Ten Lessons From a Near Death Experience
On attending a drowning in Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua
Let this be a lesson to you…
Death comes to us all, and not under cover of darkness or cloaked in mystery, but on a sparkling Thursday afternoon like the shadow of a hand passing over water; when we least expect it.
It will be a long time before I forget the glassy unfocused look in his eyes, floating just below the surface.
Unable to lift his head, or grab with purpose towards the paddle I extended to him. Barely coherent. He babbled as I pulled him towards the boat, while I talked to him firmly about remaining calm and not trying to clamber aboard and dump my kayak too.
I needn’t have worried, he didn’t have the strength. I don’t know if he had more than two minutes left in him. I regretted that last sip of my pina colada. It very nearly cost him his life.
I’ll spare you the details…
…of my sprint to the beach, hijacking a kayak and paddling five years off my life, eyes trained on the bob of his head, only visible when the waves lifted us both at the same time.
There’s no need to get into the logistics of dragging a man much bigger than myself from the center of the Laguna de Apoyo to the beach in front of Paradiso.
I’ll save the rant to the end, about a kayak company putting a first time boater into a questionable craft with a jive paddle and no life jacket… NO LIFE JACKET… and pushing him out onto waves of more than two feet telling him, “It’s easy!” My blood pressure can’t handle another round through their upset at having lost a kayak… not a backpacker, not the tourist industry for the country, but a kayak. Who cares about the danged kayak?!
We won’t talk about the ocean waves of nausea that rocked me… that are still rocking me… when I realized how close we came to losing a perfectly good boy.
The only thing worse…
It occurred to me, as I struggled to keep my craft perpendicular to the waves and use the push to my advantage, while keeping one hand (or foot) on the kid’s arm, employing my Dad’s excellent one armed paddle technique, that the only thing worse than dragging a 9/10 dead boy ashore is dragging an actually dead boy ashore.
He recovered, physically, in a few hours, after coughing out one load of water and gingerly sipping in another. Protein helped. The distraction of my other companions buoyed him. Together we nursed him back to community. Neither of us has recovered emotionally yet.
“How are you today?” A friend asked over text this morning.
“Every single part of my body hurts and I discovered that I have blood blisters under all of my rings from the hard paddle,” I reported. “I’m too old for this sh*t, but I bet I’m better than the kid.”
Brayanne Reyes Ron…
…attended of California State University with a degree in Computer Science; he graduated this past May. A dual citizen of the USA and Mexico, he decided to return to his roots and set up shop in Guadalajara. One of my favourite cities.
I told him the story of my Dad buying me huaraches in the market there and how I wore those sandals with pride until my toes stuck out the ends. The ones with the tire pieces for bottoms. He told me the story of showing up as an immigrant child in California in his huaraches and feeling weird about them. They were different from everyone else’s shoes.
He has siblings and his family lives in California. He’s been traveling for a month and hopes to continue for several more, throughout Central America, before returning to Guadalajara for summer vacation with his family. He’s perfectly bilingual, a digital nomad, and 22 years old.
I don’t know…
I don’t know if he has a girlfriend. I don’t know what he likes to read. I don’t know if he had a dog when he was growing up. I don’t know whether he voted in this last election, and if he did, I don’t know for whom. I don’t know what his favourite meal is, or which ice cream flavor he’d pick, given a choice.
I don’t know what his nickname was when he was a kid, or what his most embarrassing moment was. I don’t know what he considers his proudest accomplishment or what he wants to do with his life overall.
What I do know, and will never forget, is the exact shade of his almond coloured eyes beneath a skim of water as he was sinking. And I know that what he considered to be his last thoughts were of his family and the short spark of his life.
It wasn’t until half way home, on the bus to Managua, having hugged the boy four times, hard, in the falling darkness, that I crumbled around the edges a little.
I have four kids in just his demographic. All of them with enough experience to have avoided his predicament, but all of them without any experience whatsoever in a dozen other things that might try to kill them without warning.
I thought of his mother, wherever she may be, surely making offerings to whatever gods she knows for the safety of her son on his walk-about. The guild of mamas transcends international boundaries, race, religion or creed. We mothers have to stick together. We have to keep each other’s babies afloat. Literally, and figuratively.
Brayanne and I have been talking off an on all day. We agree that there are lessons in this, for each of us personally, but maybe for other people too.
Not the least of which is:
Wear your life jacket. If no one hands you one, ask for it.
- Don’t kayak in heavy weather if you have no idea what you’re doing.
- Don’t strike out across large bodies of water alone on your first go.
- Keep your eyes on the horizon, you never know when you’ll see someone sinking.
- Update your CPR and rescue training. No excuses, just do it.
- Paddle hard in life, there isn’t a minute to spare sometimes.
- Keep breathing. For the love of your mother, just keep breathing.
- Stay afloat, by whatever means necessary.
- Let everything that doesn’t matter go: Shoes, extra clothes, water bottles, whatever drags you down.
- To be dragged is better than to sink. If you’re so far gone that you don’t have the strength to grab the paddle someone extends, let them drag you.
- Don’t think of someone as a stranger, they’re sons, mothers, brothers and friends.
Wear your life jacket.
And also: Call your mother. Just call her. Don’t freak the woman out, but let her know you’re alive and that you love her.
Avoid the Peace Project if you value your life
On a final note, if you find yourself on the lovely Laguna de Apoyo don’t stay at Peace Project (notice the lack of PFD on the girl in their cover photo).
I know the Youtube videos look good and their rap sounds dialed in, but at the very end of a very long day a man in charge stood and berated a boy I’m somewhat invested in for losing a kayak…
- No acknowledgement of their gross negligence in hiring a kayak to a first timer with no instructions whatsoever, and no life jacket, in unfit weather.
- No acknowledgement that their misjudgment had damned near cost a life.
- No interest whatsoever in what actually happened or their culpability in it.
- Not one ounce of compassion or regret for the situation.
They just wanted my kid to go find the kayak… which he was in no condition to do. Then, this morning, they insisted that HE find a way to get it back to the lodge with no help whatsoever, which compounded their negligence by putting the same inexperienced young man who came moments from drowning yesterday back into a kayak, alone, with no one to help or instruct him, to paddle even further than he had the day he nearly died. He took a life jacket this morning. The icing on the cake? They charged him $60 USD for the lost paddle.
As an organization dedicated to education I would expect better. As an organization that advertises itself as “the best dive center on mainland Nicaragua” they are without excuse in a lapse of risk management of this magnitude where water safety is concerned. The real kicker, however, was their complete disregard for the life of this young man, even after the gravity of the situation was pointed out clearly.
“Who are you?” the Peace Project guy asked me, with disdain.
“I’m the girl who hauled him out; he was drowning.” Remaining calm was a challenge when he rolled his eyes and stomped up the path.
“You’ve got at most 20 minutes of daylight left, you’d better get looking!” He tossed over his shoulder, in regard to the kayak.