“Kirsten, you need to say yes more.” Kate says, glancing back at me with genuine concern as we snake through droves of 20-something Ecuadorians dressed up in slick, Friday night fashions.
Quito’s old and famous rough-stoned La Ronda unfurls beneath spangled street lights and the fluorescent glow of cafe signs. Piquant aromas undulate on chilly breezes from food carts; sizzling plantains, hot dogs, popcorn, and homemade tamales.
The other half of our newly-minted clique that had gelled only 24 hours earlier, Kevin and Adam, are several steps behind us, their conversation mostly drowned out by various Spanish-lyric songs gusting from the doorways of bars we pass.
My new friend’s words stun me for a moment.
They are familiar words. I’ve tattooed them to the walls of my mind, rewriting them again and again whenever I find they’ve faded. I feel caught off guard and somehow exposed to realize how obvious and necessary this simple advice must seem if it’s that clear to this person I’ve only known for a few dozen hours.
I’m trying, a thought flickers. I’ve been trying for almost a year.
But truthfully, I hadn’t really tried. Not this time. I did not dance with them at the salsa club — instead, I sat reticently in the corner sipping my mug of foamy ale. I half wished for an invisibility cloak that would allow me to observe the steamy sea of smiles and elbows and shimmying derrières without having to be part of it all.
I was afraid to join, afraid of looking ridiculous. I said no, like a wallflower. Had I taken a step backwards in my (thus far) 10-month quest for confidence?
Kate had hit a nerve. A major one. The right one.
“I know. I know.” I sigh, tipsily dodging the gregarious young couples and small groups crowding this exuberant place of swirling color.
The equatorial sun has cooked my skin to a fine tomato-y hue, which makes me appear like a jarring red blemish every time I enter the electric sapphire waters of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
I’ve been snorkeling six times in two days — more than the sum of all the times I’ve previously snorkeled in my life. Two things are becoming abundantly clear to me. One: this is the most special and magical place I have ever been. And two: I am just as utterly terrified as I always assumed I’d be of sharks.
I’ve seen three so far. An adult white tip, witnessed from the relative safety of several meters above, surrounded by a handful of tour companions. Also, two young reef sharks at a very uncomfortable closeness while I doggie-paddled near some mangroves on my own at Tortuga Beach.
Without the reassurance of a life vest, accompanying tour guide or many other tourists, I had panicked. I’d gasped and jerked upward, which sent the sea water pooling in the nose of my leaky mask into my lungs, causing a fit of coughing as I lunged and splashed toward shore.
Later, I realized that the sharks had been too small to do much damage, but in my mind, the damage was already done. I really did not want to see any more sharks. Sea lions, rays, fish, iguanas — yes. But please, no more sharks. It was becoming exhausting keeping my ‘shark radar’ going while at the same time trying to have fun and stay calm underwater, and convince myself that nothing was going to hurt me.
Nevertheless, my nerves were slowly, quietly unraveling a little more with each otherwise beautiful submersion.
“The sharks will not hurt you,” Miguel, one of our Ecuadorian guides, says (the very line I’ve been repeating to myself). I nod, then shrug with forced nonchalance. I’ve decided to sit out this second snorkel of the day’s tour to Santa Fe Island.
The day happens to be my birthday. I’m disappointed in myself for not getting in because I’d promised myself I’d be brave and swim with sharks on my birthday. But I’d frozen when one of the other guides had casually listed sharks as one of the delightful wildlife features of this little cove. Eyes wide, I gingerly removed my life jacket and retreated away from the snorkel-and-flipper-donning group.
“Look.” Miguel instructs, sitting down next to me and producing a video of wriggling kite-shaped shadows gliding beneath cool waves that he’d recently taken with his iPhone at our next snorkel spot.
“They’re small. Baby sharks. Only this big.” he holds his hands about 20 inches apart. “You’re too big for them to bite, they can only eat tiny fish. When we get there, come with me. I’ll show you that you don’t have to be afraid.”
The next snorkel spot resembles a Photoshopped postcard, with pristine aqua water lapping serenely onto a white sandy crescent shore. On the left is a length of lush mangroves, which, to my anxious stomach’s dismay, is exactly where Miguel is half leading, half dragging me along under the water by the hand.
I grimace around the plastic tube and attempt semi-unsuccessfully to force my breath into a relaxed pattern. It’s a difficult feat considering I’ve got yet another leaky mask that causes me to have to lift my head every few minutes to drain the water that’s built up.
Near the spindly mangrove trunks, we troll the shallows. A false alarm, a small sting ray crosses our path, setting my nerve endings on fire. Then, suddenly Miguel squeezes my hand and points excitedly into the blue haze.
At first I see nothing. But soon a dark blob materializes; its silhouette becomes more and more defined as it heads directly for us. Within two long seconds, I’m basically face to face with a miniature frowning Jaws. I squeak into my snorkel and freeze mid-paddle like a thief caught in a spotlight. I catch myself before I gasp and cause a repeat of the previous day’s terror-induced water choking episode.
Amazingly, Mini Jaws seems to have the same reaction as me. The tiny black tip shark flicks his tail and makes a frantic cut to the right upon seeing our hulking floating forms and speedily fades back into the blue.
Above the water, Miguel pushes his mask onto his forehead, searching my goggled face for a reaction. I lift my mask, sputtering and grinning like a fool.
“That was amazing! He was so little! And so cute!”
“Bueno, Kristina! You see? Nothing to be scared of. You want to see more sharks?”
We’re the last to return to the boat, where I am met with cheers among the small, wonderful group when I declare that I have officially swam with sharks and loved it.
Later in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz Island where my hotel is located, Cattya, my tour guide from the day before, and several of the travelers from the tour join me for a delicious birthday dinner. My 36th birthday, celebrated in the most epic place on Earth. We sit at long folding tables in plastic chairs that have been positioned along the center of a side street; this is where the locals eat, and perhaps more than a hundred of them have gathered this evening.
Cattya helps us all order fresh-caught seafood dishes in Spanish. While our food cooks on a nearby outdoor grill, we crack beers and my new friends raise a kind toast to my special day.
SJ, an impossibly sweet girl from China presents me with a Galapagos postcard that features a piercing aqua-hued lagoon, similar to the one from today. Along with it is a small carved wooden shark, stained black.
“To remind you how brave you are, that you have swam with sharks.” she smiles.
After dinner, as we shuffle exhaustedly toward our respective hotels, but before parting ways we make plans to meet again the following night at the only salsa club in town.
This time, I promise myself I will dance. As bravely and boldly as I know how.
I will say yes.
Stay tuned for upcoming stories and photographs from the Galapagos Islands and my next destination: Panama!
Categories: My Wanderings: Month-in-Reviews