Night Kayaking on the Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico
A Sarcastic Approach to Unexpected Adventures While Traveling
It was spring break of my junior year in high school. My family (consisting of my father and brother, Seth) went on another foreign vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico. About halfway through our week, we had been advised to go night kayaking on the Bioluminescent Bay. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a body of water that has a certain bacteria that will emit light in a pretty shade of blue. This seemed like a cool and potentially "once in a lifetime" type of experience so we signed right up.
At around 7:30 PM, a 15-person, white creeper van pulls up in front of our hotel to pick us up. It happened to be filled with loud, Latino women who were joining us on our little excursion. First of all, the driving in Puerto Rico is absurd as compared to the driving in the States. Yes, there are lanes in which you are expected to drive in between, but I'm not over-exaggerating when I say that it would be a miracle if someone actually did so, and the lanes seem to be at least two feet narrower than those back home. Our driver and the local Latino women are acting as if it's normal, and then there's me, clutching onto our vans' Jesus handles for dear life.
Anyway, as I'm pondering whether or not I'll make it out of this vehicle alive, our driver is telling us fun facts about the country like most tour guides do. He told us about the local food, agriculture, and then eventually, music. This man begins grabbing musical instruments from every reachable place in the van possible while he's driving. He had maracas, a wooden flute, a small drum, and more that he continued to grab. As if that didn't make me uncomfortable enough, he was so kind as to demonstrate how to play them while, yes, still driving. It was no surprise to me that we had made three wrong turns while on our way there.
At last, we made it to our destination safely. Once we got out of the van, my dad and I discovered that Seth was in an insanely grouchy mood. Luckily for me, my dad was in a great mood. Unluckily for Seth, that also meant my dad would be joking around a lot with us. The guides of our excursion had every one in our group, about sixty people, stand in a huge circle. They ask us all who is in a group of three people. No one besides the three of us raised their hands. This meant that we had to ride in a three-person canoe as opposed to a two-person kayak, which wasn't necessarily an issue. Canoes tend to tip a bit more easily than kayaks do, but no one is allowed to swim in the Bioluminescent Bay, so that wouldn't be a problem. (No one is allowed to swim in the bay because the oils in our skin kill off the bacteria.)
Side-note: my dad cannot swim, yet still decides to go, knowing full well that we will be surrounded by deep waters. We had to wear life jackets, which should make him comfortable in the water, but being a 250 lb. man, he doesn't, in his words, "trust the equipment."
When we get into our canoe and start paddling, we can already tell that this will not end well. My brother is in the front, I'm in the middle, and my dad is in the back. The canoe was shaking uncontrollably and it had come close to tipping multiple times in the few minutes we had been in it, and we hadn't even started our trek into the unknown yet. The way this tour was set up was that we all had to paddle in our kayaks, or in our case, our canoe, in a single file line into a canal to get to the bay. There was a guide leading the group at the front and a guide at the very end, and our canoe was somewhere in the very middle. We entered the canal and it looked like something straight out of a Disney film. It was absolutely gorgeous. There were trees on each side of the canal that had branches drawn across over top that blocked any moonlight from hitting us, so it was almost completely dark. The canal was about fifteen feet wide, which was very narrow for thirty kayaks and one canoe to go through at one time while trying to stay in a single file line.
We ended up being too slow for the kayaks in front of us, and too fast for the ones behind us, and slowly but surely managed to lose everyone around us. We were legitimately the only people within earshot. Luckily, there was no way we could get lost since it was a straight shot to the bay, so we kept paddling. We started to lose control of direction, as we were amateur rowers, and would go from one side of the bank, start paddling the other way, then hit the opposite side of the bank, start paddling the other way, and went back to hit the first side of the bank again. We were serpentine rowing, which was obviously not the most efficient method. Like I mentioned earlier, it was very dark. You could barely see anything until it was a foot in front of your face. Since Seth was in the front of the canoe, he would hit the banks first, and since the branches hanging over the water were so low, he kept getting hit and scratched by them because once he was able to see them, they were too close to dodge. My dad and I would know we were getting close to the bank because we would hear a cry of pain from Seth as another branch had hit him in the face. My dad and I think this whole situation is hysterical, especially because we could not steer this thing for the life of us, and we're to the point of laughing so hard that we're crying. Seth, on the other hand, is getting more and more pissed off by the second. The more we laugh, the angrier he gets.
Eventually, we make it to the bay, and it is stunning. It's a wide-open area and the water was glowing so bright, and since there was no light aside from the moon and bacteria, you could see the stars so well. Seth decided to ruin this beautiful moment by explaining to us how we need to "appreciate" him more for "taking the pain of the branches." The more he talked, the more my dad and I were laughing because of how ridiculous he sounded. Between the laughing and turning around to look at each other, we managed to do what we were specifically told not to do: we flipped the canoe.
This bay is very deep so we couldn't touch at all. My first instinct was to get as far away from my dad as possible so that he didn't try and use me as a tool to keep himself from drowning. I knew that he wouldn't drown because he had a life jacket on, so I kept my distance and watched as my brother tried to calm him down and get him to hold onto the canoe, though I was soon distracted because my entire body was glowing from the bioluminescence. While my dad was fighting for his life, he got to watch me playfully and happily move my arms and legs in awe of how I was glowing.
Since my dad and Seth were together, they were rescued and placed in a kayak together. A Spanish-only speaking guide motioned for me to swim to his kayak and helped me on board. I wasn't in the kayak for more than two seconds before he decided to jump out, leaving me in the kayak, by myself, without a paddle. The other groups started their journey back into the canal and I was still without a paddle when finally my knight in a shining swimsuit returned and got on board, this time with a paddle. I thought to myself, "How nice! This guide is going to paddle the whole way back for me!"—I was wrong. It was as if this kayak was lava for the guide because once again, he wasn't on board for more than two seconds, this time leaving me the paddle. I sat there for another few minutes thinking he would return, but sadly, he didn't. I came to terms with the fact that I would have to paddle the entirety of the canal by myself. Did I mention that we were now going upstream?
I catch up to some of the kayaks, working twice as hard as everyone else, when this woman and young son run into me, quite roughly might I add. I apologized to them, though it wasn't even my fault, and what I got in return was this woman taking her paddle, pushing it into the side of my kayak, causing me to get caught underneath the tree branches. I had then gained a newfound respect for Seth. The branches hurt a lot more than I had originally thought.
Against all odds, I made it back to the harbor, steered my way into a few yachts, and eventually back to land. I soon discovered that my brother and dad were no longer speaking to each other because my dad was convinced that Seth flipped the canoe on purpose. We apologized to the guides for what had happened, and we learn that we weren't allowed to swim in the bay not just because of the oils in our skin, but because there were a lot of sharks in the water. I thank God every day that I did not know that then.
In our hotel room, we had two queen beds, and we had been trading off nights with who had to sleep with who. While on the van ride back, it came to my mind that tonight was the night that Seth and my dad were supposed to sleep in the same bed and I audibly laughed. Seth soon traded me his first-class plane ticket home for him getting to sleep in bed by himself for the rest of the trip.
Despite my sarcastic tone, that ended up being the highlight of my trip. I enjoyed myself, for the most part, and I laughed so incredibly hard. I got to do something that very few people can say they've done and will always look back on this event and smile. That right there is an example of what makes life worthwhile.
"Find life experiences and swallow them whole. Travel. Meet many people. Go down some dead ends and explore dark alleys. Try everything. Exhaust yourself in the glorious pursuit of life."—Lawrence K. Fish