It was sometime early spring. I was chaperoning a group of high schoolers from Mazapan School of La Ceiba, Honduras for a few days. We were roughing it out on one of the islands off the coast, part of a small Caribbean archipelago known as Cayos Cochinos. I almost hadn't come. I was teaching full time at the bilingual school that year, filling in for a teacher who had been involved in a serious accident in Guatemala and had been sent back to the states to heal. I had heard they were looking for chaperones for the trip out to the islands but I wasn't interested. I was already giving so much time to the school, had four kids and a husband to care for and had my responsibilities with the mission as well. I didn't see how I could give three days to a camping trip. Besides, I knew this would be primitive living: tents, campfire cooking, pit toilets and no electricity. Hmm. Nope. Wasn't interested. Then I got the call. It was from Mike Blair, the science teacher. He and his wife, both teachers, had come from Iowa. He got right to the point. They needed another female chaperone, and if they couldn't find one, the trip would have to be cancelled. I buckled. A few weeks later I was on the boat heading out.
Foreshadowing is a literary device used in literature to prepare the reader for some climactic event. I should have known from the moment I saw kids vomiting over the sides of the boat that this was not going to be an easy trip. But anticipation grew as we sighted the islands in the distance and then relief as we drew up to the beach. We immediately picked out our sites, unpacked our gear and set up the tents.
I was still a bit apprehensive, but it didn't take me long to realize that I had just stepped onto a jewel. Never had I been anywhere else in the Caribbean where conch shells lay so plentifully along the beach. I had snorkled many times around the Bay Islands, but there was a freshness to this place that I had never experienced anywhere else. And while exploring the reef with a small group of students and teachers on that first day, I sensed that I had entered a realm still untouched and therefore unspoiled. And the others obviously felt it as well, taking special care not to damage the coral or disturb the myriad of creatures swimming or lying on the reef floor. It turned out to be a not too bad first day after all.
I remember that second day starting out well. I had been snorkling with two other teachers, Steve who taught music and Tim, the physical education teacher. After exploring the reef close to shore we had decided to venture out into deeper water. I remember seeing a large rock formation directly in front of us, framing what seemed to be an entrance into deeper waters yet. Suddenly I saw Tim excitedly motioning, trying to get our attention. There in front of us was a giant sea turtle, propelling himself forward with his flipper-like front legs. And though he seemed to move in slow-motion, in a matter of moments he had passed through the rock formation and was gone. Forgetting about the snorkle in my mouth I shouted out loud. Amazingly I didn't end up with a mouth full of seawater. But that image was so life changing, I still see the setting and that magnificent creature exactly as it all appeared some twenty plus years ago. I had always believed in God as the Creator, but something in my soul was profoundly affected by that scene. I know that He arranged that meeting for me off the reef of Cayos Cochinos.
It was sometime later in the afternoon that I was approached by a group of seven or eight students needing a chaperone to swim out to one of the small keys with them. I was a bit concerned about the distance, but I figured with the size of the group I should be alright. And they had lined up one other teacher, Mike Blair, the science teacher who had coerced me into this trip in the first place. We met down at the beach and headed out. Even though we were wearing our snorkling gear, there was little to see. We were in deeper water now and our objective was simply to get to that piece of land. Several minutes later we arrived at this speck of an island, all rock and without a plant in sight. We sat for just a few minutes to catch our breath when Mike announced it was time to head back. I wasn't at all tired from the trip over, but as we slipped back into the water my mask began to fill. The others were already moving on ahead, and by the time I had the mask back on they were several yards ahead of me. The wind had picked up, and the waves were higher than what I remembered them being earlier. To complicate matters, my mask continued to fill with water and I was stopping every so often to empty it. At one point I noticed that I was no longer anywhere near the others. In fact, I could no longer see them.
There have been a few times in my life when I felt very alone. But nothing has ever compared to how I felt that day off Cayos Cochinos with the wind and the waves coming against me out there in that wide expanse of ocean. Alone. I knew I hadn't been intentionally left behind but I was hurt nonetheless. I wondered if they would realize when they got back to the beach that I wasn't with them. If they did, would they be concerned enough to watch for me? And if they didn't, when would they begin to miss me? But more than anything, I was frightened. And so I cried out to God. I don't remember if I talked out loud or simply from an imploring heart, but I pleaded with Him to help me get to shore. "Kick hard," he seemed to say. So I began to kick against the waves with all the strength I could summon, ignoring the water in my mask, never stopping nor looking ahead, possibly moving forward though I wasn't sure. It wasn't until I suddenly felt myself being carried onto the shore by the breakers that I knew God had answered my cry. That night we were hit with a horrible windstorm that filled tents with sand and buried many of our provisions. The next morning campers were tired and grumpy from a night with no sleep and more than ready to return to the mainland. And I realized that the wind that had tried to prevent me from making shore was part of that same storm that wrecked havoc on our campsites.
I know that I encountered God two times that day. He met me first in a peaceful place. There I recognized more fully the scope of His creation, and I was in awe. Then He met me again. This time it was in the storm, and I learned that no matter the circumstances of my life, I am never alone.
These particular islands are pretty much off limits anymore. In 1995 The National Geographic Society took them over. They want to keep those pristine waters as pure as possible, and who can blame them. They let small groups visit now and then, but I imagine the camping trips for high school kids are over. As for me, I'm simply grateful for those three days I had there. I will never be the same. Who would be? After all, God met me there. There in the waters of Cayos Cochinos.