This is story #8 in my Short Stories from the Road series. Introduction found here
At the tender age of seven, I went with my family on a vacation to Puerto Vallarta. Being my first time out of the country, I was a wide eyed child attached to my mother’s right thigh observing all the usual Mexican holiday shenanigans. Poor macarena dancing, bartering with taxi drivers, turned down tequila shots for the children, beach-side braids for the females, etc. But perhaps the most impactful event of the trip, was seeing a mother turtle lay her eggs on the beach under the cover of darkness and a tentative Mexican security guard keeping the tourists a safe distance away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fan in me was simply amazed. I proceeded to insist upon my parent’s buying me anything and everything turtle related for the rest of the trip.
Fast forward to Derawan island off the coast of Indonesian Borneo, a tiny island just big enough for a village, with surrounding islands featuring manta rays and a stingless jellyfish lake (one of only two in the world). They were the reason for my visit, but while impressive, neither of those attractions would be my most cherished memory of the island.
Waking up to the sound of waves sloshing up against wooden pillars I could see the water rolling by through the cracks in my room’s floorboards. While the wood furnishings were modest and the flower print mattress thin, for ten dollars a night, the room was quite the steal. It was built on a pier jutting out into the bathtub known as the Sulawesi Sea. Literally already on the water, snorkeling was easily chosen as the first order of business this morning. I grabbed my snorkel and fins, put on my hiking shorts (makeshift swim trunks as I’d lost mine somewhere in Bali) and slipped into the lukewarm water, having it seemingly all to myself.
Visibility was decent today in the five feet or so of water as I began making my way across the sandy bottom toward the reef 75 yards off the coast. A large dark form began to take shape ahead of me and the claustrophobic fear all new snorkelers experience in an unfamiliar environment began to creep up inside me. I attempted to calm my breathing, which echoed loudly through the snorkel tube, and focus on the object as I moved ever closer. A turtle began to take shape. A large sea turtle. The biggest I’d ever seen. I’d have to hold my arms outstretched side to side to give a sense of the shell size. He moved about languidly, munching on the occasional patch of seagrass before surfacing for a breath and moving on to his next bite. He soon noticed me following him and didn’t so much as flinch, continuing on with his graceful and lazy routine, oozing the sense of calm and wisdom of a long life. I noticed the large dented scar on his round knobby shell and assumed it was from a boat’s propeller. A child’s desire, the desire to touch, to have a physical connection with the animal, welled up inside me, but remembering that turtles’ heart rates jump during this action, I refrained, as the fear of causing the magnificent creature any discomfort quickly trumped any personal longing.
Following him along minute after minute, I was impossibly fascinated and ecstatic. He commanded my full attention and I never lost interest. This day, the entire trip to the island, to Borneo, was validated. Everything else would be icing on the cake.
Suddenly, another turtle appeared, slightly smaller in stature, but following the same routine. I decided to shift my attention and study this new found acquaintance for a bit, but as I made this change a third turtle appeared and a fourth. Before I could digest the events, three more became visible straight ahead. I swiveled in place, massive green sea turtles on every side, in every direction. I had stumbled upon an assembly of the gods. For an instant, they all sat there, still, floating in space as the small waves rolled by overhead. The moment is frozen in my memory forever. And then, I remembered to breath. As quickly as it occurred, it was over. They each, one by one, began to disappear into the water’s haze.
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