Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Swim with the Dolphins

My brother and I climb down the ladder, shivering as we submerge ourselves in the water. The Caribbean water is warm as oceans go, and maybe the shivers are more excitement than chill. In the pool to the south of us, four dolphins leap into the air, twirl above the heads of half a dozen visitors, and dive. The visitors squeal and clap.

The dolphin trainer blows his whistle and waves his hands. “Swim to the middle of the pool,” he says, “turn around, and face me.”

The six of us—Leone and Lyle, Kathleen and Bill, Tom and I—obey his command. Sunlight shimmers on the water. To the left and right all I can see are bright eyes and smiles. The water laps against our life vests. I hold my breath. Behind me I hear a splash. Water sprays down, and I glance up. Arched pink bellies gleam like morning sky.

During the next hour we are kissed by Box (pronounced Bush) and Nuk. We hug them. We dance and sing with the dolphins. We play games. We splash them; Box and Nuk splash back. The dolphins push us across the pool, lifting us until we are airborne and we fly across the water. The dolphins click and squeal; the humans clap and cheer.

These creatures are well cared for and loved by their trainers. The affection between them shows in gentle flicks of water that sprays the dock, in eyes wide open and curious. They swim figure eights through the line of visitors bobbing in the water and patiently allow us to touch their sleek, firm bodies.

Somewhere I read that dolphin females choose when to become fertile. Many dolphins and whales don’t breed in captivity, but at Delfinus, five calves have been born. A record. One that indicates the dolphins are content and at peace with their lives.

Allied with the word’s most successful hunters, they no longer fall prey to fishermen’s nets. They no longer wander through oil slicks or islands of garbage floating in the sea. In exchange for tricks and human touch they receive the 40 to 60 pounds of fish they need to consume each day. They seek out human company as well as that of their own kind. They are affectionate and playful.

The scars that mark Nuk’s back and dorsal fin are a testament to their power. One-on-one, in the water that is their home, they have the advantage. They choose not to use it against us, even though—based on their brain to body size ratio, they may be intelligent to understand the harm we wreak in the oceans of the world. I wonder if they have sacrificed their freedom to teach us to love what we do not understand.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Off the Beaten Track

One of my trips to Brazil took me to a little town called Joinville in the Santa Catarina region of the country. When I asked the concierge what sights the city offered to enliven a Sunday afternoon, he wrinkled his nose. “Joinville isn’t really a tourist destination,” he said.

Sometimes those are the best tourist destinations of all.

You find yourself acting like a funky-looking local. You wander the mall, eat at a churrascaria, visit the local zoo-park. The concierge has warned you the place doesn’t have many animals, but you find animals that don’t reside in your local zoo. You watch mothers bounce their babies in their arms and you learn the Portuguese word, arara, for a bird that looks like a parrot but maybe is a distant cousin. The mother says this over and over: A-ra-ra, a-ra-ra, a-ra-ra. You learn with the baby. You don’t know the word for the bird in your own language, but now you know it in a foreign language. There’s no translating. Now you speak Portuguese. Disney World has never done that for you.

You follow couples and families and gaggles of teenagers, winding into deep green rain forest, staring up at trees with leaves like fans. You look at the plants growing beside the road and recognize some you have blooming in pots set on your windowsill. Here your potted plants grown to the size of trees. You only know two or three words in Portuguese so you can’t ask where you are or where you’re going. You can’t check how long it will take to get there or what to expect when and if you arrive. You can only live in the moment, be in the moment, experience what is, without expectation.

At the end of the road, cars line the shoulder, umbrella shaded stands sell lemonade, bottled water, and Guarana, the Portuguese version of Mountain Dew. You hand over one of your bills, five reais, and you hope the coins that the woman drops into your hand are the right change because it’s embarrassing to peer at each little coin. You tilt your head, your eyes rolling up toward the sky as you try and count each piece of copper and silver to see if you’ve got the right change back. You take your drink and climb the spiral stairs to the top of the world where you can see rolling carpets of green, rivers spilling into the sea, mountains swirled in mist, the sun slipping between blue sky above and blue water below. Looking straight down makes you dizzy, so you peer at the horizon and know that tomorrow will find you, right where you are, wherever you are.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Into Africa

My first time on the African continent and the sixth of seven continents to touch down upon. One to go (Australia), but in the spirit of staying in the moment…
My favorite memory is of the Men in Black that stood stiff-backed and ominous inside and outside the hotel in Casablanca, the cords of their white earbuds trailing into the pockets of their dress shirts and covered by black suits. (Sorry, no pictures.)

They lent a true sense of adventure to the trip, though Morocco is one of the safer countries for US citizens visiting Africa. They also saved me from being price gouged by the red-taxi drivers, though on return trips to the hotel I benefitted from no such protection.

Visitors to Morocco ought to choose a city other than Casa Blanca if they want a true sense of the country, but I never ventured farther than the mosque, Rick’s Café, and the medina (the old market) just across the street from the hotel.
If you ever visit, be sure to drop by the mosque, but if you want to go inside, check the hours because there are only a few hours on specific days when visitors are allowed inside the mosque. But even from the outside the architecture is stunning and the tower rises above all the other buildings in the city.

Women are expected to pay particular attention to their manner of dress when they reach puberty, but this can be interpreted in many different ways, from a simple head covering to leaving only the hands visible.

Casablanca is a cosmopolitan city situated on the Atlantic Ocean, with lots of sun, good restaurants, an old and a new medina, a modern (possibly the most modern) mosque, and the unforgettable Rick’s Café from the movie named after the city. But my favorite memories continue to be the red taxis and the Men in Black.