Strangers To Paradise: A Vacation In the Shadow of Tragedy. (Mental Health, Personal Essay)

Car accidents are often used as plot devices in books, films and TV shows.  I can now see why. The blood on the pavement, shattered glass and twisted metal may well be remnants of former lives at the point of impact.

A car accident is what brought us here, to paradise. Or rather, the attempted escape from it’s effects.

We take a plane to a sunnier destination, away from sirens in the streets. Away from my wife’s constant medical and legal appointments, mounds of insurance forms and bills.  Away from all of it.

And so we are on a plane.  Anytime I am on a plane these days, which is now, not nearly as often as it once was, I am reminded of how much air travel is different from what it once was. There is of course, the Orwellian security measures that we have now all practically taken as the new normal. My wife has a delightfully disconsolate story of someone with a tenuous grasp of the english language, happily stripping off to his underwear before walking through security at JFK, while a female TSA agent ran towards him, trying in a heroic but ultimately desperate move to halt the moment before it was all too late, shouting; NOOOOOOOO in extreme slow motion, a la tranquilizer dart episode in Old School.

For me, the worst thing about air travel isn’t about security. It’s about something with far greater importance. It is what people are actually wearing while they travel. There was a time when people dressed up for it. Tailored suits and gin and tonics. That’s how they rolled. Now it’s yoga pants and crocs.

While waiting to board our flight, I am transfixed by a young woman. She is wearing a comically oversized sombrero hat. Actually, that is not quite accurate. She is wearing a total of three sombrero hats. Each stacked on top of one another. I am assuming that she has bought all three for her and each of her two companions, who have wisely rejected the notion of wearing them in a public setting. And so, rather than packing them in a plastic bag, or in a separate piece of carry on luggage of any kind, like any normal, rational human being, she has opted to wear all three at once. They are, in addition to her wearing blue lipstick and a prominent nose ring. A trifecta of good taste, it would seem.

Her companions are wearing short, tight fitting T-shirts that reveal a complex, extensive and probably rather expensive legacy of tattoos on each arm, adorned with high-ticketed Apple watches sealed at the wrist. The male companion has a long, glorious beard, which probably took quite some time to grow and groom and of which he has a habit of stroking proudly.  Actually, he is stroking it often. Up, and down. Sideways.  One side.  Then the other.  Sometimes, he scratches individual parts of it.  It is either a new beard, which he is clearly not used to having, or something pressing is on his mind. One wonders what he is thinking. Perhaps what tattoo to get next? I am not certain, but I am enjoying trying to figure out what his thoughts are.

I am on the other hand, certain of what his other companion is thinking. Because she is letting us know. Or rather, she is letting the stewardess know, as soon as she is seated. Is there wifi? Because I am not getting any signal. Is there a gluten free option on the menu? Can you go over what everything is on the menu and what the individual ingredients are?

The flight attendant makes the first announcement of the journey on the PA system, welcoming us all aboard and also going over the in flight menu. She makes a stern notice that there is someone aboard with a peanut allergy, so there will be no nuts to be offered during the flight. In addition, she orders everyone on board not to eat any nut products of any kind, less this person spontaneously combusts. I had a generous spread of Kraft peanut butter across a Montreal bagel for breakfast. I wonder if I fart, there is any imminent danger. I am assuming at this point that the person with the peanut allergy is the woman seated directly in front of me, whom I have dubbed Alternative Fact Diet Hipster. It has to be.

At least I have leg room. We paid extra for it, at my insistence. My leg room obsession is rooted on a trip I took to Kenya about 8 years ago.  At the time, my brother flew often for his work and had a stockpile of air travel points, of which he generously provided for my trip. The only catch? There would be no less than five connecting flights. I flew coach. About 28 hours later, I got to where I needed to be, but not before losing my sanity, and much of my dignity. By my last flight, my entire body was on fire from nerves and stress. I approached a flight attendant like a crazed lunatic and begged for something to help me sleep the last few hours stretch I had in front of me. There may have been tears. Out of terror from the state of my demeanour or out of pity, I’ll never be certain, but she threw me a bone in pill form, which I gratefully accepted.

In front, and to the right of Alternative Fact Diet Hipster, Beardy McBeard and Triple Sombrero Girl, there is a man speaking with great enthusiasm and with little break except to swallow oxygen to fuel his tirade and various opinions on his poor seat mate to the right of him. I can’t totally comprehend, as I think he is speaking in Russian, or some other Eastern European dialect I am (probably, luckily for this particular exchange), unfamiliar with. Eventually, the seat mate wises up and pretends to fall asleep.

My wife is smarter than me, in many different respects. In this particular instance, rather than observing the perceived insanity in front of me and internally obsessing over all of it, she fires up a meditation app on her phone and zones out with the aid of noise cancelling headphones, effectively blocking out everything. This annoys me, as it is always preferable to have a partner who is equally irritated and able to exchange witty, snide comments and astute observations with. I am tempted to interrupt her deep meditative state by screaming out; “We’re all going to die! Someone opened some peanuts!!!”

Although the idea amuses me, I conclude it would not be a wise move. Particularly at the start of a vacation. Perhaps, though, on the flight home.

While chained to the plane seat, designed by some sadist with a fetish for uncomfortable people, I think of other memorable flights I’ve had, none of them good. I remember sitting next to a friendly, chatty Canadian on a flight from Nairobi to Rome.  A week later, he was front page news for murdering his wife with a hatchet. I’ll never quite forget the chill that produced over my morning coffee. You can’t really know who people really are, sometimes.

While on another flight from Dublin back to Toronto, a young drunk woman behind me paused between hammering away at the entertainment system on the back of my head (designed by the same sadist, see above paragraph), with the dexterity of a sumo wrestler, until she grew tired of that and proceeded to engage in a variety of yoga moves in the aisle beside me.

Thankfully, no downward dog happens on this particular flight, but I am still thinking of the flight attendant’s peanut allergy announcement. Is this what T.S. Eliot was referring to, when he stated that the world would not end with a bang, but a whimper? Will it be from the whimper of someone opening an impossibly small bag of roasted and salted almonds that eventually do us all in?

After landing on one island somewhere in the Caribbean, we transfer for a smaller island in a much smaller plane. It seats only about 20, pilot and co-pilot included. This comforts me, perhaps because there are less people to irritate me. Although our new fellow passengers do a pretty good job at trying. They are young Americans.  And rich.  And drunk.  I imagine them to work in finance. They seem nervous.  Perhaps because of the size and age of the plane.  Or,  perhaps it is because we are arriving soon on a small island devoid of corporate reassurance and convenience. No Starbucks. No Whole Foods.  The lack of access to organic, vegan, dairy-free, chai latte macchiatos may prove too terrifying for them to contemplate.  They make brash jokes about the plane going down while swigging tequila from a bottle in a crinkled brown paper bag.  Trying to steel their nerves with dark humour and bitter tasting liquor.

I am sitting ringside to the right side propellor. I am comfortable with the same fear they are trying to mask. Or rather, I am at least used to it. I think of tragedy and death often. Should the propellor catch fire and send a brilliant trail of smoke and fire across that beautiful blue sky, I would have an excellent view of the ensuing carnage.  I reach behind (as she is seated behind me), grab my wife’s hand and squeeze it.

The turning propellor transitions into the fan spinning overhead in our Airbnb room later that evening. As it turns round and round, I imagine it falling on top of us and chopping us into pieces, like the plane did to that Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We both fall asleep eventually, but it is not a full sleep. It hasn’t been a full sleep since the accident that happened to my wife, now a full 2 and half years ago.

But we are not here to dwell on the past. We are here to escape it, so we go to a plant reserve the next day.  We learn that the red earth in the ground is from the Sahara desert on the other side of the world. The earth gets sucked up in sandstorms and carried across the ocean high above the sky and deposited where our sunburned feet traipse through in newly purchased sneakers made in factories in Thailand and Vietnam. And I think; we are all connected, even though we try so desperately to live individual lives in tiny toy metal cars and matchstick houses, right up to the tiny grave sites we pick at the end.

The Lucayans were the original habitants of these islands, who came first by hollowed out canoes from Central America. They settled in these islands and lived long, full lives for 800 years, until Columbus showed up. Within one generation, they were nearly all decimated by slavery or disease.  When I learn this fact, the cold reminder that history books often favours the bully hits me square on the jaw in this jarring heat.

There is a round hut on the reserve, designed to be a replicant of the original housing structure of the first island people. I go inside it’s tranquil, dark enclosure, red dirt covering the ground. It is a similar type of structure used by indigenous people from all over the world, at one time or another.  As I stand in the quiet, straw covered space, I think of all the previous generations that lived their lives in huts like this one. Telling stories. Giving birth. Caring for the sick. Dying. Talking smack. Getting smacked.

Then it is time to leave the plant reserve. It is getting hot, and we are feeling hungry and maybe a little sun stroked. We decide to go for lunch at a restaurant close by.  Our table is situated nearest to the beach. It has admittedly, a stunning view of the ocean.  However, like many other pleasurable intoxicants, the panorama does not come without side effects.  About every two minutes, a tourist walks in front of us, cell phone in hand, either taking a selfie for their Facebook page, or speaks animately to someone on FaceTime somewhere else.

The process and the consistency makes it seem as though they are on an assembly line in an outdoor fruit market of sweaty orange and tomato tinged white people with smartphone appendages.  It is no longer good enough to make it to paradise. Now, it is essential to prove it to the world.  The  online guides and forums say this restaurant is a must go. I agree. Once we eat, it was a must that we go.

Back at the Airbnb, there is no television. But this is ok, because not only are we on this trip to forget about our own pasts, we are also here to disconnect from society. At least, elements of it. That is not to say we are living like cave men. I brought a solar powered AM/FM radio, which I am very excited to use. After the third day of no TV, I decide to take things to the next level. I somehow manage to connect my phone to stream internet radio via Bluetooth on the radio. I experience what it must have felt like for our ancient human ancestors when they first invented fire.  There is much satisfaction and pride, which I happily convey to my wife, who is taking everything I say and do on this vacation with remarkable stride.

A lingering, slow cold had produced a low gurgling cough that I have carried with us to this part of the globe, a sliver of carved up, jagged limestone between an ocean and a sea; seemingly on the edge of it all.  The cough is deep inside my wheezing lungs and refuses to leave, like a trapped guppy in some deep cave.  It serves as a reminder that the past has a way of catching up with you, no matter how far you try and run.  I assume by now that the cough is probably, if I am lucky, Tuberculosis. Barring that, the big C.

I try to ignore it and focus on the sunshine and the heat and the paradise. But every few minutes the cough comes back. Just like every other moment the accident comes back to us both.

I forget to pack a razor so on my fifth day in paradise I now have a grizzled adventurer’s castaway beard. Given my current surroundings, I like to imagine it makes me look weatherbeaten and wise, but I foresee difficulties re-entering familiar ground.

I imagine being strip searched and prodded by humourless Canadian customs guards donning blue medical gloves.  There, my appearance might well be interpreted as a vagabond, smuggler or someone that’s gone full Colonel Kurtz.

I think of home often as I laze around, paddling in salt water on my back, looking up at clouds. I think of how ironic it is that we go away to escape it all but once we get to escape, all we can think of is home – and once we get home all we can do is long for this moment.

I try to clear my head and think of nothing and let the waves and the ocean heal me, as I hope the waves and the ocean are able to heal my wife.

But after awhile, the once pleasant ocean breeze feels relentless. The warm sun, a hot oppressive furnace. I understand how one man’s paradise can be another one’s prison.   Like a drunk’s tenacity to chase oblivion, the pursuit of pleasure can be an exhausting one.

A side trip to a nearby island reveals a picture postcard village of brightly coloured, historical houses; half of which were for sale. We learned later that many had been damaged in a hurricane only months ago, but had all since been repaired and repainted. I think how we are all in a constant state of devastation and repair. It is the cycle of life.

The accident, like many plot devices, signified an ending.  But it also provides opportunity for a new beginning.

The trick is to hold on, and see what happens next.







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