Right up until the point when I drowned, it was a pretty good day. I held the tiller of an empty nineteen-foot Zodiac, drifting just outside the surf zone of the Tuamotus atoll of Pukarua, a picturesque ring island of coconut palms, frangipani, and torch ginger with a maximum elevation of six feet above sea level and a population of just ninety-five souls. All around me, blade-winged black and white shearwaters skimmed the wave troughs while onshore my elderly passengers wandered around the village of Marautagaroa gawping at the residents and poking their heads, uninvited, into people’s homes. Behind me, farther out to sea, our ninety-passenger “expedition ship,” the MV Discovery, held anchor. My rare moment of peace was almost over, though. Already, a few of our passengers were making their way to the crumbling concrete jetty and stepping gingerly back into one of the other Zodiacs to take a seat on the edge of the boat’s black pontoons, all facing each other with their backs to the ocean.
Seas were heavy, but the warm air carried a tiare blossom and coconut oil scent that bamboozled everyone into thinking they were having an adventure even though, really, they were bobbing around in the South Pacific on a small, well-appointed cruise ship. In fairness, the trips were educational thanks to a staff of naturalists, anthropologists, and ornithologists who regaled everyone with daily lectures about the places they visited. We also kept passengers active, with plenty of hiking, snorkeling, and birding walks along the white sand atoll shores and jungle clad mountains of the younger islands. But adventure? No. Regardless of what the brochures promised, it’s hard to call it an adventure when you spend most of your time on a luxurious ship, sipping cocktails at an admirably stocked bar and eating decadent meals.
I was the only one having an adventure that day, and it wasn’t my intention.
I’m sure our passengers knew they weren’t participating in an intrepid exploration, but they seemed happy to spend an unholy amount of money for the privilege of listening to lectures, going on long walks in the bug-whirring heat, and being shuttled around in rubber boats. What I couldn’t quite figure out was what motivated me to quit my first day job at a specialty coffee roasting company and leave my wife behind to take another gig as an Expedition Leader, the one responsible for passenger safety and for convincing them the trip was worth the thousands of dollars they’d spent. I was twenty-nine at the time, and most of my friends had already settled into careers, started making real money. They had savings accounts and medical insurance, while I had a beat-up passport and a wealth of stories about suffering food poisoning. They saw the people they loved every day, and I was bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean for a month with a bunch of retirees, five-thousand miles from my wife. They knew how to be content while I kept jumping on planes and heading off to find…what? Excitement? Perspective? Fulfillment? Some weak approximation of adventure that would convince me I was an interesting person? Sometimes I told people I traveled because something was going to kill me, and it might as well be something cool. The truth was, I had no idea why I kept skipping out on real life to wander the planet. But whatever drew me away, it was powerful enough to make me hop on a plane again and say goodbye to my wife for six weeks.
Our route took us from Easter Island to Papeete via Pitcairn, the Gambiers, Tuamotus, and Marquesas, with a stop in Bora Bora. The route was new to me, but I had a lot of experience with the work. The captain ran the ship, but I ran the trip, determining the itinerary and activities, managing the lecture staff, and leading hikes and snorkeling outings. I was also a stand-in naturalist/anthropologist/historian and a regular Zodiac driver. Obviously, an amazing job, but not without its stresses.
I was the focal point of blame for the passengers, the German officers, the Filipino crew, and our international team of well-respected (but fussy) ornithologists, anthropologists, and marine biologists. Satisfying all those factions at once was impossible, so a significant portion of the population of that one-hundred-and-sixty-five-person community was always ticked off at me. Passengers always wanted to spend more time hiking, birding, and snorkeling, but the ship’s Bremen-based officers were focused on keeping to the schedule. The crew were more flexible than the officers, but they tended to push back against my habit of scheduling extra activities: spontaneous mid-ocean stops in the Sea of Cortez to snorkel with manta rays, sunrise landings (4:00 am) at the king penguin colony on South Georgia Island. My little extras for the passengers were a huge pain in the ass for the crew, and they resented me accordingly.
The primary source of my anxiety as an Expedition Leader, though, was the significant risk of passenger injury or death. Taking passengers on hikes across the Antarctic ice or having them climb out of Zodiacs in heavy surf in the Faroe Islands was risky for even young and healthy people, and our normal mix of passengers ranged in age from the early sixties to the mid-nineties. With that demographic in those situations there was bound to be the occasional tragedy. I had seen more than my share.
I’d experienced a passenger death on each of my first three trips as expedition leader—congestive heart failure at the Mayan ruins of Tikal; heart attack while snorkeling at Half Moon Cay in Belize; fatal stroke while anchored off Little Corn Island, Nicaragua—so the risks were painfully real to me. During my first three-year stint as an expedition leader, I’d dealt with so many passenger deaths that the company I worked for asked me to write a manual on how to clear a cadaver through customs in a foreign port. But understanding the logistics of death at sea did nothing to ease the shock of watching someone die, or — worse — seeing the grief their life partners suffered at that loss. As a twenty-two-year-old, I spent three days in Belize City helping a recently widowed passenger navigate the grim bureaucracy of death after losing her husband of sixty years. She was remarkably brave about it, but it is terrible to bear witness to that much grief. And it wasn’t her heartbreak that had me crying in my room at night, it was her courage; it was the realization that someday that kind of strength would be required of me or my wife.
Naturally, avoiding passenger deaths became something of an obsession for me, so my job mostly consisted of making them feel like they were having an adventure while making damn sure they avoided anything even remotely hazardous. Sure, I’d let them snorkel with manta rays, but by God they would wear life jackets while doing it.
It hadn’t been a good trip up to that point. The ship was five days late picking us up from Easter Island which meant we’d miss several stops on the itinerary. Then, a storm hit the first night underway and stayed with us. By the time we got to the Tuamotus we’d banged through a week of heavy seas and had nearly flipped a Zodiac as we tried to bring passengers into the speck of a harbor on Pitcairn Island, where the descendants of the Bounty mutineers still live.
The captain and I were at risk of our own mutiny by the time we finally caught something of a break in the weather at the tiny atoll of Pukarua. The place is a ring island with a sizable lagoon in its center, a huge basin that breathes the ocean in and out with the tides, pushing the bulk of the tidal flow through a manmade channel the Polynesian government blasted out of the reef. The channel allows smaller boats safe passage into the lagoon, but when the tide runs out any waves pushing into the southwest side of the island get doubled up by the lagoon’s outflow. This makes entering or leaving the harbor at that time…well…kind of an adventure.
But I, enjoying my rare moment of solitude in my Zodiac, wasn’t aware of that danger to our passengers. I drifted happily, idling with my face tipped to the sun as I watched the sea birds slip over the waves. I was dressed in my usual uniform: stinky old sandals, salt bleached cargo shorts, and a water-activated life vest–less bulky than a standard life vests, worn around the neck and held down by black straps around the back and between the legs. If you went in the drink, it inflated and brought you back to the surface, or that was the idea. I told myself that this was what I’d come for; a chance to feel competent and in charge, a break from the small miseries of team meetings and Excel spreadsheets, some time to think about why I was so restless at home. In that calm moment, I was relieved to have the passengers off the ship and doing what they were supposed to do—getting sunburned, ogling the birds (and the people) of Pukarua through their binoculars, feeling oh so very far from home. Since the passengers had finally enjoyed a bit of shore time, I looked forward to a pleasant evening free of their angry questions about missed stops and threats of lawsuits related to the truncated itinerary.
So, imagine my disappointment when a zodiac full of passengers rounded the pier, hit one of those huge waves and went airborne, launching a passenger named Heidi backwards into the breakers.
Heidi, a round and smiling retiree from Stuttgart, was, understandably, not prepared for her dismount into the crashing waves. Hence, her goggle-eyed look of horror as she exited the boat, and the energy she brought to choking, screaming, and flailing when her life ring inflated and brought her, at last, back to the surface.
Heidi’s situation was, technically speaking, Very Bad. The seas were maybe six feet, but because the tide was running out from the lagoon to double up the surf she floundered in breakers as high as ten or twelve feet. The boat from which she had so unceremoniously disembarked couldn’t help her because the fully loaded Zodiacs tended to wallow, and another wave like the monster that sent them airborne in the first place would almost certainly flip them, littering the beaches of Pukarua with critically injured senior citizens. The driver, a seasoned Filipino deckhand named Benjie, wisely chose to get out of the surf zone and head back toward the ship, frantically radioing for help the whole way.
Rather than watch Heidi get rag-dolled onto the coral by the implacable sea, I twisted the throttle and rushed in to play the hero.
The first part goes great. I roar across the stormy ocean, salt spray in my face, my poofy hair swept back. Sure, the trip has been a disaster so far, but by gum I’m saving a life! In my mind, hero music.
By the time I get to Heidi, though, I’m riding up the wave backs at crazy angles, the world lost behind walls of black water as I drop into the troughs, and I think This shit is dangerous. The hero music stops, drowned out by the growling motor, Heidi’s yelps as she rises to the wave tops, the boom and crash of big waves annihilating themselves on the reef.
I crest a steep wave and come down nearly on top of Heidi, throw the Evinrude into reverse and gun it briefly so I stop with the bow inches from her. I enjoy a moment of idiotic pride in my Zodiac skills as I flick the engine to neutral and rush to where Heidi, pale and wide eyed, already has a death grip on the ropes.
“I fell out of the boat!” she shouts over the wave roar.
“Yep.” I lean over the pontoon, head down and hips high, to grab her by the armpits and pull her to safety.
She says, “Oof!” but she doesn’t come out of the water.
Her shoulders slide up, the life ring smooshing her cheeks, but I can’t lift her. It’s like she’s chained to the sea floor. I’m genuinely shocked to discover I can’t lift a hundred-and-fifty-pound person out of the ocean while bent over with my ass in the air and my feet scrabbling for purchase on the slippery deck. Looking back, I realize my leverage was all wrong. But in the moment, because I’m an idiot, I blame Heidi.
“You gotta let go!” I holler, tapping one of her white-knuckled hands.
“I was so scared!” she says, as if she’s already safe.
“Let go!” I haul at her armpits again, my hero narrative still demanding I lift her into the boat and whisk her to safety. This Little Man Versus Gravity micro drama lasts just a few seconds. But by the time I realize Heidi can hang onto the ropes while I drag her away from the breakers, we’ve drifted nearly onto the reef, into the heart of the surf break. I sprint back to the motor and kick it into reverse.
“Where are you going?!” Heidi says.
I twist the throttle, glance over my shoulder and shout, “Hang on!”
“You said let go!” she says, keeping her grip on the ropes.
I turn to face the waves. We’re backing into a twelve-foot wall of water.
Have you ever stood in a little rubber boat staring up at a twelve-foot breaker? I can tell you it is very humbling. From a distance a wave like that looks cool; the graphite sea rising up in a wall of shimmering blue; steep, then vertical, then trembling, seemingly still, before curling over to thunder on the reef and rush up the sand with a hushing sigh. From a distance, big waves inspire poetry, garish paintings, the invention of boogie boards. But when you are sliding backwards toward one in a dinghy, dragging a waterlogged pensioner behind you, a twelve-foot breaker looks like nothing but a serious problem.
Realizing how badly I’ve screwed up I make my only half-decent decision of that day. I gun the motor so we climb the wave face at a good clip. Just before my prop cuts through the back of the crest, I jam the tiller hard to starboard. The boat pirouettes, the bow swings out over the top of the wave and centrifugal force whips Heidi out to sea; not far, but far enough. I’m pretty sure she’s out of immediate danger.
Me, on the other hand, not so much.
The wave goes nearly vertical, shoving the Zodiac backward onto the reef. I cling to the outboard to keep from going over the stern. I’m pretty sure it’ll flip and I’ll get smeared across the coral with the boat on top of me. But the bow drops over the back of the breaker, tossing the boat farther up the reef.
The Zodiac is upright and facing out to sea. The motor still works. The prop is in the water and, importantly, I’m not dead. Heidi is nowhere in sight, which I hope is a good sign. Things are looking up! I hop to my feet, twist throttle and head for safety.
The second wave knocks me on my ass again, filling the boat with water.
I repeat this Sisyphean slapstick several times, but with the Zodiac taking on water and the seas so high, I can’t make any progress before the big waves push my bow into the air and dump me back on the coral. I’m in deep shit, but I’m still not panicked. I still can’t imagine a scenario in which I don’t come out of this unscathed. I get back on my feet for maybe the seventh time, and gun the motor.
That’s when a real monster of a wave sucks all the water off the reef. My boat grinds to a stop on the exposed coral, nose angled down. The prop whirls in the air, the motor screams on my behalf. I brace myself, waiting for the sea to do its thing.
It plucks me up, tips the boat vertical and slams it stern-first on the reef. I fall, crack my lower back on the transom, and flip backward into the water.
I sink through wave roar and the motor’s scream. The propeller whirls just over my head, so close the prop wash tugs at my hair. By rights it should’ve pureed my brain, trapped as I am between a boat and a hard place. But luck is (kind of) on my side. I’ve gone overboard at a cleft in the overhanging reef, slipping into deeper water as the Zodiac washes into the lagoon.
Pop! My life ring inflates.
Another wave drives me shoreward just as I gain buoyancy, slamming me into the underside of the reef and trapping my arms and legs. The light-deprived coral here is long dead, but still jagged enough to tear my skin. Now, I’m pinned underwater, snagged on the coral, and highly buoyant.
I try to thrash free, but the water presses me deeper into the gap. If you’ve ever tried to fight back against the ocean, you’ll understand when I say that it is a profoundly demoralizing experience. Until this moment, I’ve had an intellectual understanding of humility. It isn’t a strength of mine, but I can, you know, use the word in a sentence. Now, mashed against a reef, six feet underwater and held in place by billions of tons of ocean, I experience a cellular-level humbling. I realize I’m going to die.
Hard to say how long I’m under water, twitching and bleeding, but it’s long enough to see swirling lights behind my squinched-shut eyes. Holy shit, is that The Light? I open my eyes on burning darkness and take my first gulp of the ocean. Weirdly, I’m not scared. Swear to God, I’m mostly annoyed. I think, I’m dying. This is so stupid.
I wonder what the hell inspired me to step out of my perfectly good life back home just to go on some corn dog “adventure” with a bunch of seniors. I wanted an escape from boredom, and instead I’ve punched my ticket for the sweet hereafter. Huffing ocean water, I can’t remember what I thought was wrong with a quiet life lived on a small scale. Isn’t it enough to be safe and loved? For me, apparently not. And because of that, I’m sucking salt spume under the sea. And I feel, in my dying moment, like a jackass.
Another huge wave rips me out of my little death chamber, takes me to the surface and hammers me onto the coral. I’m going to live!
I can’t dive through the waves with an inflated life ring on, so I’m caught in a brutal spin cycle for a while, waves lifting me high and pounding me on the reef. I hit, drag and roll, hacking up water whenever I surface. Finally, once my arms and legs are sliced and gouged, I’ve broken my thumb and gotten a concussion, the sea rolls me into the lagoon so it can get on with the business of being a relentless force, the cradle of life, etcetera.
On my hands and knees in a foot of water, I puke and cough, then get painfully to my feet. I’m bleeding heavily from punctures and tears all over my arms and legs. I’ve bitten through my tongue.
On the plus side, I don’t see any German ladies washed up in the shallows. Hopefully, Heidi’s back at the ship enjoying a glass of wine.
Three young guys from town splash toward me, shouting. When they reach me, they whistle and shake their heads at all the blood, ask me if I’m alright.
I give them a broken thumbs up. Then I vomit.
They laugh and slap me on the back.
I say, “The woman who fell in. Is she alright?”
A handsome teenager wearing a Bart Simpson muscle shirt points to the ship, which floats calmly a hundred yards out. “They took her back. She seemed okay.”
My knees ache with relief. I lean over with my working hand on one knee, swallowing past a lump in my throat.
When I look up again the local guys are farther into the lagoon, muscling my battered Zodiac back toward the pier. The prop is mangled and the port side pontoon is half deflated, the hard bottom scrapes the living coral with a peevish grumbling sound.
Thanks to my concussion – plus a heady mix of relief, pain, shock, and shame – I’m pretty muddled. But I know now what to do after narrowly avoiding death; I limp over to the Zodiac, trailing blood and shaking all over, and use my good hand to help push the boat toward the jetty. I can at least help clean up the mess I’ve made.
But the question I asked myself under the reef resurfaces. Why did I even come here?
I left the expedition ships for good after my South Seas adventure to work in the coffee industry, thinking I was mostly done with the traveling life. But I kept going. And ever since my little fuckup in the South Pacific, the question of why I keep wandering has dogged me. During my particularly exciting times abroad—confronted by Congolese rebels at a roadblock outside Goma; going blind in one eye in northern Thailand; enduring the worst food poisoning of my life in an empty hotel in Houthi-controlled Sana’a—I keep wondering, Why do I do this to myself? Why do any of us do this?
Travel is not, after all, a de facto good. It is expensive, inconvenient, and – the way many of us do it – sometimes dangerous. Also, there are elements of travel and tourism that look a little grubby if closely examined. But for all these negative implications, I’m not ready to dismiss the urge to ramble across the planet as an entirely corrupt behavior.
For many, the urge to travel is fundamental. A dream and a goal in its own right. Possibly, it goes as deep as our DNA-level curiosity about the world, our origin as foragers and persistence hunters. At some level, travel could be an unconscious attempt to replicate the wandering that was so vital to our early survival. Whatever the case, whatever the problematic implications and downsides of it, human beings keep leaving the safety and comfort of home to explore their world.
We all have our reasons for striking out into the great elsewhere. For some, the physical distance from our obligations gives us license to relax. Others go in for the What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas approach, the indulgence of appetites. Gaggles of missionaries fly to Africa and Central America all kitted out in matching tee shirts and quick-dry pants with zip-off legs, because apparently all the disadvantaged folks in America have already been helped. Still others travel because they want to know culture as a living, breathing thing, and learn through experience.
For me, it’s a bit of all these things – aside from the missionary urge. Traveling, I’m untethered from my obligations and free to be whatever version of myself the place and people draw from me. My Colombia self is a laidback guy who laughs a lot, drinks aguardiente on horseback, and goes dancing. Friends back home, for whom my irritability and impatience are sources of endless amusement, would think Colombia Craig is an imposter who is wearing my face. My wife, who lives with my dumb jokes and horrible singing, refuses to believe that my Japan self is quiet and serious. At home, I’m not a hugger and I’m twitchy about my personal space. But my Uganda self is warm and open. When friends in Kapchorwa and Mbale embrace him and hold his hand the whole time they talk, he does not freak out. Not even a little bit. Clearly, all of those other Craigs are part of me. (So why do they only show up when I’m at least three time zones from home?) And I still love learning about the places I visit. Every trip is an excuse to by books about a new culture, history, and natural environment.
But none of this quite explains why I continue to absent myself from home even though I’ve missed my wife and family every day of every trip I’ve taken. Why, after months and months of cumulative jet lag, several guns pointed in my face by angry men, countless cases of the fiery hopping shits, numerous visits to foreign emergency rooms and one near-drowning, I keep going back for more. Maybe I’m afraid that without my travel stories I’ll cease being interesting to other people. Or to myself. Who knows, maybe I’m just restless and easily bored. Whatever the case, I’m no longer comfortable unless I’m out of my comfort zone. I can’t explain why, at the time of this writing, I’m booked on an unguided trip across Northwestern Scotland on a miniature motorcycle that looks more like a circus prop than a mode of transportation. It’s a stupid thing to do. I can’t wait to go.
My urge to travel is like trying to drink the ocean; you can’t take it all in, but once you try that first sip you might as well have another. My urge to wander hit when I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as an eight-year-old, and I’ve been thirsty for adventure ever since. I still don’t know why I’m addicted to travel, but I know the answer is out there somewhere. To find it, I’ll have to keep going.