“Fine, just lost my mask.” Fortunately, it has snagged on my gnarled left hand as I plummeted off the side of the boat. He swam over while I pressed the mask to my eyes with the back of my fist. He gently fits the strap behind my head. “Great, thanks” trying for my most cheery, everything is under control voice, I sputter between the salt, “this is going to be awesome.”
There is no anonymity on a small island. Upon arrival, nearly the entire population of Little Corn, Nicaragua had come to meet our panga. Islanders and expats all crowding the sole sidewalk as the boatmen lift me like a side of beef onto the dock. They are here to get a look at the disabled person who came to dive. “What happened to you, where is your family, do they know you’re here?” The islanders want to know. The dive shop crew stops everything they are doing and grill me on my previous diving experience and what my expectations are. Even most of the other tourists spend the week waving me over with a friendly, “You’re that diver, aren’t you?” In Los Angeles no one would show this much curiosity and concern for a stranger, possibly not even for their own family. On Little Corn it seemed that whatever the words used, the message is a mixture of ‘we want you to be well,’ and, ‘we’ve never seen anything like you before.’
This sweet earnestness hit my surly, citified heart like a left hook. Months of planning had gone into the trip, I’ve done the disabled two-step. Contacted the dive shop, read every travel review that trip advisor has to offer, talked one of my most gung-ho, outdoorsy friends into coming along. Still, when boarding the plane I assumed a fifty-fifty risk that I wouldn’t physically be able to make it to the island, or upon arrival I would find the jungle trails impassible on my mostly immobile, arthritic ankles and need to turn back to civilization. Never, never, never in my wildest neurotic fantasies had I considered that a small, dense population leads to each individual mattering immediately in such a personal way.
I’m a connoisseur of failure in much the same way that dogs appreciate the odors issuing from fire hydrants along their walks. I’ve failed treatments, classes, relationships and a myriad of hobbies, jobs and outdoor pursuits. Each experience with its own texture and rhythm. My restless nature constantly contradicts every arthritic joint in my body. This friction has built a tough skin around my heart to the point where it’s a natural matter of course that I’ll take ten times as long to learn a new thing, be fifty times worse, and five hundred times more stoked on small milestones than an able-bodied counterpart. It’s easier to be somewhere beautiful and end up reading a book all day while your friends tear it up than it is to stay home feeling safe and left out. Being disabled since infancy has left me with an acute hate-hate relationship with “safe,” and a very personal definition of success. Essentially, if I’m out of the house and seeing something new, I win.
SCUBA was actually relatively easy to pick up, what with it’s lack of gravity. Still, my inability to reach much of my own head made it such that I require a specially trained diver to accompany me. What I hadn’t accounted for on this trip was that I could possibly bring a whole island of strangers along for the ride.
In L.A. I’m feral, anonymous, invisible. That gimpy lady who hangs out at coffee houses or limps along the local mountain trails. Possibly I’m presumed homeless if anyone takes the time to presume. This allows me more personal freedom than anyone I know. I opt in or out of activities and responsibilities on whim. Realizing that I don’t fit in anywhere allows me to fit in equally well everywhere. Viewing life as a choose your own adventure story, flitting from one thing to the next. In a city like L.A., trying a new thing and putting people at ease requires two things. 1. Show up. And 2. Immediately start asking people about themselves. This second step will nearly always ensure that people are comfortable and won’t ask hardly any questions of you. Until Little Corn I’d had no idea how much of myself I’d been keeping hidden in this way.
Until the island all of my adventures and failures had only required personal effort, careful crafted to involve no one but a handful of trusted friends or family. Alerting as few as possible that I was doing anything, asking nothing of anyone. Comfortably anonymous. Until Little Corn, community was a word squarely outside of myself. In planning the trip I failed to think of what I was asking of the dive master. “Gee, would you mind assuming responsibility for the livelihood of a complete stranger with a rare medical condition in an atmosphere where verbal communication isn’t possible? Thanks, that’d be super!” I never considered what his calm, “sure, no worries,” reply would actually entail.
In the water, mask and gear finally in place, the dive master asks if I’m nervous. “Nope, just excited,” I flash what I hope is a convincing grin and shove the regulator in my mouth. Grabbing the line we head downward into the warm turquoise toward the reef below. A chorus line of ten color changing squid hover before us, turning side to side, glimmering like fairies. Descending further, a friendly nurse shark cruises by, checking us out. Corals of every imaginable shape and description sway with the current. A moment of transcendent perfection. The dive master flashes the hand signal for “O.K.?” and I raise my fist in agreement.
A wave of pure, naked gratitude washes over me. This is so far from anything I’d let myself believe possible. So earthshakingly successful as to feel effortless and indecently privileged. The dive master reads my body language and helps only when I need it, relaxing effortlessly into his role. The captain of the ship plucks me gently out of the sea when we’re ready to head back. My friend isn’t slowing to let me keep up. This doesn’t feel like my life, and my life is already pretty awesome. This is nirvana, zen and heaven getting together and bearing an experience baby just for me. This is beyond the beyond. I’m gobsmacked.
Walking back to the cabana, the islanders smile and ask, “good dive?”