Joey started by asking his passengers if we had kayaking experience. Mary and I raised our hands. So did Bitch One and Bitch Two. He asked about kayaking at night. The two blonde college girls raised their hands again. We did not. Joey nodded, issuing a little warning about how different this might be, kayaking at night, in the ocean, through mangrove channels, in a tandem kayak. “The most important part is to listen to your partner,” he warned. “Paddle right. Paddle left. Listen.”
The tour van shuddered and twitched along the road from San Juan to Fajardo, where our crew would meet up with tour guides for a night kayaking trip to a lagoon filled with bioluminescent creatures. Mary and I talked about this possibility before we left Rome, and we caught the only available tour on the spur of the moment and with about ten minutes to spare. Spontaneity is the soul of good travel.
In Fajardo, we all climbed out of the van. Bitch One and Bitch Two, two sisters from Jacksonville, Florida, came to experience the glowing plankton with their little brother, a high school kid, and their father, Chuck. Mom stayed back at the hotel to rest up. Apparently she still felt woozy from leaving her iPhone in the back of a cab on their first day of the trip. “We called her number over and over, but the guy never answered to bring it back!” lamented Chuck. Imagine. Along with the Jacksonvillians, we met a pair of spunky older women from Houston, one named Peggy and one named Sue. I could not keep them straight. I called them Peggy Sue. Who wouldn’t?
Joey described the drop-off point at the beach in Fajardo as a national park area, restricted to public use in order to protect the little dinoflagellates spinning and shining in the water. The beach looked the same as any other beach: same fried food vendors, same groups of families, same deteriorating public bathrooms. Along the rocks by the shoreline, rows of tandem kayaks rocked in the surf. We let ourselves be strapped into life vests, and a guide named Kevin called everyone together for instructions.
He paired us up, making sure everyone had a partner. He looked at Peggy Sue. “Are you both okay going as a team, or would you each prefer your own guide?” he asked. Kevin looked maybe twenty, eager, sweet, but perhaps a little naive as to the attitudes of Texan women in their sixties. “What is THAT supposed to mean?!” Peggy/Sue retorted, one hand gripping her kayak paddle. “Do you think we are LESS CAPABLE, Kevin? Do you think we can’t do it because of our age? Huh? Why don’t you ask some of them if they want to go with a guide? Huh? Huh?” The crowd laughed nervous ha-ha-ha’s. Kevin started saying “No no no nononono” with Puerto Rican speed. Another guide said to Peggy/Sue “You’ve got the paddle, ma’am, whack him!” I momentarily pictured our kayaking trip being delayed by a riot of tourists in life vests pummeling a young Puerto Rican biologist for his ageist comments. Instead Peggy/Sue held her paddle aloft and screamed “Girl Power!!” Tension: diffused.
Bitch One and Bitch Two rolled their eyes and checked their fingernails.
Once in the kayak, Mary and I took about two minutes to figure out that game. Perhaps on some level, as travel partners, we had already formed some sort of telepathic bond when it came to Paddle Left, Paddle Right. Regardless, we were silent and swift and probably ready for Olympic kayaking competition. Other boats spun in circles across the ocean waves, smacking into docked boats or each other. Dusk turned sky and sea a milky blue.
As we made our way into the mangroves, the sound of the surf faded like someone had closed the door to the sea. Over the swish of paddles moving water and the startled squeaks and crunches from some other boat running into the mangroves (never ours--okay, maybe ours once or twice), we heard Bitch One and Bitch Two.
“Oh my GOD! Quit paddling! What the hell are you doing?! That guy ran into me! What an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, sir, YOU are an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD! I can’t believe you just called that guy an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, I SO don’t care! This trip is SO LAME! Why are you paddling on the LEFT?! Paddle on the RIGHT, you IDIOT! Don’t CALL me NAMES, it’s NOT my FAULT, it’s that ASSHOLE! AND it’s DARK! I CAN’T SEE!!”
And these are the two who raised their hands regarding kayaking experience. Meanwhile, Mary and I paddled as fast as we could to get away from the girls, the asshole, the screaming, whatever cloud hovering back there turning the experience murky and dark.
Have you ever seen moonlight through a mangrove landscape? Imagine Picasso’s blue period, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and a midnight voodoo ceremony with stark white bones. Mangrove arms draped down to brush the top of the black water; the moon sat on the top of the trees, except where it spilled in rings around the curve of the paddle. Every shift of the channel felt like farther into some Conradian heart of darkness, our eyes adjusted to this new shade of night, and then....everything opened up. We reached the lagoon.
My only reference for lagoons is the 1980’s movie with that effeminate looking guy who made most preteen girls envy Brook Shields for being the one to teach him how to talk. Blue Lagoon.
We saw no sign of Brooke. The water shimmered with surface light from the moon and a lighthouse in the distance, but this was supposed to be the bioluminescent bay. The water was supposed to shimmer with light from below.
One stroke later, it did. Our fellow kayakers discovered this almost simultaneously, and a soft chorus of “ooo’s” and “aahs” rippled across the water. With one stroke, a million bazillion little pinpoints of blue light vibrated underwater. Mary and I dipped in our hands, wiggled our fingers, stroked back and forth. The blue lights shivered and danced underwater. These are living creatures, little bitty plankton, and generally what kayakers do is annoy the heck out of them. Our fascinated strokes and splashes set them aglow with aggravation. It was delightful. It made us giggle. It made everyone giggle, except you know who.
In the van on the way back to San Juan, Joey asked everyone about their trip. He asked if we had trouble maneuvering, if we had listened to each other and figured out a rhythm for paddling. Immediately, Bitch One and Bitch Two set in. “It was TOO HOT! BUGS kept BITING me! It was TOO SHORT! We couldn’t stay with the glowy stuff as long as we WANTED! It was TOO EXPENSIVE!” These two were like Goldilocks if she never found any of the “just right.”
Mary and I smiled at each other in the back seat of the van. “Well,” said Mary, “I thought it was FABULOUS! I would GO AGAIN!” I said “SO would I. It was AMAZING.”
The girls took out their iPhones and started texting away. They weren’t listening.