The Light at the End of the Tunnel

May 22, 2008

One of the first scary movies I ever saw was “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” The beginning of that spine-chilling story showed a bird resting on a branch by the water’s edge. It was truly an idyllic scene until a large lizard-like scaled hand suddenly emerged from the black depths and snatched the bird. As quickly as the hand appeared, it, and the bird, were gone. It was a scene that produced many gasps of fright in the audience. Mine was one of the loudest.

I honestly don’t recall if that experience was before or after I nearly drowned in a bay on the coast of New Jersey. It really doesn’t matter which came first. The combination has left me fearful of any water where I cannot see the bottom. In other words, if it isn’t a bathtub, swimming pool, or Jacuzzi, I’d rather not be in it.

I share this information to preface the experience my bride and I shared with Richard and Glorín, our good friends in Puerto Rico.

We only had four days to spend on the island, so we tried to pack in as much variety as we could. Normally, when one of the planned activities involves swimming or boating, my enthusiasm leaves something to be desired. However, this time found me more than eager to be part of it. The planned excursion was a kayaking trip to a lagoon where we would see bioluminescent plankton. I had heard of this phenomena and my curiosity kept me from even thinking of my fears… until we got to the launching area.

In case some readers are unfamiliar with bioluminescent plankton, here is a short explanation. In only five places on earth (three in Puerto Rico), living organisms in the water give off a glow similar to that of a firefly, or lightning bug. These organisms are microscopic plankton and, when disturbed, they create light through a chemical reaction. The tiny organisms, known as dinoflagellates, feed on blue-green algae that flourish in salt-water lagoons, making their concentrations higher than in regular seawater.

The scientific name of these tiny creatures is Pyrodinium bahamense. They are part animal (they move around) and part plant (they photosynthesize sunlight using chlorophyll). How or why they glow is not known for certain. They emit a bright glow whenever they are agitated, or moved around. As a single cell organism, this built in defense mechanism can make them seem as much as five hundred times larger to predators. Thus, it is a good guess that the glowing is simply for protection.

I had read about these lagoons in Puerto Rico and was fascinated by the idea of being able to see the outlines of fish swimming through the water even during the darkest of nights.

My anxiety began to replace my fascination when we stopped at a fancy resort hotel for late afternoon refreshment. Our main reason for visiting the resort was to use their restrooms to change into our bathing suits. The anxiety quickly changed to dread when we arrived at the water’s edge and began preparing for the trip. We were fitted with life vests and asked to sign the typical waver that states that, regardless of how you died during the outing, the kayaking outfitters should never be held responsible.

I felt some apprehension when our guide told us we would be free to jump in the water and swim with the plankton, but I was fairly confident that I could balance our kayak and stay out of the water even if Lu decided to take a dive.

The panic really set in when we were told we would have to paddle though a channel lined with mangroves. By now the sun had set and there was no moon. To make matters worse, I was thinking the channel would be a straight line. It never occurred to me that the channel would be a meandering stream with more twists and turns than Road Atlanta.

Carlos, our guide, was in his own kayak. He had a red light on his arm and a green luminescent coil on the back of his boat. Each of our boats had a similar green “light”. Our party consisted of four kayaks. Carlos, a young couple from Kansas, Glorín and Richard, and Lu and I. Our trip began by crossing a reasonably well lit cove dotted with numerous moored boats, but it wasn’t long until we disappeared into the mangrove forest. Thoughts of a creature lurking in the black waters helped me concentrate on the red light hanging from Carlos’ arm.

Carlos had assured us that there were no poisonous snakes hanging from the branches of the mangroves. He also assured us that the water in the channel was less than three feet deep. Glorín, a native of the Enchanted Island, had earlier told us there were no poisonous insects and virtually no wild animals on the island. So there was nothing to fear but fear itself. That, and the low hanging branches that we frequently hit with our paddles.

Paddling was another challenge we had not considered. Kayaking appears to be a smooth and swift means of transporting oneself across a body of water. For Carlos, that is exactly what it was. For the rest of us, it was a totally different matter. Carlos told us all we had to do was get into a rhythm where both partners in each boat paddled on the same side at the same time. If we wanted the boat to go to the left, we simply paddled an extra time or two on the right. If we wanted to go to the right, we simply reversed the procedure. Yeah, right!

It seems that whenever Lu and I got into a perfect rhythm and had the kayak propelled at a decent clip, we’d either clip an overhanging branch, or go directly into the roots of a tree. In open water, we were all going from one side to the other as Carlos continued on a straight line to the next turn that only he knew existed. It became a real challenge to keep up with our guide who often seemed oblivious to the struggling kayakers behind him.

Do I need to remind you that the only lights were the little red light on Carlos’ arm and the green coils attached to the rear of each boat? Pitch black was given a new meaning.

About halfway through the channel, my back was reminding me that I don’t get enough exercise. As a result, I discovered that, being in the back seat of our kayak, I could contribute more to the cause by using my paddle as a rudder. It was then that I took the time to watch Lu’s paddling more closely and realized that with each stroke, she left a stream of greenish light in the water. I told her we didn’t have to get to the middle of the lagoon to see the wonders of nature. We were both equally fascinated and finally realized what Carlos meant when he had asked if we saw the stingray pass beneath us.

The couple from Kansas and Lu and I took turns being the first boat behind Carlos. Glorín and Richard, meanwhile, were putting their relationship to the test as they rammed into one mangrove after another. Finally, they lost sight of Carlos’ red light and our green lights. We eventually got Carlos’ attention and he went back into the maze to find them.

After about forty-five minutes we emerged into the wide lagoon. It was then that I noticed that the water that had been splashed into our boat was sparkling.

We pulled the kayaks together and Carlos gave us the lecture to explain what we were experiencing. Carlos said the magnitude of the luminescence varied from season to season and on a scale of one to ten, we were witnessing a five. He also said that if we filled a two-gallon bucket with water from the lagoon, we would capture about five hundred thousand of the microscopic creatures.

The brilliance of that “five” was astounding. One can only imagine what a ten would be like. Everyone but Carlos and I were soon swimming around and making comments like, “It looks like fairy dust all over my arms and legs.” Or, “It’s like millions of tiny Tinkerbelles.”

All too soon we had to head back through the mangrove maze. I’d like to say that we were all better kayakers by then, but that wouldn’t be anywhere near accurate. Richard and Glorín continued to find every root and every tree. Meanwhile, despite my best efforts, Lu continued to paddle us close enough to the trees that my paddle got tangled in the branches as she feigned innocence. The couple from Kansas seemed to have shown the most improvement, or at least managed to be less vocal than the older married couples. Carlos simply continued on his own merry way.

I’m glad to say that the creature from the black lagoon never appeared, although I did see a fish swimming through the plankton. It is something I will never forget. It was like watching a phantom gliding through the depths. I’m elated that I was able to curtail my fears long enough to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience. I’d recommend the trip to anyone fortunate enough to visit Puerto Rico.

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Pictures of Puerto Rico

May 22, 2008

On our recent trip to Puerto Rico, my bride and I took 173 pictures. Most of them came out beautifully, but they don’t begin to capture the essence of a land and its people.

In the first place, it is difficult to attach a label to Puerto Rico. Being a “possession” of the United States, it is not a sovereign nation, and it is not a state. It’s something that has been caught in between. I’m left referring to Puerto Rico as a “land.” That term seems woefully inadequate.

Prior to its being “discovered”, the island had been inhabited for untold years by the Taíno Indians, who lived in small villages. These peaceful people had a limited knowledge of agriculture. They lived on domesticated tropical crops such as pineapples, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Their diet was supplemented by seafood.

Christopher Columbus landed on the island, which was populated by as many as 50,000 Indians, on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The Indians who greeted Columbus made a mistake by showing him gold nuggets in the river. They made a bigger mistake when they told him to take all he wanted.

The city of Old San Juan sits atop some massive rock formations. Because of this, the Spaniards were able to build even larger fortifications and Puerto Rico quickly became Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean. In the mid 1500s, a wall was built around the entire city.

The portions of the fortifications I found most interesting were the guard towers that seem to hang out well beyond the wall. Made of stone and concrete, I’m left wondering how they have stood there for centuries. The inside of the guard towers consist of three or four narrow windows for a soldier to fire upon the approaching enemy. I examined some of the guard stations more closely, but only the ones that were planted firmly on the ground.

Over the centuries, the English (on several occasions) and the Dutch tried unsuccessfully to capture San Juan. Sir Francis Drake went so far as to sneak into the harbor at night and set all the other ships on fire. By doing so, he gave the Spaniards plenty of light to fire their cannons at his fleet. Drake was fortunate to escape with his life.

According to legend, a priest, along with the women and children of the town, thwarted yet another British attack when they carried torches along the top of the walls. The naval officers feared that the men of San Juan were preparing to fire on them and quickly set sail for the open seas. A sculpture commemorating this event is found near the Casa Blanca (White House) that was built for Ponce de Leon.

In the late 1800’s Puerto Rico was in the process of negotiating its independence from Spain. During the same timeframe, Cuba and the Philippine Islands were making similar efforts. Spain was dragging its feet and open revolt was occurring in Cuba and the Philippines. Puerto Rico stuck to peaceful negotiations.

Spurred on by exiled Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Pilipino citizens, U.S. newspapers began an onslaught of stories denouncing the Spanish government. Soon, U.S. citizens were demanding that the U.S. government get involved to help the islands gain their independence. Then, the Maine, a U.S. ship, was sunk in the port of Havana – the result of a Spanish mine.

It took only a matter of months for the U.S. Navy to destroy the Spanish fleet and occupy Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. While they were at it, the U.S. also laid claim to Hawaii, Guam, and Wake Island. All of these islands were seen as key military posts for refueling and refitting American ships.

During the short war, Congress passed many resolutions. One of them denied any intention by the U.S. to exercise jurisdiction or control over Cuba… except in a pacification role and promised to leave the island as soon as the war was over.

The one and only time the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico fell was during the early stages of the Spanish-American War. Of course, the U.S. Navy had considerable help from the Puerto Ricans who wanted the Spanish soldiers ousted.

Since then, Puerto Rico has been called variously a Protectorate, a Territory, and a Possession. They have been called lots of things, but never a Nation. They almost had their independence, but it has yet to become a reality.

Today, most of the Puerto Ricans consider themselves Americans. They have a representative in Congress who is allowed to speak on behalf of the island, but he has no vote.

They have three political parties. One of the parties wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. A second party wants Puerto Rico to be granted independence so it can become a nation. The third party wants things to stay as they are.

If I were a citizen of Puerto Rico, I’d join one of the first two parties. Either statehood or independence would be better than what they currently have. The laws and agreements with the U.S. are very restrictive. For example, merchants on the island cannot deal directly with suppliers from other countries. All goods must be purchased through the U.S. That means everything costs more because of the additional shipping costs.

But the majority of the people don’t seem at all upset with the arrangements. Obviously, the blood of the peaceful Taíno Indians has intermingled with the Spaniards, black African slaves, and numerous other races that have settled there. Perhaps it’s the heat; who wants to get all angry and upset in the hot and humid tropics? It’s better to relax and not worry.

I can guarantee that the heat of Puerto Rico would keep me from losing my temper. I’m a person who perspires with little or no provocation. During our stay in San Juan, the temperature never fell below 90º and the humidity was probably in the 90% range. It rained almost every morning and the sweat poured off me even when I was just sitting and enjoying the company of my bride and our friends. I had to change shirts at least three times each day.

But picture this: Even with the heat, I would go back to Puerto Rico in a heartbeat. Lu and I thoroughly enjoyed the island and all the people we met.