My son sits in the palm-shaded white shore of Playa Lagun, the bony, bleached fingers of coral scattered around him, and refuses to go any further. He’s eleven, so I won’t say he’s crying. His bright turquoise swimshirt, SPF fifty-billion, isn’t half as bright as the Caribbean blue water I’m standing knee-deep in, not a tenth as bright as the awless equatorial sky above us, and as he sits in the sand and refuses to put on the fins and snorkel I’ve ordered from Amazon especially for this trip, sunscreen is starting to drip into his eyes.
I may or may not say some very un-vacationy things in this moment, like you’d better, and right now, and get the hell out here.
Diving Lessons // It wouldn’t be a true family vacation without a little bit of drama.
I’ve own the sunscreen, the swimshirt, the snorkeling kits, him, his sister, and myself nearly 2,000 miles, all the way to Curaçao, an island on the edge of South America. I’ve nally sold the novel I’ve been working on for ten years, and in celebration, we are taking the grand vacation.
I’ve planned this sucker to within an inch of its life.
We’ve spent a little time on a resort, then rented a car and a room on a renovated Dutch plantation on the wild part of the island in order to explore for ourselves. A resort is a resort is a resort, but this is another country, another continent, and there’s a certain element of travel that you can’t have simply handed to you in your lounge chair or ordered up from the bar. Playa Lagun isn’t manicured and swept or managed by a hotel, and we’ve been told the best snorkeling is right here. We just have to dive in.
The problem is the lion fish. My son read the government-posted sign at the beachhead, how the lion fish are poisoning the reefs, how we should report them if we see them, that they are deadly. He’s also taken a recent interest in the horror films of the 1980s, so the word deadly has a particular graphic presence for him. He’s skipped over the fact that the fish are deadly to other fish, invasive, and bad for a country whose tourism is based in the health of its reefs. Gentle waves lap at his outstretched legs, bright green iguanas scrabble the rocks behind him, the world is impossibly, beautifully blue. But the water, he’s convinced, holds terrible danger.
When I was his age, I remember looking over the side of a Boston Whaler my father had rented from a ramshackle marina in Abaco, into the Caribbean. There were giant sea stars on the ocean floor that seemed close enough to touch, like you could just reach over the edge of the boat and grab them. We sent my father down again and again, his lungs full to bursting, to bring them back to us, big as garbage can lids, and we turned their bodies belly-up to watch the thousands of feet undulate and struggle in the air.
I’ve brought my kids to this moment in part because of that one, and the time I swam with sting rays in the Caymans, walked into the water at some mile-marker beach, dove off boats into schools of grunts and snapper, jellies clear as glass. This ocean, and all the strange and vibrant things it holds, is part of my imagination, my sense of adventure. And I want to share it with them now.
That said, I’ve already screwed this trip up plenty. I’ve left my driver’s license back in Greenville (as it turns out, you actually do need to drive in a foreign country) and our back-channel car rental took three days and a big tip to Patrick back at the resort. Lingering manuscript work cast a shadow over our first few evenings, and finding a hot Internet connection was the usual chore. And now I’m on the cusp of losing my temper with a kid whose government-induced fear is normal and natural and just another part of not-the-plan.
I look over my shoulder into the lagoon, a bowl of volcanic cliffs, their faces extending under the waterline, their nooks and shelves full of anemone and urchin, brain coral and sea fans, parrot fish, angel fish, trigger fish, grouper. My daughter is already out there, mask down and fins up. Six years older than her brother, she’s headed to college soon, into whatever wild that’s going to be. I can see how far she’s getting from us. I turn back to her brother, better prepared to understand.
There’s a woman sitting next to him in the shallows. She wears a serviceable brown bathing suit, fins at her side, and she’s showing him how to spit into his mask. She points to the disposable waterproof camera looped around his wrist (another item lugged all the way from SC) and says he’ll have to be quick with it to catch pictures of the fish. Her husband sits beside her, fiddling with his wildly sophisticated underwater equipment, encased in a plastic box. They’ve come all the way from Canada to go snorkeling here, and yesterday they saw turtles, and a seahorse, and a couple different kinds of shark.
King of the Sea // With vibrant fins and venomous spines, lionfish are a harmful, nonnative species in Curaçao. Divers and snorkelers alike are encouraged to hunt, and consume, these destructive invaders.
What about the lion fish, he asks.
They’ve seen lion fish all over the island. They’ve been here almost two weeks already, snorkeled lots of beaches, and lion fish are everywhere. Kind of beautiful, with their uttery brown fins to make them look bigger than they are. She talks about camouflage and design, the nature of predators. It’s good to be careful. This ocean is not our home, and what we find has not invited us.
But lion fish, she says. They’re sooo tasty. She winks at me.
My son laughs. And then he spits into his mask, pulls on his fins, duckwalks out to where I stand. The pressure of the moment has lifted, the face-off we were having slipped away in the context
of other people. Isn’t that the point, really, that this is not our home? For better or worse, for whatever is out there. It’s good to be careful, and we go.