Photos and story by Jenie Skoy-Poelzing
A Hindu devotee rings a bell to wake us at 5:30 a.m. for santsang: meditation and chanting. I stumble from my tent into the foliage to join my new friends where doves coo as we sit cross-legged at Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas.
“Jaya Jaya Guru, Jaya Guru Dev,” I chant the ancient mantra meant to help me find my guru. This, I am told, is the pathway to bliss, but I’m not so sure: my tailbone and back are killing me and my legs are going numb. My body feels broken. Finding a guru is the last thing on my mind, I just want to feel better. This is the reason I came to the Bahamas, to find healing.
Little did I know, the universe heard my feeble chant; recruiting some unlikely gurus to teach me what mere morals could not.
But the ashram was just a two-day stint; my Bahamas vacation was just beginning. I planned to stay in the country for three weeks, bypassing the stereotypical spots: cruise ships with too-tan people sipping rum in speedos and getting fat on fried shrimp. My friends, Nathan and Wendy Tueller, seasonal fishermen in Alaska, sail every winter in the Bahamas and invited me to live on their catamaran. This season they were bound for the Jumentos Cay and the Ragged Islands, over pristine coral reefs and past remote islands where only wild goats and lizards lived; where conch shells lay bleaching in piles as thick as bones in an upturned cemetery.
The wild Bahamas, I imagined, would be the perfect antidote for my weariness of city life. My body was a mess in all those ways symptomatic of our device-obsessed culture: sore neck, carpal tunnel and a stubborn numbness down my legs — probably due to hunching over my laptop (I was a writer, so it was a hazard of the job). I’d also been feeling unusually forgetful and foggy. Living with electronic devices is just the “modern way,” so most don’t question what it’s doing to us — except maybe social scientists who coin terms like Digital Dementia, defined as a condition where young people exhibit strange Alzheimer’s-like symptoms due to smart phone use.
After the ashram, I was headed to the Grand Exumas, to stay at an eco-friendly resort called Kevalli House, perched on a hill on Stocking Island, an island off the mainland. After an online search, the spot looked promising: off-the-grid, near the beach, solar-powered and rain-fed.
Stocking Island juts out of an ancient surf. Real communication happens here: swirls like pollen on the wind and plankton in the tide. Fish change colors to hide from predators and creatures wrap around the spiral spines of pink conches. You can hike for miles along the backbone of islands, picking fruit from the edible Wild Dilly tree. It’s so quiet here you‘ll hear your own blood pumping through your body, as audible as ocean waves.
To get to Stocking Island you first go to Georgetown, a short plane ride from Nassau. I arrive in the evening and hungry. Bob Cronin, owner of Kevalli House, greets me and we go to a restaurant where locals play traditional Bahamian Rake and Shake music. Here, they cook up conch fritters made after knocking holes into conch shells to get out the slimy creature, then fry it up into breaded balls, delicious dipped in a creamy sauce. Georgetown feels small and is a mix of dark-skinned Bahamians and white Americans living seasonally on sailboats. Here, the taxi drivers are related and you can buy baskets woven from palm fronds.
Bob taxies me across the water to Kevalli House.
“There’s something special about the quality of the water here; you’ll see,” Bob says. He is a natural history buff, telling me about the ecology around the island. We cruise across the bay as the night sky turns the water to black velvet and we pass shadowy sailboats gently rocking like ghost boats from another time. Softly lit by dabs of light atop skinny masts, swaying in the tide.
We arrive at the shore of Stocking Island and Bob shows me to my room, built into an octagonal structure. It resembles one comb in a large beehive. The architect planned it that way.
“In an hour, you can take a path up the hill and watch the moonrise,” Bob says, pointing the direction. But it is dark and austere the way nature can be. I feel bewildered, more like a space traveler who’s just landed on another planet.
“You don’t need to lock the doors here, nobody does. It’s safe. Just relax,” Bob says, then leaves me alone.
But I can’t relax. In the city, I locked my doors and used a fan to muffle noise. But there is no fan and the lock on the door doesn’t work. I feel uneasy, pushing a chair against the door, as though it would keep out an intruder. Exhausted, I unmake the bed and crawl in. But the noises outside unnerve me. I reason they’re just lizards running over dry palm fronds and slowly, slip off to sleep. Sometime in the night, I wake, feeling like everything has shifted. I get the sensation that I’m floating, as if the bottom of the island isn’t solid.
Meeting my First Guru
When I wake, I’m itching to check the Internet, but resist. I leave my room and stand in the wind chamber, surrounded by three screen doors. The house is breathing; full of prana, a yogi term meaning “vital currents or life force.” I stand at the intersection, chanting “Jaya Guru” under my breath, wondering which direction to go. One door leads to the bay, dotted with sailboats, and a wild turquoise ocean lays on the other. I’m surrounded by the ocean. Both are just minutes from Kevalli House. In the bay, Bob keeps glass-bottomed kayaks along with snorkeling masks and fins — which I help myself to. I dive into the water and peer into Mystery Cave. Fish hover like colorful dabs of paint on black canvas. There’s also a blue hole, which Bob tells me Jacques Cousteau explored and surveyed. Later, Bob tells me there’s a tunnel all the way through Stocking Island, underneath his property. A fact which confirms my sensation the night before, of being suspended.
I take the path to the wild side, arriving at the edge of a hill. Sand undulates as far as I can see and I run down to the beach. The sand is as soft as porcelain clay and the ocean is my favorite color: celadon green. I don’t see anyone else. My back is still killing me from all those months I was attached, like a barnacle, to my laptop, so I strip down to my bikini. It’s time to be a fish.
As I swim, I can’t keep my eyes off what looks likes large coral beds, or perhaps algae-covered rocks surfacing in the intertidal region — like mounds of rising bread. Soft to the touch and so alive, they feel strangely intelligent. I swim near. The ocean spray is effervescent, like soda pop. Silver flying fish bounce past, breaking through the surface and I giggle like a little girl, reaching for something buried in the sand. When I pull it out, it’s the size of my sacrum. Pink veins run through what feels like bone, only softer. I press the rock against my lower back. Perhaps it’s foolish to imagine, but I wonder if this rock can impart ancient wisdom, or healing.
Later, Bob tells me these rocks are thought to be one of the oldest living organisms in the world, called Stromatolites, existing for 3.5 billion years. I visit them daily and as the ocean washes through their mouth-sized blow holes, I listen. It’s the sound of ancient fecundity. I imagine they say: “Slow down; your body is alive and beautiful. Respect it. Don’t do things to break it.” It sounds strange, but I knew someone or something had heard my chanting and had brought me to my first guru: Stromatolites.
These rocks are older than those first yogis who shaved their heads and holed up in Himalayan caves or went into trances under trees. So I’ll heed their advice. I begin the task of slowing down; growing by minuet processes like accretion, which is how Stromatolites form as algae and bacteria solidify sand.
In the city, I was breaking, not growing. Slumping over my computer and tending to my struggling tomato patch as though our lives depended on each other. But here, on Stocking Island, the world was wild again. It was time to wake up, explore and be in motion.
Later that night, my pesky laptop pulled me in again. The only access to a wireless connection was awkwardly near Bob’s private porch.
I sit like a moth, buzzing in the computer’s artificial glow, while all around the infinite night wants to swallow me into its primal gut. To remind me of what it feels to be human again. “Robot girl, put away your toys. Come get lost in me!” It says. So I close my laptop and gaze at the Milky Way.
But I couldn’t shake the itch to check my devices. I hunched over my laptop again and sat so long — checking Facebook, email and Skype-ing friends — that my body seized up, like a car engine you forget to put oil into. I felt old again, yet not in the wise way of the Stromatolites, but in a dying sense. Being in a place where there was such a stark contrast between the virtual and real world, I was finally starting to understand how pathetic I was.
Guru #2: Green Turtle
It’s day two on Stocking Island and a couple from Canada, Bob’s other guests, invite me to feed turtles. We zip into Crab Cay and the driver throws the anchor overboard and the sound signals feeding time for the turtles. He pulls out a coffee can of squid. Two, then three green turtles paddle near, their backs, as big as pizza tins. One surfaces, gulping air, then paddles closer where my new friends feed him by dangling squid from their fingers. I reach into the water and a turtle butts my hand with his head — curious about my silver ring. His head pops up to inspect me and in a moment, we equally startle each other. I gasp and recoil, and he does the same, his eyes wide and afraid as he darts back into his watery home.
In nature, I expected to find creatures who are either indifferent to me, or want to eat me. I felt neither from the turtle. We shared what felt like an exact emotion at the exact time. My second guru? Yes.
After days of walking and swimming, slowly, my back pain was going away and when the ocean washed me up, I feel beautiful and alive and whole, like coral, or a conch shell.
The Black-Tipped Shark
Soon, I’d join my friends on their catamaran. It’s typical to run into families like them, or “cruisers.” My friends, The Tueller’s, bought a seized drug-smuggling ship called Whistling Cay, changed its name to The Water Lily and now, the most distasteful thing that happens onboard is math homework (since, like many families, this one home-schools their kids on the boat). It’s here where I find my third guru, a black-tipped shark swimming a little more than 100 feet away.
“There’s a shark in the water,” I said, panicking, as I popped out of the ocean, fogging up my snorkeling mask.
“Get out of the water,” My friend hollers from the boat. “But don’t freak out!”
As calmly and swiftly as possible, I paddled back to the boat, my heart in my throat. After my first encounter with the shark, whenever I jumped into the ocean to snorkel, I turned 360 degrees, watching for the predators, then kicked my fins furiously, headed straight for the beach. What lesson was the shark teaching me? To start moving!
I admit, it’s pretty pathetic that I needed a shark to motivate me to get serious about exercising. But it’s always been this way with me. I like adventure, and ones that create an endorphin rush are best. Ask me to walk to the corner to pick up the mail every day and I’ll wait until its clogged. But tell me to collect my mail from some machete-wielding dude who arrives on something like a camel, and I’ll happily skip there.
My life on a catamaran was like a dream. The incessant rocking of the boat was asking my body to shift; to make minuet muscle adjustments each moment. I didn’t get sea sick, but after a week, when I stepped off the boat to explore an island, I felt dizzy, as if I were dehydrated. My friend, Wendy, explained. “You’re just land sick,” she said.
Land sick? Can you imagine? It makes me wonder what you’d call someone who spends so much time in the city they forget they are a product of nature. Wilderness sick? Do we even know how much we lose when we stop going into nature? It’s so incremental. But we cannot out-habit the places we inhabit. If we want to remember we’re human, we need to be in places like the wild remote islands in the Bahamas. In the land of the living.
In the real Bahamas, I was losing touch with civilization, or what most call the “real world” and I was losing track of time too. The wildlife I met along the way was amazing. One day, we took a dingy to an island and iguanas ran out to meet us. I pet the scaly spine of one fat reptile, which looked like the small cousin of a dinosaur. The guy flexed his back, then relaxed into the rub, like he was saying, “Ahh, yeeah! Scratch right there!” When he’d had enough, he flipped his tail and almost smacked me in the face.
Anchored near an island of limestone scalloped by a sandy white cove, my life was simple.
At dusk, we’d blow a conch shell and watch the sun set, saying goodnight to other sailors. We floated above stealthy sting rays and coral reefs with squirting sea cucumbers and darting fish. Before sleeping, I’d open the hatch window above my bed to watch the night sky. An upside down big dipper was framed there, as though pouring down even more beauty
Because I was snorkeling every day, I saw more fish than people: with slick bodies and big, innocent eyes. This seeing myself as a small thing in the whole of creation changed me profoundly. The fish seemed to accept me as a part of creation as we swam together. One day, after snorkeling, I felt something sore on my eyelid. Back on the boat, in the bathroom, I checked my eye for what felt like a sty. Staring into the mirror, in a flash, I had an identity crisis. My eye looked so much like the fish eyes I’d seen staring back at me under water— except mine were set in front of my face and not on either side. Disoriented, I backed away to look at my entire form and remember my humanness; a spooky, but humbling realization that I was better or worse than any other creature who lived and died.
Guru Mahi Mahi
Toward the end of my trip we sailed through open waters of the Bermuda Triangle, a watery and elusive place. A blue myth where legends are made. One morning, while sailing in this no-man’s land, I dreamed about my father, who had died of cancer more than ten years ago. He had slipped into that unknown universe of death, as mysteriously as ships disappear without a trace into the Bermuda Triangle. My dad loved to fish and he loved adventure. In my dreams, he was happy and we were close. I woke up aware of him in a new way.
Less than an hour later, dream still fresh, I stood on the bow of the boat with a fishing rod and hooked my final guru: a 40-something-pound Mahi Mahi. The fish was iridescent green: an otherworldly slice of the ocean and so alive, I ached to catch him. I reeled him in with a force I had forgotten my arms possessed. The fish would stay on my line until he was right next to the bow. He’d look up at me — and almost with a wink — bend the hook and swim away before we could gaff him (wound him) and bring him aboard.
Although my friends were depressed about losing the creature, I was secretly happy the fish was still free and bypassed what Nathan, co-captain of the Water Lily, called “the gorgeous death throes of the Mahi Mahi,” — dying turns this fish all the colors of the rainbow before it changes to its final slate-grey color. But it had been enough for me that a scaled being surfaced from his watery world — a place where the living can’t live — just to say hello and remind me of what it means to live happy and free.
After living in the real world — the natural world — for almost a month, I reluctantly returned to the city.
I admit, when I drove back to my apartment, I was so overwhelmed by the traffic, billboards and the maze of shopping centers that I had to pull my car over to the side of the road and cry. I think it because I knew I had to be a part of the lie again. The lie of the “real world.” But I was relieved my apartment was perched high up, like a bird’s nest, surrounded by blooming spring trees. My suitcase was full of shells and natural gifts from the Bahamas, but the best treasure was that my body and mind felt whole again. I was determined to keep my cellphone off more and let the “real world,” in as often as possible.
I began to meditate every morning under the grape vines in my backyard and spent more time hiking the canyons of Utah, getting lost in nature. Had I learned the lessons of the wise gurus: the Stromatolites, Green Turtle, Black-tipped Shark and Mahi Mahi? Had they changed me?
Yes. A resounding yes. Jaya, Jaya Guru, Jaya Guru Dev!
I knew it one moment: while eating dinner with my family back home. I felt connected to my loved ones again. Everything was as vivid as a Bahamian blue sky; fluid and alive as the ocean.
And my heart felt perfect, like the nautilus inside the pearly chest of the conch. I felt like a necessary part of my family — and an inseparable part of creation.