I’m sitting on a bench waiting for someone to tell me which catamaran to get on, listening to a couple of guys bang on steel drums. I suddenly realize they’re playing Hotel California. The shave ice colored buildings—blue raspberry, lemon yellow, strawberry pink—converge with the music and I feel like I’m in a Dr. Seuss book. The Lorax, maybe, or Yertle the Turtle. Thing 1 and Thing 2 round a corner and enter a gift shop. The Cat in the Hat can’t be far behind.
Things are a little bit off. On our side of the fence, there’s Fendi, Rolex, and bottled water. Guys in smart polo shirts and white shorts say things like the wind and waves can tip the boat, but only you can tip the crew. Girls in crisp blouses offer cheap rum shots, foot massages, or to braid my daughter’s hair. Small monkeys wearing diapers climb on shoulders or sit on heads, a couple of dollars for the ultimate vacation selfie.
Vacation, I remind myself. Fun, remember?
As we get on the catamaran, my husband moos. It’s his way of protesting the official tour, the one that promises to take us to a pristine cove called Shitten Bay to snorkel. I shake my head at him. He’s right, but the taxis are killing us, charging four or more times what I expected to run us to a beach or into town. Booking today’s adventure through the cruise ship means all the gear and transportation’s provided.
Besides, it’s my turn to pick. What I really want to do is scuba dive. In fact, I’d love it if all we did was dive, eat, sleep, and dive some more. But our daughter is terrified of sharks, jellyfish, and the unseen thing that will swallow her whole. A morning snorkeling is an armed compromise right up there with the St. Martin/Sint Maarten Treaty of Concordia.
I’m a terrible mother and try to calculate how many more years until I can plan a dive trip for two and come up with three if we leave the princess at home. I bite my lip.
It isn’t until I’m perched on the prow of the catamaran, sea-splashed and wind-whipped, scanning the waves for the change in direction that reveals a dolphin or flying fish, that I finally relax. It’s day six of a nine day vacation and it isn’t until this moment that I feel free. I’m smiling and laughing as I lean against my husband, drenched by a rogue wave that has caused all the other tourists to flee to the covered bar area to point and snap photos of the crazy lady with a Hawaiian print sarong over her shoulders. I sip Ting, a local grapefruit soda that’s better than Squirt, and peer at the dark patches of reef we skim over. Out of habit I check the distance to shore. Even towing a couple of kids, I can totally swim that, no problem. We’re good.
The captain is droning on about the expensive villas lining the hillsides and which A-list celebrity owns them and how you can sometimes see the newest It Paparazzi Darling walking the beaches naked right over there. We’re not going to see them, I tell my son. It’s never the pretty people. They know better than to show it for free.
Later he sadly tells me I’m right. Another bubble popped.
Who says travel isn’t educational?
At Shitten Bay I’m handed a mask, snorkel, fins, and the hated, dreaded, absolutely mandatory life vest. I try to tell the deckhand that I’m more likely to drown wearing one of those things, strangled in the straps or chaffed to death along my carotid artery. No, madam, (and I know what madam is code for), you must. Swimming is too tiresome. Put a little air into it like this. Much easier.
I’m tempted to tell him what else he can blow, but I know he’s only doing his job. Instead I thank him, then deflate every puff of air out of the vest.
I think about stripping all the gear off, jumping over the side, and floating on my back, hands behind my head, eyes closed, and taking a nap just to show him I won’t drown, but he would probably jump after me with a life-ring cursing madam, madam, madam.
Well, if I have to wear a vest, I’m not walking down the stairs and into the water like an old lady. I do have some standards. I slip over the handrail.
The water is cool and clear and I feel bubbles rising around me, tickling a little from my giant stride entry off the port side of the catamaran. Everyone else heads out into the deep water, but knowing better, I head to where it’s shallower, where there is more light and more to see. I tear the corner off the mini bag of cornflakes I smuggled off the cruise ship, shake them into the water, and the fish come.
As I quietly float along away from the crowds, the fish continue to do fishy things instead of hiding, and I realize this reef is dying. There’s very little living coral, few fish, and I don’t see any octopus, eels, or even starfish. Looking around, I understand why it’s a good place to bring tourists—outside of some patches of fire coral and wana-like urchins, the worst that can happen is a sunburn.
Too soon, the bell sounds, and we’re back on the catamaran. My son drains a plastic cup and says, we’re bringing a case of Ting back, and I laugh. Everything tastes better on a boat. Ting is good, but I’d trade all the Ting in the world for more time at Shitten Bay.