I turned 18 in the Bahamas. And it was even better than it sounds.
I had been nominated by my high school English and science teachers to a scholarship program which sent students to research projects around the world. In one of the application essays I mentioned my interest in marine biology, and so my luck at being chosen was doubled when they sent me to the frickin Bahamas (another option was an archeological dig…in Fresno).
Andros is the largest island, and has virtually no tourism. It’s mostly mangrove swamps and jungle. The flora and fauna defied belief, and the cultural experience of a town that technically qualified as utter poverty and was filled with the most amazing amounts of happiness, hospitality, and just plain positive energy was absolutely invaluable for shaping my opinions of life on this planet, human nature, and the relative importance of material possessions, “status,” and (what word to use?) gratitude-love-appreciation-joy-amistad.
(The only culture shock I felt was when I came back and found myself in the Atlanta airport. I sat on a mass-produced chair trying not to cry on my mass-produced sandwich while busy busy businesspeople didn’t notice my existence.)
For 16 days I swam in the Caribbean, sampled the chemical content of deep freshwater caverns, played with tarantula and scorpions, tried taking a shower in an afternoon rainstorm, watched heat lighting in the clouds every night, and listened to a local witch-woman talk about voodoo, translated by our professor-guide because we couldn’t understand her thick Bahamian accent, even before the interference of two massive goiters distending her throat, developed after she prescribed herself an herb to counteract a neighber’s curse that blocked her iodine absorption (like two ripe mangoes stuck in her throat).
During the day I swam with ridiculously beautiful tropical fish, and at night ate whichever one of them the neighbour happened to catch that day. I flirted with the guileless intensity of an adolescent. Sitting on the outdoor furnite near Molly, the tan Teaching Assistant who I was sure (for 16 days) was the loveliest thing on Earth. The Aerosmith song “Don’t Want to Miss A Thing” will remind me of that time for the rest of my life.
We all promised to stay in touch, and of course we didn’t. None of them will read this. And now I discover I have forgotten two of their names.
Just a few years later I would think back on my days in the Bahamas with nostalgia and sweetness. And a stab of fear. That I had already had the best single experience of my life. That I had lived my best adventure. That I had already seen my most beautiful new horizon.
I was very happy with my life. Satisfied even. But the idea that I had passed my zenith…
A couple years later I quit my job and left with a backpack for Europe. Now I can look back to that nervous me and smile reassuringly. Don’t worry, littler me, that was fucking amazing, but it ain’t nearly over yet.
I still hadn’t practiced archery outside a 15th century castle called “Kiek in the coq” that still has cannon balls from 1577 embedded in it. I hadn’t hitchhiked in the Scottish highlands. Ridden a camel into the Sahara for 3 days. Built a birdhouse in Belgium (damn right that belongs in this list!) Hugged orphans in Zambia. Hung off the back of a moving chicken bus in Guatemala.
Now I feel a vast mountain of experience standing between now and my days in Santa Cruz. I packed a bag and left some baggage, trailing bits and pieces gradually for two years.
And again I am happy with my life. Satisfied even. But the idea that I have passed my zenith…not this time.
There is so very frickin much more to life than just travelling, but since this blog has already gone long and travelling bits are quicker validated, I may just mention that I have not yet…what? (Something something) elephants in India. (Something something) temple in Thailand. (Something something) in the South China Sea.
As you can tell my thoughts are currently tending rather dramatically southeast…but whether my steps lead to Papua New Guinea or around my corner of Belgium, I have lost the fear that the best of life is over. I must have left it by the side of some road somewhere…