A steady rain fell on Paradise Island. Out of the grey morning, our trio emerged from the beach and walked up the road toward the gleaming coral-colored hotels. We were barefoot. Our clothes were filthy. We hadn’t properly showered in a month. Saint walked up front. He wore a white Hefty bag as a makeshift poncho; his bearded, smiling head protruded from the top. I followed him, my hair unkempt, my eyes wild, and looked at the hotel with a mixture of scorn and relief. Artist followed behind, and rolled a battered purple suitcase full of dirty clothes.
Saint’s parents had flown in from Florida and rented a room at an Atlantis four-star timeshare resort for three days. We marched past the gated security booth (where we attracted mouth-open, gawking stares that vanished when Saint flashed a room key). We headed up the stairs to the second floor.
The first words out of his father’s mouth as he greeted us at the door were, “You look like you could use a beer.” I knew everything was going to be OK. There was a happy reunion between Saint and his parents, along with introductions and stories of our trip down. They offered us hot showers, which we savored, as we scrubbed every inch of our dirty bodies until the white washcloths turned grey.
His parents arrived laden with shopping bags from Trader Joe’s, a cornucopia of flavor and texture and smell, and we feasted after our showers, while devouring a heavenly variety of unfamiliar spices. Our first encounter with civilization and luxury since we left our North Carolina dock a month ago came as a shock to our newly purified systems.
They offered us a bed for the night—a bed! With clean white sheets! And to wash our clothes for us—in a machine! Not in salt water! They gave us three passes of freedom to wander around the resort. Clean and shaved and neatly dressed for the first time in a month, our little trio set out to explore the luxurious amenities, the best that civilization had to offer.
Our first stop was the library, which was really a glorified computer lab with decorative Patterson novels lining the shelves on the wall and gathering dust. We plunged ourselves into the web, and messaged friends, while scrolling through Facebook and schecking tide charts for Nassau Harbor. After a month of living completely analog, it was curious to see how little had really changed back home.
We continued through the massive adult playground of Atlantis to the casino. I have been lucky at everything in my life except gambling. Still, I promptly gambled away the rest of my money (all 10 of my remaining dollars) and for the first time in my life was really, truly broke. It simplified things. But my meals were being provided for, and I had a free place to stay as long as I worked, so I could afford to be broke. Most people don’t have such luxury.
We visited the massive aquarium, where Saint (a scholar of species when it comes to fish) took us around to each tank and identified the fish by name, range and edibility.
“Those lionfish are bad news, man,” he said and pointed to a bristling red-and-white fish that swam slowly by itself. “They’re super invasive and also really poisonous. So they eat a lot of the food other fish eat, but nothing can eat them. Except people. I used to spear them in the Keys. They’re delicious if you can clean them right.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” I asked.
“Man, this was my life for a long time: looking at fish,” he said. “Check out that moray. Woah.”
He laughed with his beautiful wide-open grin.
We slowly became aware of how artificial, how constructed of an experience this resort was. It makes sense: If people are paying this much to stay here, they want to select which parts of reality they experience. Here, everything tedious and boring and unpleasant had been neatly sliced away—or was vanquished by yellow-shirted staff members. It was enjoyable, but it was far from real. After being on life-and-death terms with the sea, the saccharine pleasures of Atlantis seemed hollow.
Our thoughts drifted back to the schooner and her lonely captain, out in the windy harbor as we walked around in the luxuries of modernity. He was a man who never came in from the cold. Through knowing him, our trio got to see civilization from the outside. We had a pass to the wilderness, and we got to see it on Captain’s terms. He showed us beauty and danger in the sea, and it changed us. But our shaman was insatiable and never seemed to want to return. What makes a man want to do that?
Finally, we reached the biggest room in Atlantis, which hosted a poker tournament. The arena bustled with professional poker players, who hid behind sunglasses and visors. The newbies had an overwhelmed look at the spectacle of it all, as did our trio. To the veteran pros, it was just another resort and casino—a venue that held the potential for them to win big or lose large. The fine carpets, potted plants and light sconces on the wall formed the baseline of their reality, and perhaps they never knew a place where there wasn’t air conditioning and flush toilets and buffet tables of quality food and marble statues. We did not fit in, but we were able to sneak around undetected by the security guards and snatch handfuls of mints from overflowing bowls and use the four-ply toilet paper in the bathrooms. We were pirates of luxury.
* * * * *
It was time to say goodbye to Saint’s parents and to luxury, and return to the endless work, dirt and simple meals we knew awaited us. We walked back under the bridge through a smelly tunnel to the beach, where Captain would row ashore to pick us up. I carried a heavy bag of groceries in both hands. Two days of air conditioning and hot showers and soft, clean sheets absolutely ruined the tolerance for manual labor I had worked so hard to achieve. Already the hot sun had me sweating through my shirt; everything was sticky and uncomfortable. The tough reality of the natural world poured back in.
I looked back and saw the other two trudging along, with a look of resigned delirium and thought: I don’t have to do this. Why don’t I just call my mother, have her wire me money for an airline ticket, and go back home to the States where everything is easy? Where money flows like water and I wouldn’t have to work hard anymore: at least not real, heavy muscle cramping labor, just the tedious boredom of an office somewhere.
But, no—that was the life I knew I was trying to escape from, because it seemed like a spiritual dead-end. I wanted to do something real for once—something in the tangible world of rope and steel and water, to remind me of my place on the earth, and what it means to be a living, aching human being. To work and toil and sweat under the hot sun. To live on the edge of death at times. To connect me to the history of the human race and the great things we have done through hard work, so that maybe, one day, I could accomplish something on my own—for once. My time with Captain was training for the brutal reality of adult life. It was stripping away my youthful wide-eyed naïve romanticism and forcing me to look at the world as it really was. I saw the first noble truth of the Buddha (life is suffering) for the first time.
I adjusted my grip on the bags, distributed the weight more evenly, and kept walking to the beach. We waved for Captain to come and pick us up from hostile civilization.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.