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.
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*