Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Agony and Ecstasy of Vacation (and Life)

If you know me, then you know I feel things strongly. I live a life of ups and downs, of manic joyful periods and crushing lows. I guess it's only fitting that my vacation followed this pattern.

I had the highest of hopes. Four days kayaking Espirito Santo Island in the Sea of Cortez, hiking and snorkeling, camping under starry skies. Then a day of snorkeling in the open ocean with sea lions and two days of whale watching in Magdalena Bay. What could be more perfect?

Perfect sea. Perfect sky.

But things started on a tragic note. On the shuttle bus ride from San Jose del Cabo airport to La Paz our driver hit a dog. I will never forget that moment--the look in the dog's eyes as it doubled back into the road directly in front of us, the sound of the impact, the lurch of the shuttle bus. I will never forget all the thoughts that raced through my head. No. Tell me that didn't happen. What if it's dead? What if it's not dead? Why aren't we slowing down? Surely, we're going to stop. OMG, the driver isn't going to stop. I should demand that he stop. We can't just leave an animal in the middle of the road to be hit by other drivers. I should say something. But no one else is saying anything. What can we even do? If I don't say something it's like I'm okay with him not stopping. I am not okay with that.

At that point I asked the driver if there was anything we could do, or if anyone would help the dog. He didn't answer. A local man riding with him said someone else would probably help the dog and that it was an unavoidable accident. And it was. I didn't blame the driver for hitting the dog, but I blamed him for not stopping. I understand that Mexican culture views animals differently than I do, but if he had hit someone's car he would have been legally required to stop. I accept that most people view hitting a dog different than hitting a human, but surely hitting a dog is not less of a thing then hitting another car. If you injure a living creature, I think it's your responsibility to deal with it, however that may be. My heart still feels heavy at the idea we might have left a terrified, injured dog in the street.

At the hotel, things got better. I met our guides and the rest of our group--a lovely bunch from the US and Canada. We talked about our trip, and the next day we got our snorkeling equipment and took a boat ride to out put-in beach. Before we were allowed to get in a kayak we had to demonstrate the ability to do a wet exit. This involved being strapped into my kayak via a spray skirt, flipping my kayak, and releasing the skirt and exiting the kayak underwater. I have a fear of drowning and I'm not good at opening my eyes underwater so I was pretty terrified. But I survived. So I got to paddle one of these babies.

Sea kayaks

And it was awesome. There's nothing quite like being out in the waves, working the rudder to stay on course, hearing the slap-slap of manta rays jumping in the distance. The ocean is...magic.

Espirito Santo Island

But I still thought about that dog. I thought about it when I was eating, when I was hiking, when I was sleeping.

Deluxe accommodations for one.

On the fourth day of vacation, we finished with the kayaks and took a panga ride to Los Islotes to snorkel with the sea lions. I've snorkeled with stingrays and it was cool, but there were way more people than rays and it was kind of crowded and touristy so I wasn't expecting much.


Los Islotes. Pretty sweet digs.

Sea lion kiss!

It was AMAZING. The geography of the island was otherworldly, like something out of a high fantasy movie. We were the only boat there when we arrived. And there looked to be over 100 sea lions. But still, I kept my expectations in check. The animals were mostly on the rocks and no one knew if they'd get in the water with us or not.

But they did :) And a couple of little ones took an instant liking to me. For the next hour or so, I snorkeled around the rock formations and played with sea lions--swimming back and forth, twirling around in circles, slapping the water. They swam so close to me that I could touch them, and when I looked into their wide cartoon eyes, it was bliss. And for that hour, I forgot all about the dog. I was in a state of pure happiness.

Oh hai.

The next day we went to Magdalena Bay, a protected area where hundreds of gray whales migrate yearly to bear their calves. It was another completely otherworldly animal encounter. We weren't allowed to kayak or swim in the bay, but our group of 12 went in search of whales in our motorized panga boat. The first hour was slow-going, but we made some cute non-whale friends.

Pelicans in Magdalena Bay

But then the tide went out and all the whales flocked to the deeper area at the mouth of the bay. Suddenly they were everywhere. By the end of the second hour, all of us had been able to reach over the side of the boat and stroke the head of a curious whale calf or momma whale. I had touched several and taken a lot of extreme close-up pix.

Extreme blowhole close-up

Giant whale mouth next to my pale, pasty arm.

We returned to the pier, elated--all of us so overcome by getting so close to these majestic creatures. The trip package included two days of whale-watching and I remember thinking: I should skip tomorrow. There's no way it can possibly top today.



Whale flipper


Whale "spying" or orienting itself above the water.

I ended up going back out, though. We were in a small fishing village and there wasn't really anything else to do. I decided to put my camera away and just enjoy the experience. But the next day was not the same. Either our boat pilot was less experienced or the whales were in shy mode. Or maybe it was just the time of day--the tide was high and the whales had more places to hide. Whatever it was, we didn't see much. No whales came to the side of our boat. We cruised by a mangrove area and took pictures of osprey and pelicans. And then we headed back to the pier, a little dejected after the previous day's epic adventure.

And then, just as I was finally starting to let go of the sadness of the dog we hit, tragedy struck again. Our boat slammed into something and several people were thrown from their seats. We hit a whale :( There was disagreement as to whether it was an adult or a calf. I saw an adult just after the impact, but calves travel next to their moms so it could have been either. None of my tour group was injured, but all of us were so horrified at the thought that we might have hurt one of these gorgeous creatures.


Gray whale calf

Our guides assured us that the boat hadn't been speeding. It was no one's fault. Once again, an unavoidable accident. But it left me with so many questions. The tour operations in Magdalena Bay are a huge source of income for the local people. Probably that income helps keep the area protected so the whales can mate and bear their young in the safety of the lagoon. I thought my vacation was eco-friendly. I was kayaking. I was camping. I was pouring money into operations that could only survive by taking good care of their animal populations. But hitting that whale made me wonder if we had done more harm than good. Were we exploiting these animals for recreation? I don't know. But what I do know is this: I would give back all of those amazing animal moments to know that the whale we hit was okay.

So my vacation ended on a sad note, but it gave me a lot to think about. I'm not sure how I feel about touching animals in the wild. In the past I have avoided this (though I have touched animals in captivity), but these whales really acted like they wanted to be touched. Would they be safer if tourists weren't luring them close to boats with splashing and petting? Probably. But what would happen to Magdalena Bay if the tourist dollars evaporated? Would it lose its protection? What's the right thing to do? I don't know. There's so much I don't know. But I probably need to do a better job of considering the possible consequences of my choices.

So there you have it--the agony and ecstasy of my week in Mexico. What was great was very great. I'll never forget the sea lions or the whales. There's nothing more empowering than the feeling of handling a technical kayak in the open water. Just pitching a tent every night and waking up to coffee brewed over a camp stove was its own sort of reward. But hurting wild animals is hard for me. And even though I wasn't driving the van or the boat, I feel somewhat responsible because my money helped make those accidents possible.

It's tempting to try to put this vacation behind me, to forget those feelings of guilt. But it all goes back to my life of epic joys and crushing lows. Sure, I wish the lows were a little less low, but I wouldn't trade the high points for anything, so it seems only fair to acknowledge the entire spectrum. Westerners have a tendency to embrace our happiness and try to let go of or medicate away our despair. Hold on to your moments! As much as race or religion or career choice, the things that move us to tears of joy or sadness make us who we are.