Deborah Jackson

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Islands of Adventure

We knew we would encounter pests while travelling in the tropics. But these particular devils, we never imagined. "Sauba ants that could reduce a person's clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night, ticks that attached like leeches and red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue, cyanide-squirting millipedes and parasitic worms that caused blindness, berne flies that drove their ovipositors through clothing and deposited larval eggs that hatched and burrowed under the skin . . ."

No, this isn't really what it was like. It's an excerpt from a book called The Lost City of Z, which I highly recommend, if you can stomach it. We didn't travel to the Amazon, we travelled to the Turks and Caicos Islands—truly the opposite of what I just described.

There are times when research for a particular novel will drive me to travel to various exotic locations—it's such a chore. Sometimes the travel occurs first and the idea sprouts from the excursion. For example, Mexico, and my novel Sinkhole—something I eventually hope to see released, but it needs more work. I didn't exactly travel to the moon or Antarctica, but I did visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center—a pre-launch equivalent, and Antarctica?—well, I do live in the North, so there are some similarities. Yes, I have been to Holland and England, so the settings may have an authentic feel to them in Time Meddlers Undercover, and of course, I live in the Ottawa Valley—where I did extensive delving. My next project—the YA artistic endeavour I'm attempting—stemmed from numerous trips I've made to a certain location in Florida—an island that captivated me. (If you plug the "c" word into Google, along with the general location, you may just figure out where it is.) As I was doing research for this book, I looked into pirate history, now nested in the narrative. There are certain settings that I have to research without visiting, but most of my tales involve a place that has triggered my imagination.

This trip was coincidental—it was last minute, a recommended location, but still considered among others, and somewhere I'd never travelled to before. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the same pirates who stirred my interest on the Gulf coast of Florida, had one of their first hideouts on an island called Parrot Cay (pronounced "key") in the Turks and Caicos Islands—now home to another pirate—Bruce Willis. Or was he a hero? Or perhaps he was an artificial hero living on a real island of adventure.

Bruce Willis's House

Let me backtrack: The Turks and Caicos Islands are located below the Bahamas and across from Cuba, surrounded by a reef of extraordinary wealth—not the artificial kind—and emerging as a deep emerald and white jewel in a setting of turquoise water—a colour I've never seen in water before.
 Is that really the ocean, I wondered. And what are those dark, murky shapes, just below the surface? (At the time, I was on a plane.)

I mentioned them already, but they're worth mentioning again.
 I like adventure of any kind. If you skim down my blog you'll eventually come upon the rattlesnake in the path (in Florida) that I didn't back away from as my sister kept yelling at me to do. I'm this reserved writer-type who doesn't talk much, but sometimes jumps in the water, even if there are sharks.

Well, this time I jumped because I was getting seasick, but I'm leaping ahead in the story again. Sorry.

We were ushered from the airport into an oversized taxi and the driver took off . . . then stopped abruptly . . . then took off again. He had a penchant for speed, but had to slow down for the speed bumps. He whipped onto the road—onto the wrong side, and I thought we were in England—but I learned this was British territory. Ahhh. We circled numerous roundabouts and ended up at a resort engulfed in gardens and tropical trees. Coconut palms, saw palmettos, even a plot where various cactuses zigzagged through a white-pebbled ground. I saw this enormous, life-like lawn ornament.

Then it moved.

They call it an egret.

                                  Well, we settled in and got wet.

The next day we took a cruise, a snorkelling cruise. We stopped on an island and were attacked by these huge lizards.

Actually they were iguanas—protected on this island because they're losing their habitat and fading from existence. What a shame. Beautiful creatures.

Then came the snorkelling, where we encountered the most vivid display of coral—brain coral (yeah, it's really called that) cactus coral, ribbon coral and broad purple sea fans that swayed in the current. We didn't see any sea turtles, although I wanted to (sniff, sniff) but the fish made up for it. Blue Angelfish and White Grunts (who were actually blue/green) Rainbow Parrotfish and Yellowhead Wrasse, even a Trumpet Fish. I'll let you see for yourself.

Well, what do you expect? It was one of those antiquated underwater cameras you have to wind by hand and we didn't realize you had to wind it back too, so some of the film was exposed. I know, excuses, excuses.

And there was more than one fish, I swear.

We also dove for conch. Afterward, the captain of our "ship" prepared a conch salad, cooked in lime juice—the acid is what cooks the meat—combined with green peppers and tomatoes. Shellfish usually makes my kids gag, but they ate it . . . with smiles. Amazing. "Tastes like chicken," they said. We trolled for sanddollars on an island, came back with broken bits of treasure. Not satisfied, the captain tossed his crew member overboard to dive for real treasure—unbroken sanddollars. Then they were broken in our suitcases. Sigh.

The next day was for relaxing . . . and burning. Oh, you naughty Canadians! Don't you know to wear sunscreen? Hey, we lathered ourselves with sunblock, but did it make a difference to the indifferent Carribean sun? Not at all. "I will scorch you," it said, rubbing its rays together. So, instead of a lovely bronze tan, we returned with splotches of red just. . . about . . . everywhere.

No photo included. You don't need to see this, and laugh.

As we were leisurely burning and swimming and sipping piƱa coladas—the kids are hooked on the virgin kind—we were plotting. This is fun, but we need more adventure. More snorkelling, more island-hopping, more investigating of those incredible reefs.
We did find a starfish in the waters on the beach, though.
But that just wasn't exciting enough. So . . . back to Silver Deep—the boat company—and back to the sea we went.

Yes, this is where the jumping in the shark-infested water came in—or should I say, barracuda-infested.

The first snorkel site was calm, full of peaceful chop, a smooth drop into the pristine turquoise water and a relaxing flutter through the waves, gazing at remarkable creatures—mostly fish—but oddly shaped, or swimming sideways with flapping fins, or a rather large blue-green specimen that serenely swam right below me.

A hypnotic experience.

But our captain wasn't satisfied. We needed to see more. The corals here were just boulder-like mounds. "Let's try another site," he said in his lilting Spanish accent. Our captain was originally from the Dominican Republic, and an expert snorkeler who'd grown up in the waves. He accelerated the boat to a wind-slapping, nearly-catapulting-your-passengers-out-of-the-boat speed and headed around a network of islands (cays). He found us a remarkable reef. Unfortunately, it was in the roughest seas I've ever encountered. The entire boat whipsawed in the waves, I could barely keep my footing, and suddenly my stomach was ricocheting back and forth from my ribcage to my spinal cord, then it decided to bounce upward. Oh, oh.

I had two choices. Stay on the boat and . . . mess up the boat or . . . stuff my feet into my flippers and jump overboard. Not always the smartest thing to do in rough seas. You might find this hard to believe, but I'm not always known for my intelligence. I stuffed and I jumped.

Before I could breathe, a wave splashed into my face, and then I was coughing, but not spewing. I whipped my mask and snorkel on, and, phew, I could breathe. The cool water (that was still pretty warm) splashed around me--rolling, tempestuous waves--but I could breathe, and the queasiness was subsiding. The captain and my husband and kids joined me—but not quite so frantically or inelegantly—and we explored the reef.

What a reef it was—archways and grottos, enormous puffy coral and staggered cactus-like fire coral. "Watch those," our captain warned. Hmmm, gorgeous, but . . . dangerous? He led us right above sharp, jagged coral that stretched nearly to the surface—coral that was treacherous to touch, but the waves seemed determined to shove us closer. And the boat was getting farther and farther away.

Then I looked down. What was that? A fish? A large fish, maybe five feet long, staring at me with beady eyes and, were those teeth?? A long row of jagged teeth. He was framed in a grotto, beneath a coral gateway, just like in those National Geographic documentaries. Watching. Is that really a barracuda? It sure looks like a barracuda.

Can't be dangerous, though. Our captain would pull us away if it were dangerous.

I raised my head above the surface.

"Ma'am," said my captain. "Stay away from the reef. There's barracuda there."

I guess it's dangerous.

Remember the krill in Finding Nemo that said, "Swim away! Swim away!" I swam away, quickly.

But not before B took a shot (with his camera, that is).

Evil barracuda.
These underwater shots don't capture real size, and glinting saw-like teeth.

Well, our snorkelling was becoming quite an adventure. But all good adventures must come to an end. Ours ended when J accidentally kicked the snorkel out of L's mouth. At least she said it was accidental. He received a mouthful of salty surprise, and wanted to go back to the boat . . . which was WAY over there. My hubby took L back to the boat and our captain continued to swim and dive under the coral archways, hoping to chase some fish our way, or find some turtles, or come upon an octopus. J was only too happy to follow him, but I was worried, and getting tired, and looking with longing back at the boat that made me queasy.

Our captain, ever in tune with our needs, albeit, at times, after-the-fact—I'm talking barracuda here—suggested we head back.

The rest of the day we spent fishing.

First my hubby caught seaweed . . .

. . .then Nemo (the captain immediately sliced him open and rigged him as bait for bigger fish—shark bait, oo hah hah)
. . . then an odd angelfish who barked and revealed teeth before we threw him back . . .

. . .then . . . yes . . . we caught a shark. Really, seriously, we did. "A five-footer," our captain told us. But that big fish fought with us and, let's face it, these little fishing lines aren't meant for shark, so . . . just before we brought him to the surface, he snapped the line. I kid you not. This is NOT a fish story.

So I did jump into shark-infested water.

I didn't do much fishing. I was still feeling queasy.

Okay, so the time had come for real adventure. Before departing the dock, I'd asked the captain to take us to Parrot Cay—former hideout of notorious pirates Anne Bonny and Calico Jack Rackman and the still-notorious Bruce Willis. So off we went.

On the way we saw a shipwreck. Could be one of those Spanish galleons, don't you think?

Well, since you've seen Bruce Willis's house, and it really doesn't conjure pirate-like images in your mind—at least it didn't in mine—we'll continue on to the sublime discovery.

An island paradise, a beach of pristine water, rays floating just below the surface and conch shells galore.

Hey, and there's our captain in the yacht.
We returned home a couple days later, but not before witnessing some glorious sunsets . . .

. . . and contemplating the waves . . .
. . . and wanting to stay forever in the haven of Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, within earshot of the crooning waves and the friendliest people on earth, and continue exploring a complex and untamed world of incredible beauty.

But, you know, it's always fodder for novels, or even slapdash blogs.