In this modern world of internet, smooth hybrid vehicles, antibiotics, and smartphones, there is a sense of being safe and protected all the time. Having long ago outgrown my fear of the dark, I find that there are few instances when I experience fear.
I scare relatively easily, so surprises from friends jumping out from behind a book stack or a well-timed scream while watching a movie will elicit a shriek followed by a giggle, but these are fairly mundane instances of an enjoyable kind of fear.
I can count the times I have been truly afraid on one hand. In the past decade, there has been only one instance where I have been overcome by fear.
I was standing at the edge of the water, the crumbling, red brick of an old fort on the most remote island of the Florida Keys creating shadows in the afternoon light behind me.
I had imagined that I would just run into the water like I had thousands of times before in my life, but it seemed that I needed a countdown to increase my courage.
I grew up swimming. My parents ensured I had lessons from a young age; I swam with the high school swim team when I was in middle school, and I took life saving classes.
I considered myself to be part fish, yet here I stood on the edge of ocean water with the most inviting, lagoon-like hues, and I was paralyzed by fear. Terror, to be more accurate.
I could not walk into the water. Something seemingly so simple had become inaccessible to me.
Nothing. I stood stationary at the very edge, so close yet so far away from an experience I wanted to have.
“I can’t do it,” I turned and called back to my partner at the time. He was standing on the cement walkway that encircled the fort.
“Yes you can!” he called back reassuringly.
But I couldn’t. What was wrong with me?
A friend who was traveling with us took pity on me and went in first. I followed suit a few minutes after he went, desperately trying to catch up so that I would be safe in the water.
Once in, I felt better. All of the creatures I had feared were simply beings in a shared environment. I stayed close to the shore but even went through the old pilings and by a barracuda, who floated nearby with deep, barren eyes.
Safe on shore, I remember feeling rejuvenated and proud. I had overcome by fear!
Now, here I am in Mexico with a similar, though less paralyzing fear of the water. I suppose I have grown a little since my visit to the Dry Tortugas.
We arrived at Kino Bay on a Saturday afternoon. After settling in, we wandered around chatting with the instructors, students, and research fellows. When I inquired about swimming in the bay, they all shared a similar version of how to proceed.
Instruction: First, you want to do the stingray shuffle.
Mind of marieke: Eh?
Instruction: Walk slowly into the water, moving your feet gently through the sand. Do not just walk into the water. If there are stingrays, the shuffle gives them a gentle warning, and they will move out of the way.
Mind of marieke: Ok. That is reassuring. Not!
Instruction: Once you are in the water, be careful of jellies.
Mind of marieke: Dear lord, help me.
I am pretty sure I asked everyone I met for a detailed account of how to go swimming and a reminder of how to do the stingray shuffle.
All that was left was to go for it.
So I did. I walked cautiously through the sand while my partner sat guard on the beach.
Periodically, I looked back.
“Will I be a loser if I swim really close to shore?” I called back to him.
“You might want to go a little bit of a way out,” came the response.
Damnit. Not that I cared if people thought I was a wuss.
Shuffle shuffle shuffle shuffle.
There were little holes in the surface of the sand. Were those from stingrays? Memory made me think they might be little shellfish, but I could not be certain. This was foreign territory and I had been spoiled from swimming in the freshwater of Walden Pond.
I put my goggles on and poked my face under the water to have a look around.
Looked ok, so I went in and started moving.
Waves moved me back and forth as I tried to swim alongside the shore. I tried to find a way to look all around me for jellyfish, but it was difficult with the rocking motion from the water.
Soon, it became difficult to see. I started to panic, realizing that my goggles were getting cloudy because I had forgotten the age old trick of spitting in them before putting them on. How would I be able to fix them while continuing to swim without stepping onto the sand so as to avoid startling a stingray and also keeping an eye out for jellyfish.
I tread water and looked to the shore for help. My partner was sitting calmly reading. It looked like I was in charge of my own destiny.
Continuing to tread water, I reached up with one free hand and took my goggles off.
Spit spit. Rub Rub. Goggles went back on just as my arm began to tire.
Plunk. I put my head back into the water and began swimming in the other direction, retracing my glides. Each time I saw a jellyfish, I was filled terror and moved away as quickly as possible.
I swam past my partner on the shore in the opposite direction and then turned around once more. Finally, I headed for shore.
Then, it hit me. How was I to get back onto dry land? What did a stingray shuffle entail in reverse?
Gingerly, ever so gently, I placed one foot into the sand. Then another.
Shuffle shuffle shuffle.
And I was back on shore.
And I was alive!
The very next day, I did a cannon ball into the Sea of Cortez and swam with young sea lion without any fear save for some timidity surrounding the cool water temp.
Vive le bon courage!