Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Travel Blog #10: Terror in St. Lucia
With apologies: I have been asked to keep these blogs a little shorter. I will do this...but the blog that follows is REALLY long because it details true jungle terror on St. Lucia, the port we visited today. I wrote it in our stateroom the same day it happened. So here it is, unvarnished and stark. I hope you enjoy it. I didn't.
The day felt bad from the very first waking moment.
Hands poking at me, fingers stabbing urgently into my skin and a way too fast rise out of deep sleep and into a cold and hostile world.
“Wha…” I stated with what seemed, at the time, commendable clarity.
“The door. Someone’s at the door,” hissed Sheree, who has the unsettling ability to wake up instantly, ready to pole vault out of bed and paint the house.
“Wha..?” I said again, since it was obvious that she hadn’t understood the first time.
“The food’s here,” she said.
I looked at her dully – which, trust me, was the absolute best I could do.
She rolled her eyes and stabbed a finger into my arm, which kind of hurt. “The food.”
I had a vague memory of ordering food for delivery at 6:30. I figured I would be awake at 5:30 and had visualized myself calm, collected and smiling as I greeted the little guy who delivers the food in the morning with a suave smile – not the hairy scary fella in underwear and a t-shirt, shambling to the door, stubbing his toes on everything, softly swearing, moving by pure force of will.
“I’d like to do the zip line today,” said Sheree – and not for the first time.
I made a non-committal noise as I had each time she’d mentioned it before. I don’t even like standing on a footstool in the safety of my own home. The thought of flinging myself off of a tower into sheer space ranks right up with a colonoscopy and a root canal on my “List of Things I Must Avoid.”
I studied my coffee cup as though one of the secrets of the universe was hidden there, shot a look at Sheree and saw her looking intently back at me. I hate that. Avoidance is not an option. So I made another non-committal noise, flashed my most winning smile and was rewarded only with that stony gaze.
“It’s something I really want to do,” she said evenly.
When forced to comment – I’d said that it was fine with me if she wanted to zip-line. I’d also said that I could stay on the ground where the possibility of soiling my own underwear is relatively low.
She was still looking at me.
“Are you coming or not?” she asked.
I frowned and tried to figure out a way to decline without looking like a little girl.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll go.”
There’s a part of me that is eternally aghast at the stupid things I commit to. The internal conversation was instant and vehement: “Are you freaking NUTS? What did you just say? THINK about this! You’ll look like a suck for a minute…but death is forever. You moron. Idiot moron. Idiot moron poopypants. What the hell is wrong with you?”
The internal gibbering continued as I made a show of staring into my coffee cup. But sweat ran tiny ranting rivers under my arms and my smile at my wife lacked conviction.
“Really?” she asked.
I made the non-committal sound again and she rewarded me with a smile.
I don’t actually recall much about the “in between” part. I know that we hired a cab for the day (the hourly rate for most cabs is $25-$30 per hour, by the way) and I was aware only that each moment drew me closer to the zip-line.
I am a pretty big guy. Maybe there’s a weight restriction. I laid all my hopes at the feet of that one possibility and had nearly convinced myself that it would be so when we arrived. The cab driver was an efficient sort, getting us directly in touch with the zip line people, and costing himself half his tip in the process.
“I’m probably too big,” I said to the zip line guide. “Too big, right?”
He looked me over appraisingly. “No, mon. You’re fine.”
I glared at him and considered brandishing my wallet for emphasis. “Are you SURE?”
“If you can get the harness on – you can zip line,” he said with the air of someone granting another someone their fondest wish.
Hope was fading.
“Can I try a harness?” I asked. Already I was defeated. The one faint hope was that the harness would not fit.
“Yeah, mon,” he said. He sounded like a Jamaican instead of a Saint Lucean.
He winked at me in a hollow effort to reassure me. I swallowed.
He returned with a complicated mess of loops, steel thingies and nylon. He handed it to me and nodded encouragingly. I turned it over in my hand, looking dumbly at it. I caught his eye and raised my eyebrows in a “so what now?” gesture.
“I am kidding. I will help you.”
It took squeezing and pulling. We tightened and loosened. We cajoled. Okay: he squeezed, pulled, tightened and loosened and cajoled. I worked to counter purposes at each turn, taking deep breaths whenever it would make the harness tough to put on. If I could have increased the size of my thighs, I would have. The little bastard prevailed and eventually I stood in the harness, feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy jerks the football away.
I looked over my outfit with a sinking heart.
“Isn’t this GREAT?” said my wife chipperly. (Yes. I know “chipperly” is not an actual word. But she did speak ‘chipperly.’ Honest.)
I nodded and wondered: if you fake a heart attack, does it start with the right arm or the left? Maybe I should just sprain my ankle. Maybe I could develop a sudden attack of narcolepsy. But I just stood there like a horse in a too tight saddle.
My bride put her hand on my arm: “You are going to love this, David.”
I smiled and swallowed back the bile creeping up my throat.
The first part of the zip line trip/ordeal/personal growing experience isn’t so hard. You get into a tram that takes you through the rainforest. It’s high. Really high. But you have the illusion of safety because the gondola is made of a sturdy looking metal. (Like that would protect you if the steel cable suddenly frayed and snapped and you plummeted hundreds of feet directly downward to a crashing mashed bloody screaming death.) I held tight to the guardrail, knowing without the slightest doubt that the worst was yet to come.
I took some pictures. I don’t remember them and I think most were out of focus.
We got out of the gondola, the safe precious gondola, and hiked into the rain forest. I truly understand how it must feel for a man walking toward his gallows. Each step is precious. The scent in the air is sweet and life is a wonderful gift. So precious.
“I can hardly wait,” enthused Sheree. Poor girl. At least the Lord gave me love before my life came to a crashing splattery death on some rainforest floor.
The walk ended too soon.
We stepped out of the trees and looked at a platform high above the ground. There was a steel cable soaring through the trees to another platform. They are kidding, right? Someone is gonna jump out of the trees any instant and say “GOTCHA! You didn’t actually think we were going to make you ride that thing, did you? HA! You should see the look on your face.”
The true horror of my predicament settled on me like a blanket when no one appeared..I looked at the nylon harness, listened to the laughter and chatter around me and wondered what in hell I had done to wind up at this exact point in my life: standing on a tiny platform waaaay off the forest floor, seconds from sailing over the rainforest at fifty miles an hour.
I suspect you may be sitting in your comfortable home reading this and thinking it sounds wonderful. Uh huh. It’s different when you are standing on a platform in a thin nylon harness.
The guide was speaking. Sounds were coming out of his mouth but they weren’t making sense. My brain wasn’t processing the information. He was showing us how to zip.
“What did you say?” I asked, my voice sounding far away from me.
The guide smiled: “You put your weak hand here,” he said, clamping it onto the harness. “Your other hand goes on top of the cable. You brake with your palm. Like this.”
The guide rested his hand on top of the cable and gently pressed it against the cable.
“That’s how you stop?” I asked.
The guide nodded. I think he had already identified me as the “problem guy on the tour who just might freak out at the top of a platform somewhere.”
“But don’t brake too soon. If you do, you’ll be stuck on the middle of the line.”
The guide held up his open hand, swaying it slowly from one side to another, to convey the idea of a body trapped on a cable. Trapped.
“Who’s first?” asked the guide.
Hands went up all around me. Morons all around me.
The first person was a sweet little thing from Romania. She weighed all of about a hundred pounds, mostly white teeth and blonde hair. She sailed across the distance like a pixie and landed on the opposite platform with grace. Everyone whooped and clapped.
Just like camp.
I hated camp.
“Next?” asked the guide.
I stepped onto the platform. Yes. It felt like there was someone else operating my body. But I really needed to get it over with. I really did. Backing out at this point would make me look like a coward in front of my wife. Somehow that seemed worse by far than simple death.
I stepped up on the platform and looked down. Bad idea. Have you seen those movies where the camera trains on the ground and then suddenly pulls back with sickening speed? That happened inside my brain. My head snapped up and I looked at cable stretching across the abyss.
Also a bad idea. Looking at anything at this point was a bad idea. Closing my eyes wasn’t an option. I was well and truly screwed.
The guide was strapping me onto the wire. I was thinking of every lethal injection scene from every awful movie. They strap you in so you can’t flop around like a fish frantically trying to draw life out of air.
My heart was beating inside my ear. My internal coward gibbered: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET DOWN GET DOWN!!! You IDIOT!”
“Settle back,” said the guide.
“What?” I said. My word sounded sharp even to me. “What?”
“It’s like you are settling into a chair. Lean back.”
Oh my God.
I lean back, breath coming fast. The cable looks like a strand of silk to me. I feel like an elephant.
“Okay, mon. Let go and zip,” says the guide like he is giving me a great gift.
“What?” I said, stalling for time.
All eyes were on me. I didn’t care. I kept my butt cheeks clenched tight and chewed on my lips like a crazy person.
“Just step off the platform,” said the guide.
“Why?” I asked, panic tight in my voice.
Confusion crossed his face. “So you can zip.”
My nostrils flared. I mean they FLARED. I wondered briefly if there was any way out.
Then the madness came. I stepped off the platform and into nothingness. Seconds later, I sailed into very thin air. Holy freaking crap.
This is the proper time to say that something cut loose inside me – that I cried out in triumph and pumped my fist in the air – and that my companions on the other platform applauded and the music rose and the credits rolled.
All I can say is this: I did not pee in my pants. Much.
My wife was having the time of her life. I wasn't.
There were ten towers – each one a little higher and a little longer than the last.
I was first across nearly every time. There were ten towers. Ten zip lines. TEN.
Around the eighth tower the guide strapping my washboard stiff body onto cables looked at me: “At first I thought you were an eager beaver,” he said with a glint of sudden inspiration in his eye. “Now I see you just want to get it over with.”
I thought something very very unkind.
I nodded and took the moment to ask the question that had been burning in my mind.
“Do you really like this?” I asked. “This whole zip line thing?”
“Yeah, mon,” he replied with the same tone he’d use if I’d asked if the fall really would kill me.
“No. Really. I mean do you really like this?”
I braced myself and prepared to sail off into my ninth potential oblivion.
“Have fun, Dave,” encouraged Sheree. My poor misguided bride of twenty plus years was STILL having a wonderful time. “C’mon! Holler when you go across this time.”
The sentiment was echoed by others on the platform.
I launched myself into the air and zipped in terrified silence across space. None of the previous trips had been this fast. The platform was coming up too fast. I braked too early and just as my feet touched the platform, I started falling backward.
“Help,” I squeaked weakly.
It was in that moment that the guide insured a tip. He caught me and pulled me in before anyone saw.
“Thank you,” I whispered and meant it.
“You’re doing fine, mon,” he said softly. “Almost done.”
“How many more?” I whispered.
“Okay. I can do two.”
So I did.
As we walked toward the tram for the return ride down, Sheree looked up at me, smiling brightly. The sunlight played across her face and her eyes sparkled. She crackled with life. She smiled at me. I smiled back at her and my heart did its familiar two-step.
“Wasn’t that great?” she said.
I made a non-committal sound but realized I was still smiling at my bride.
I have now zip-lined above the rain forest. Am I glad I did it? Sure.
Would I like to do it again? Not while there is breath in my body.