Bob Marley Bar

We were a diverse group of seven, my crewmates and I.

Three friendly Canadians, two boisterous Aussies, one tall American and a very gentle soul from Dominica. Renegades in our own right, we were all rebels who had, for whatever reason, shaken off the shackles of conformity and restraint to run towards a life of freedom on the open sea. Looking for adventure, we’d driven across the island in cheaply rented VW Beetles, as far as we could get from our jobs onboard the MS Voyager and the crowded, noisy Port of Cozumel. We’d discovered this perfect little strip of sand and sea quite serendipitously in our quest to escape the absurd demands of cruise ship-life for a few hours.

The area was deserted, but for a small beach-side bar that stood nestled among the shade of a few palm trees and several sandpipers hopping around small piles of driftwood. Under a glaring noon-day sun, we walked barefoot, sipped cold drinks, and lounged around in hammocks as though we had all the time in the world. The roar of waves, the greedy cry of hungry gulls, and the ship’s horn sounding in the distance became a lullaby. Some of us dozed, some talked. Some watched waves crash on the rocks, thinking of home. I did a little of everything. I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon, I guess.

Bob Marley’s Bar was more of a shack than anything, hardly more than a few planks of white-washed wood nailed together. I got the impression the place had weathered more than its fair share of storms. Reggae music drifted from a small stereo sitting on a shelf above a battered counter and brightly-coloured Mexican blankets covered the walls among old license plates, sombreros, and hand-painted signs. An ancient bell hung from a rotting wooden post. There were few seats, even fewer tables. We ordered our “cervezas” and deep-fried clams in broken Spanish, and ate standing up, high on Mexican beer and sheer excitement.

“Hola, amigos,” the friendly Mexican server asked with a huge smile, setting down another round of drinks on the scratched table. “Mi llama—my name—is Jose. Esta bien? Everything is okay?”

“Si, Senor,” I replied. “Muchas gracias. Esta bien—mucho delicious. Yum-yum!”

“Can we get another plate of fried clams, por favor?” Yvette asked.

“Si. Of course, mi Linda,” Jose responded. “You like? I will make good for you. Muy bien.”

“Jose! Amigo,” Noah called. “Otro cervezas, por favor. For everybody.”

Jose laughed, slapped him on the back and said, “Of course, of course, mi amigo. I be right back.”

After lunch, the group broke up for a while. I strolled to the water’s edge alone. Sea mirrored sky in some grand cosmic reflection as I stood barefoot at the shoreline, foam rushing over my toes and felt something inside open up, something wild that refused to be contained. The pull of the ocean drew me in. Forgetting about my friends on the beach, I peeled off my clothes and ran into the sea, diving underwater when the cold water reached my hips. Swoosh!

I dove underwater like a dolphin. Glistening water rolled off my back like some living, breathing metaphor, and I went deeper still. The world was silenced for a moment but for the gentle rush in my ears, a faint pressure, and the slow, steady rhythm of my heart. When I resurfaced, laughter greeted me. Yvette’s voice carried across the waves.

“Hey! Where ya goin’, babe?” she joked. “Back to the ship?” Yvette looked over and said something to Marcus, then added, “Wait, maybe I’ll join you!”

Seconds later, Yvette was in the water, followed by Noah, Dave and Luc. Marcus and Donovan stayed on shore. Taking a deep lungful of air, I swam underwater to join my splashing crewmates. After a quick swim, the boys headed back to shore, thirsty for a few more Coronas, but Yvette and I weren’t ready to leave just yet. Side by side on our backs, Yvette and I drifted, faces to the sun. We talked about our lives at home, what we ran from, who was left behind. There was always someone left behind. Finally, as the gulls overhead began to scream hungry cries to their gods, Yvette declared she was going back onshore to dry off. I decided to stay a bit longer, to let the waves rock my body and soothe my soul. I closed my eyes. That was my first mistake.

A shadow crossed the sky and I opened my eyes again.

Looking around, I quickly discovered that I’d drifted farther out than I had intended. I couldn’t hear my friends’ laughter anymore. The sky had grown just a shade darker; the waves were beginning to swell. Panic set in, and that’s when I made my second mistake. I started to swim inland, but the rip-tide tugged me back. I got nowhere fast. Every muscle rigid with exertion, I pushed forward. It was like climbing a rockslide, for every three steps forward, falling two steps back. Exhausted, I could feel my body wanting to stop, my mind refusing to let it.

Swoosh! An enormous wave smacked me in the back of the head. Choking on seawater, I barely had time to catch my breath before another—and then another—washed over me. My belly, my face, my knees, my face scraped the sandy ocean floor. I truly believed I was going to die. So this is it. I thought. This is how it ends.

Then I heard Yvette’s voice float across the water. “Don’t fight it,” she said. “Just go with the current, not against it. We’ll pick you up down the beach. It’s gonna be okay, just go with it!”

So I did it. I surrendered. Absolutely terrified for my life, with no other choice but to trust, I surrendered. And moments later, blood pouring down my arms and legs, I staggered onto the sand, breathless. My friends came running over, their faces awash with concern, as a scorching, indifferent sun glared down on us from above. I lay there for a while, warming my bones beneath that bold sky, and finally began to understand, at long last, that sometimes it really is better to just go with the flow of things than to struggle. Eventually, we hopped back into the twin VW Beetles, and headed back to port for sail-away. I went back to the MS Voyager feeling exhausted, but more alive than ever before.

Adventure.

That’s what I’d come for, above all else, and I was having the time of my life—full stop. Most nights we fancied ourselves sailors, lounging in the Officer’s Bar, drinking cheap beer chased by shot after shot of Jager. We smoked our stale Marlborough cigarettes with jukebox music throbbing in the background and played darts. During the day, in various tropical locales, we were more locals than tourists. We visited these places week after week and, in getting to know their secrets intimately, they became our own.

Sometimes we travelled in packs, wild wolves exploring new territory. Other times, we broke off into pairs in search of adventure, Noah’s animals leaving the ship two-by-two. Often, I found time to sneak away by myself for a few hours each port. One of the first crew members in line to disembark, I was always one of the last to get back onboard.

We worked long hours on very little sleep, but we played even harder. Carefree, unencumbered, we tried things we’d never have had the courage for at home in ‘real’ life. And while family and friends waded through endless winters and financial responsibilities, we made good money working on our tans, meeting incredible people, and seeing the world. Lifelong bonds were made in a matter of moments. Saying goodbye as commonplace as saying hello. But we loved each other fiercely. After so much time spent in close quarters, there were no secrets. We were as tight as clams dug outside Bob Marley’s Bar.

(All names in this story have been changed for privacy)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Vision Quest

Some people change our lives forever. Serendipity leads to a chance encounter and, by some miraculous twist of fate, we find ourselves completely transformed by this one meeting, one person, one particular moment in time. Everything is different. Nothing remains the same. Somehow we’re forced to move beyond ourselves and into the realm of possibility, encouraged to reach out, past fear and doubt, and grab hold of our dreams. When we find someone able to see who we are, to look past the mask and intuitively understand what we need, we are gifted with a glimpse of our true selves.

Life is full of these beautiful coincidences that nudge us towards the manifestation of our heart’s desires. It’s up to each one of us to make that connection.

I’m a writer. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old, back when Harriet the Spy was my idol and every story I wrote had to be done by hand because nobody had a home computer. Nobody. I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, adolescent date rape, and violent physical attacks perpetrated by angry lovers. I spent years trying to escape the pain, the shame, the burden and, in the process, lost sight of my dreams and myself. But, over time, I’ve come to realize that sometimes we have to get lost to be found. Sometimes we’ve got to run away in order to come back home again. And sometimes one person makes all the difference.

*

A scorching sun baked the dusty streets of Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It was my third week working in the gift shops aboard the MS Voyager, and our small group of crew members had just finished a fabulous lunch at Evita’s.  As we tumbled out of the quaint Italian restaurant, nestled in the emerald hills overlooking the harbour, Brigitte and I—half-drunk on freedom, fresh pesto and white wine—decided to break from the group and stroll through town. We walked past the dark-skinned women at the pier offering to braid hair for five dollars, and cabbies who jockeyed for position, competing for fares in the crowded parking lot. Up and down the narrow main street, countless souvenir shops sold overpriced trinkets to overwhelmed travellers, all too willing victims in the game. “Wanna stop here for coffee?” Brigitte pointed. “We’ve got two hours to kill before sail-away.”

“Sounds good.”

Café del Sol had a straw thatched-roof and a giant yellow sun hand-painted on the far wall. A grinning bartender squeezed lime juice on the counter as we entered, and laughed at some comment made by a red-faced man guzzling Corona. An ancient gate led to a garden out back where crimson tomatoes dripped from the vine beside lush green beans and wild herbs. The aroma of Blue Mountain coffee wafted through the air, and reggae music danced out of speakers hung above the bar. The place had a certain rustic charm that was hard to resist.

As we stood in the entrance deliberating where to sit, a tall Jamaican with long dreadlocks tucked under a red, black and green rastacap approached from the rear garden. Our eyes locked as he lifted the latch on the gate. A flash of recognition electrified the air between us. Hey, there you are!

I waved and ran towards him, ready to embrace an old friend. He rushed towards me, beaming, equally excited. Face to face, we stopped short. My heart was racing.

“Uh, hang on.” I frowned. “Do I know you?”

“Don’ you work at the shop down the street?”

“No, I work on ships,” I replied. “Don’t you—?”

Laughter. “No, dearie. Not I.”

“Huh. Well—okay.” I shrugged, as a self-conscious giggle escaped.

Brigitte tugged my arm, saying, “Let’s sit over there.”

“Sure.”

I waved goodbye and trailed my friend to a table. Shay, a tiny woman with long black braids wearing a vibrant sundress, came to take our order. Moments later, the warm beverages arrived. Rich, aromatic steam spiraled from the café mocha bowls. Brigitte sipped her coffee and I toyed with my spoon, as we chatted about ship-life and our plans for later that evening.

Brigitte, Kid’s Staff, worked on the upper deck with the guest’s children onboard, playing games, leading parades, or otherwise keeping them entertained and occupied, while on the Promenade, I was a Shoppie, selling expensive crystal figurines to their parents in the China Shop. We didn’t often cross paths unless we were adventuring some port together, or dancing in the crew bar on Deck 5, late at night and impossibly drunk on cheap cervezas.

The tall Jamaican had taken a seat at a table covered in white fabric. A beautiful woman in her thirties sat across from him; a flickering candle and an arrangement of tarot cards lay on the table in-between. Their voices were hushed. I tried not to pay attention as he flipped card after card while the woman listened with rapt attention, a look of open awe on her face. When she left a little while later—practically glowing—I couldn’t help but notice. After making small talk for a few more minutes, Brigitte pointed to her watch with a regretful smile, and said, “It’s time to go. Tug’ll be mad if we’re late again.”

Tug, the ship’s current Safety Officer, was a real stickler for time. The week before, he’d threatened to leave our passports with the Harbour Master if we were  so much as one minute late again. Nodding, I stood up, and tucked a ten dollar tip under my mug. We gathered our bags and headed for the exit. As we passed the familiar stranger again, he caught my eye, so I approached. “Hey, would you do a reading for me one time?” I asked, shyly.

“Sure t’ing, dearie. Andre will read cards for you—but not today. Come another day,” he said, “when the timin’ is right.”

Grinning, I waved, shouted, “Thanks!” and followed Brigitte back onto the bustling street. Arm in arm, we made it back to port, with nearly two minutes to spare.

The first time we sat down and had a conversation, Andre smiled gently and asked, “Why haven’t you been writin’, little pixie? It’s been six months or more.”

Nobody knew that.

“An’ why are you not dreamin’ of your dolphins? What’s goin’ on?”

Impossible.

Initially, I was surprised by the accuracy of Andre’s words, but over time, I learned that that was just his way. Andre knew things that others didn’t know and saw things that others couldn’t see. He introduced me to a stillness inside that I hadn’t visited since childhood, and made me feel safe and at home whenever we were together, like a father or brother would. Meditating in the café garden or wandering remote turquoise beaches on the outskirts of town, we talked about living, breathing, healing. We shared slices of fresh mango, passages of writing, and quotes from our favourite books. Romance would’ve been beside the point—we had a soul connection. I learned a lot from Andre. Most of all, I learned to love myself.

One day, I confided that my co-workers seemed to find me somewhat strange and had taken to calling me Space Cadet, due to the fact that I often sat in a corner of the bar to write poetry instead of socializing. Andre, beside me in a chair in the café garden, smiled.  “Stop worryin’ about what everybody t’inks,” he said, passing me a chunk of watermelon, still warm from the sun. “Nobody knows no’ting, anyhow.” He howled with laughter. “Jus’ be who you are.”

Look in the mirror, dearie. Every day, t’ree times, an’ say ‘I love you’ to you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Until you believe it; ‘til you refuse to accept anyt’ing less. Until you know it in your bones and feel it in your soul: I love you.

It felt ridiculous at first. I’ve never believed in the so-called power of empty affirmations. Standing there, alone in my cabin, I gazed into the mirror and whispered those hollow, empty-sounding words, aware that some distant part of me felt sorry for the “me” who stood there in that bathroom. But the truth was, as I stared into my own eyes, mostly I felt hate. Fear. Then shame rushed in, hard and fast, so I turned and ran up the stairs like I was on fire, back to the bar to fill the endless void.

I love you.

Ha! What bullshit.

Eventually, something shifted inside. There was subtle movement, a slight shift, a transformation. It took practice and a suspension of belief, but after a while, I could meet my own eyes in the mirror. I could stare at myself and feel love for this lost girl. I came home. Into my body. And I stayed there.

The last time I saw Andre, we spoke about dreams. I’d come to work onboard cruise ships as part of a vision quest. An ancient rite of passage in many Native American tribes, the vision quest has evolved into a universal symbol of the search for spiritual meaning, true purpose and personal destiny. Six months into my adventure, I still had no idea what to do with my life. Andre watched in silence as I paced the tiny garden path, my hands fluttering like wild birds, and waited patiently while I expressed my angst in a flurry of frantic words and irrational fears. Finally, I sat down, and he stared into my eyes for so long I decided he wasn’t going to respond at all. Uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat. Then he leaned forward as though to tell me a secret, and said, “Jus’ follow the dream that keeps comin’ back, dearie. You already know what to do—write, write, write! So simple.”

Andre’s laughter echoed through the trees in that sun-kissed garden. I couldn’t stifle a giggle. Even the azure sky seemed to stretch a just a little bit wider. Unaware that it would be the last afternoon we’d spend together, I left that afternoon with a hopeful heart. Five days later, I was on another ship, another journey.

It’s been fourteen years since that day in Jamaica. I’m back on terra firma now, at long last, feet planted firmly on the ground. Over the years, I’ve learned to make better choices. I no longer crave self-destruction and, while I accept responsibility, I refuse to take the blame. I’ve grown to cherish that lost little girl who didn’t value herself, and love the woman she has fought so hard to become. Recovery has been a twisted, winding road—a beautiful, tragic, painful process. But as any writer can tell you with absolute certainty: it’s all about the process. That’s the vision quest.

*

(For my twin flame, Andre, with gratitude & love)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*