew where it was.
Gary offered to drive, so once in the lot, we scuttled toward his car. Half way there, we ran into Denny, another of my co-workers. Short, curly dark hair, Denny was the definitive party animal. After giving him the quick and dirty version of the story, he interrupted, “I can take him to the hospital.”
Gary loomed over the smaller man, a Johnny come lately. “You know where it is?”
Denny scowled, a little confused at Gary’s tone. “Yeah, I know where it is.”
“You know how to get there?”
“Yes Gary, I know how to get there.” He started to mimic holding a steering wheel.
“Are you sure?” Gary didn’t let up, his burly eyebrows framing the series look on his face.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Are you really sure? No fucking around. This is serious.”
Denny rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Yes, I know where it is!”
Gary rolled his neck, cracking the bones in his spine.”OK, I’m just saying–”
“Get in the car!” Denny shrieked.
Obediently, we got into Denny’s car which lit off before the doors were shut. I’ve no idea where everyone was sitting, save that Denny was driving and poor Maria had been squished up against me. All this time, my chest continued to constrict, creating a distortion filter between me and the world. Disconnected, everything took place outside of me, apart from me.
Denny peeled out of the parking lot, swinging onto the narrow road towards the center of town. The road rushed down hill before hugging a windy cliff fronting the beach–exactly the sort an action hero would drive on his way to an isolated resort before confronting his mortal enemy in a fight to the death while the fate of all mankind hung in the balance.
Were we really moving this fast? Or were the toxins weaving their hallucinatory magic? The windshield distorted and morphed, the night sky stretching as we slipped quietly into warp. How long did it take to reach Rigel 7 at warp factor four?
That was when I noticed the radio was playing the theme to Mission Impossible. What? Wait, too many movie references. I pointed the ironic music out to everyone, (partly to ensure it was really happening) but nobody seemed to find the irony as delightful as I did. Peeling my skin from the naugahyde seat, I pulled myself forward far enough to see the instruments dancing in the dash. The speedometer needle bobbled between 100 and 105 mph. I flicked my head to the side where a rickety, rusted out guardrail whisked past, glinting occasionally in the moonlight.
My vision blurred then focused before blurring again. The music, while appropriate, wasn’t enough to keep me in the movie moment. I wanted to get to the hospital, not the bottom of the cliff. I cleared my throat before speaking from what seemed a long distance, “Denny, slow down. It wouldn’t do any good to kill me before I have a chance to die.”
“Die?” Maria whimpered.
“Nobody’s gonna die.” Gary shifted in the passenger seat, trying to look Maria in the eye before putting his hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Denny.” Denny didn’t respond.
“Slow the f@%k down!” The words rattled in my head like nails in a can.
He looked at me, again confused. “Scooter, don’t worry, I can handle it.” But, he slowed down anyway.
As if someone had slogged a bucket of water over my head, I realized I had been sweating, profusely. Interesting. Maybe my body was pushing the toxins out. How much of the human body is water? Ninty percent? No, wait. That’s the percentage of water in blood. I watched the puddle of sweat form around me and then expand. A strange thought occurred to me. All my water left, would I crumble to dust? or just whither?
The rest of the trip was a blur. I remember suddenly standing in the front room of the hospital, watching Maria talking frantically to a blurry woman behind a thick piece of glass. Was the glass deflecting Maria’s urgency, or the woman? Curiously I gathered data through the distortion field encasing me. The bare, gray room didn’t look promising. Hospitals should have instruments and examining tables. Bowls of green jello.
“You have to fill out this form first!”
“OK, OK, but my husband needs to see a doctor right away.”
“Not until you fill out the form.”
I leaned close, watching the pencil scratch symbols across the paper. Forcefully Maria thrust it throw the window.
Maria screeched, “I don’t have any money! Can’t you bill me?”
“No, five guilders.”
A shadow loomed overhead until Gary came into focus. He steadied me, shooed us all toward a sign boasting “Emergency.” Curious, it didn’t feel like an emergency. Surely an emergency warranted more than a form and five guilders.
Around the corner or down the hall or across the compound, I soon stood in the place called “emergency,” and played the role of human fountain. Weeping sweat and still consumed by flames licking licking up and down my arm, I looked out at the world through my own eyes, but from an increasing distance. I studied people waiting nearby, lots of them.
One guy had a bloody bandage wrapped around his head and one eye. Another had a bloody bandage wrapped around his arm. I still had all my blood, but what good would my blood do me if I lost all my water? The thought slowly grew overwhelming as I stood there dripping and starting to shiver.
Huh. So this is it. I’m going to die here, from burrowing fire bugs and a fatal loss of water. But the thought only vaguely troubled me. Mostly I was amazed at the unlikeliness of the plot and setting. I mean, who writes this stuff? Death by Curacaon jelly.
Meanwhile, moments from watching Maria jump the guardian of the emergency room and beat her unconscious, guardian Gary floated up behind us again. 6’14” at least, he gently pushed Maria aside and towered over the obstreperous lady before us. He pointed to me. Then pointing toward his own chest, he spoke a single, powerful word, “Corazon!”
The air around me vibrated with it. Again he spoke, “Corazon!”
All resistance parted. The woman staggered, falling away before ushering us through a rift in time and space. The word echoed in my mind, Corazon, and I felt I had burrowed into the center of the universe. I had mind melded with the island itself, blended with the Corazon of Curacao. Maybe lapping up enough toxin from its guardian jellies had made me one of its own. Or maybe I’d just paid my toll.
I was pushed through some curtains and plunked down on a narrow bed surrounded by an ocean of curtains on every side. Floating in the waters of my own body I shivered against the cold air. Having finally arrived, I sharpened my mental gaze, studying the corazon of the matter. There on the rubber surface of an examining table, I finally understood the tension between the sublime and the absurd–the glorious balance that an island both besieged and forgotten had laboriously labored to teach me.
Moments later, as the doctor swabbed my skin with cotton and alcohol and plunged the syringe slowly downward, Prednisone coursed through the circuits of my body, carrying the truth with it. Ah, Curacao!