I’m not a travel writer, but I’m a writer who just traveled so I should probably let logic take the tiller and write about my travels… I just swam with fucking sharks in Belize. For real. Our boat stopped out in the reef and we moored to a cemented anchor. I’d like to say that the ocean smelled fresh just to paint the perfect picture, but it didn’t. It never does; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. Sometimes the breeze is a clean thing, telling your nose about new life and a refreshing swim. Sometimes the breeze is dirty and pungent, and it talks about the death and decay down below. The ocean is half life, half death. Our reef was huge—the world’s second largest—and we were surrounded by the sea; two fathoms of water that stretched on and on. Greens and blues you only see in the tropics. Life swam beneath our boat. Sharks and rays and barracudas and all kinds of creepy shit that bites and stings. The man said to jump in, so I jumped in. I landed somewhere in the middle of the food chain.
I’m a decent snorkeler, but irrational fear controlled my lungs. In out in out, quick and quicker. The man noticed and suggested a lifejacket when I got back to the boat. I could just lie on it if I needed and relax. It’d put Styrofoam between me and the teeth. Hell yes. I swam back out floating on top of my orange security blanket. I calmed down. There was a small nursery shark that just moments before was doing an awesome impression of Jaws. There was a peaceful ray flapping her wings in the sand (I assume she did it to look majestic). There were two barracudas lurking in my peripheral, holding still and playing the cat in cat-and-mouse; I showed them my lifejacket. The man swam down before my eyes and coaxed an eel out of his den; he breathed with his huge gills and proffered translucent teeth. Holy shit it was wonderful; it was like snorkeling in the movies. The man was our docent through house-sized outcroppings of coral. Explorers in an underwater canyon, we swam left and right through schools of curious fish and other tourists, pale on bottom and burnt red on top. My fish of a daughter would swim under me and then away, a fearless eight-years-old beast on a mission, and then she’d swim back all the while trying to tell me something through her snorkel. I’d just nod, smile, wave.
Our reef was a barrier reef, one that protects all of Belize from the predatory ocean, but the barrier had a channel in it: a submerged portcullis in the reef wall. We swam across it and I felt the tug of the ocean pulling me out like the ensnaring song of a deadly mermaid, but we made it across easily. Life and wonderment lived everywhere and we swam through it for close to an hour. We got back to the boat and the man said it was time to go to “shark ray alley.” That’s where they all are he said: the big ones. It was a short boat ride and as soon as we moored off, they came slithering in. Dark shadows, wraiths of the seas, swam everywhere. The white noise of the engine pulled them close. Guides who don’t follow the rules bait the sharks with handfuls of fish food and the beasts know that one way or another, when they hear an engine’s purr, food is getting in the water.
Look. I know that my fear of sharks is ridiculous, but I don’t care. They grow teeth like I grow hair, they’re cold and stoic like serial killers, they’re hungry and carnivorous, and they do that creepy sideways swimming thing. Sharks are bullshit. Saying you’ll face your fear is a shit-ton easier than actually doing it, so I’d been trying to get out of our snorkeling trip for days: “Terra, you’re allergic to shrimp, so maybe you’re allergic to the ocean. Terra, I promise that I’ll freak out and ruin everybody’s day. Terra, this is dumb, so let’s just stay in our rented condo and lock the doors.” Granted, these were nursery sharks, but a ten-foot nursery shark doesn’t look anything like an animal that belongs in a nursery. And the man said that he’d seen the occasional reef shark. Um, that’s the type of shark that attacked James Bond in Thunderball. Fuck that. But when the man said jump in, I jumped in… There was a big asshole right underneath our boat, growing teeth and swimming side to side right at me. I tried to show him my lifejacket but then I realized I jumped in without it. Shit. On he came. Luckily, he turned away when he was about ten inches* away from my face (yards*). I was scared shitless, but that youngest daughter of mine wasn’t. She kept complaining about how the man had told her not to let go of the life ring that was tethered to the boat. Who the hell complains about that? Who the hell thinks that holding onto a “life” ring while floating above a murderous school of monsters is a bad thing? My daughter. She wanted to swim off on her own so she could name and tame the sharks; she’d cuddle them into submission.
I was nervous. Everyone was nervous. Even the man didn’t like this part of the trip. He stood safely out of the water and kept yelling “stay by the boat, stay by the boat!” But about halfway through the experience, my fear vanished. I don’t know if something broke in my brain or if confronting my fear diluted it down into extinction, but either way, I simply wasn’t afraid of the sharks around me. We eventually got back in, all extremities accounted for, and I started making small talk with the man. So, has anyone ever been bitten? He laughed, and then he told me the “after the tourists get back in the boat story.” He pointed down to his leg to show off his puckered foot-long scar. He’d taken out a group of Polish tourists a few months prior. They brought with them a translator. They were snorkeling along shark ray alley when the nursery sharks rose from the depths en-masse and formed a feeding frenzy, stoked by the man’s outboard motor and its diner chime. The translator, ever the center of attention, dove down below the frenzy and then swam back up right in the middle of it. That Pollock would’ve made my daughter proud. Can you imagine what it’d look like to do such a thing? I can. I see this roiling bait ball of death centered perfectly in the salty openness. When you dive down, you see the ocean darkening beneath you in gradients of blue. The sandy white floor shimmers below like a mirage. As you swim back up, you watch the swirling ball of beasts get bigger and bigger as you pick up speed, pulled towards death by your buoyancy. Then you come up in the middle, surrounded by rasping grey skin and bloodied teeth. Terrifying.
In a feeding frenzy, sharks lid their eyes to protect their vision—they just bite blind and randomly in the churned confusion. The translator in the middle was taking hits, bleeding in the water. And that’s when the man jumped in (and incidentally, that’s why I call him “the man”). He grabbed the translator and pulled him out of the melee. He kicked the sharks away (in my mind, I picture Chuck Norris kicks just destroying shark faces), but one shark was a bit to wily. He bit the man right in the calf. The man knew that if he tried to pull his leg free, the shark would thrash and he’d lose a chunk of muscle, so he just waited patiently for the shark to let go. That’s the part that blows my mind: the man was swimming away from a shark feeding frenzy, he was pulling with him a bleeding Pollock, and when a shark tried to eat his leg, he just waited patiently until the ancient predator decided to let go. He got the translator back to the boat and then took everyone to shore. He got some stitches and then he healed and then he went right back into the water. There’s an aphorism in there somewhere.
The man finished his story just as my once-dead fear of sharks started to breathe again. He took us back to shore and I tipped him with the colorful money that seems to be everywhere else in the world except our country, and we went back to our condo. The rest of our trip followed suit. We drank bottomless mimosas by a saltwater crocodile lagoon; we gorged ourselves on soursop ice cream and conch ceviche; we parasailed over a flock of manta rays. I’m sure the proper group noun for manta rays is something like “school” or “pod” or some other nautical nonsense, but it shouldn’t be; things that fly do so in flocks, and we could see those creatures flapping their wings underwater even though we were soaring high above with a parachute. And when we landed, a sting ray, the manta ray’s nimbler kin, jumped out of the water and flapped his wet, leathery wings until he splashed back down. Our guide that day was a bona fide Rastafarian and he looked exactly like he looks in your mind right now. He yelled out “Ay man! You saw that ray mon? Ya mon!” His dreads bounced around his head like pasta as he did his Rasta dance. As he was unhooking my harness, he leaned in close and made a joke about why the sting rays jump out of the water: “because they be getting excited mon.” “The be getting BJs from the other fish mon.” “Ya mon!”
We finished the parasailing day by eating at a truck-stop that’d be hard to stop at with a truck. It was out of town a bit: twenty minutes in our sputtering golf cart along a muddy single-track. The food was fresh and local. Five converted shipping containers encircled a few park benches and tables. We ordered spicy noodles and chicken wings and then sat below an umbrella until the rain pushed us to the bar. It was a sign. We drank beers and plotted our retirement. Now, before I continue, I’d like to type out a little disclaimer: I don’t eavesdrop intentionally, but I do it nonetheless and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I was born without the brain part that lets most humans filter out background noise. It’s a handicap. Chewing noises, too-loud laughs, obnoxious conversations happening anywhere around me: I hear them all. I’m forced to listen to every conversation I hear like some unwilling voyeur. My mind categorizes all the conversations and then files them away for moments like this one: There were two other couples sitting at the bar. Couple number one said “we just moved here” and then couple number two said “why?” and then couple number one said “Trump.” Holy shit! Here they were. Here were two Americans who’d said that they’d move if he won—he won, they moved. Two disenfranchised Americans, two patriots without a nation. My wife cheered. And she cheered rightfully because couple number one had the collective balls to move out of middle ‘merica and into Central America just to honor their convictions. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. Objectively speaking, couple number one won. They stayed true to their word and they got paradise while the rest of us liberals are stuck here at home with nothing more than the “I-told-you-sos” that we’re about to dish out.
Our last day came and we flew back to Texas to sleep for a night before making the connection to Durango. I had mosquito bites and a new cold. I won’t lie: I thought about malaria and the Zika virus more than once. I imagined being “patient zero” and about how horrible it would be in Durango once my exotic disease decimated the town’s population. But that hasn’t happened yet and I promise to keep covering my mouth when I cough. Our lives have gone back to normal, but the first three days back in my home felt special. True, they were hard—we were stressed after so much time so close to one another, and we came back to a Colorado winter—but those days reminded me how ridiculously good we have it here in the States. The conch ceviche in Colorado is outrageously expensive, but we have doctors and teachers and infrastructure (all three have debatable efficacy, but that’s irrelevant). We have freedom (sort of), we have rights (most of us), and we have opportunity (if we’re lucky). It’s not perfect here at home but it’s a lot better than it is in Belize. So, even though I too have an urge to pack it all up and head for foreign latitudes, maybe I (and all of us) should just suck it up. And that’s good advice no matter which side you’re on because the present day winners will be someday losers and it’ll just go back and forth forever. We Americans are fond of fighting back and forth on a constrained field, a ceaseless game of inches (just think about our favorite sports). So maybe we should just jump into our nightmarish political cesspool, into our regressing culture, and face it straight on like a sideways-swimming shark. Or maybe moderation is where it’s at: leave sometimes, travel, get prospective. But come back. Come back to fix what’s broken instead of moving someplace like Belize where there’s lots of sand to stick your head in. Running away to paradise is still running away. And that’s where I’m at right now. I want to fly away on a special airplane equipped with windows you can roll down just so I can stick out my hand and flip off everything behind me, all the uncertainty, but I’m just going to write instead. I’m just going to be a travel writer when I travel and a writer-writer when I’m stuck here in this small office and I’m going to face life and fear with my craft, because unlike my lifejacket, writing isn’t something I can leave behind when I jump in.