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Boat People

I’d heard the expression “boat people” before. Not referring to refugees, but people who work and live on boats. For the nine days I spent with six colleagues (three of them already boat people) on a catamaran in Belize and Guatemala, we all became boat people. Boat people are hard-working, salt of the earth, adaptable, do what needs to be done, fun-loving, and able to live in small spaces. Beyond simply calling them “boat people,” the best way I can summarize the group is to say that if any one person had been someone else, the nine days would have been different. Each person brought a skill set and demeanor that perfectly complemented both someone else and the group itself. Each one of us, exactly as we were, was the exact right person to be there. If anything had shifted, the trip would have changed. If we’d had more fuel and less rum, if it hadn’t been a new and waxing moon, if it hadn’t rained or the wind had come from another direction, it would have been different. But it wasn’t different. And this is who the boat people were to me.

The Leader

The leader was always on. Always thinking and watching for possibility. He brought overflowing energy to every interaction. He was relentlessly inquisitive to potential partners and warm and folksy to townspeople, patting them on the back with a big smile. And when he wasn’t navigating, sailing, or spreading good vibes, he just plain got shit done. He fixed the anchor, sliding door, rolling cabinet, and spray hose. He went from boat mechanics to big ideas. When we decided to check out a private island, as soon as we stepped onto the sand you could see his wheels turning: he saw potential. He walked up to the bar and, pleased with his interaction with the friendly barkeep, turned to us and said: “Hey gang, what do you say we come back tonight and get some food and drinks?” Our eyes lit up. When we came back we watched him survey the picnic tables, counting seats to be sure they could host 66 people. He talked to the fisherman and the honeymooners to get the local and tourist perspectives. He created for us the experience he wanted to create for our guests—out of a flicker of an idea.

The Captain

The captain brought an unfailing grounding—an indispensable, rooted connection to safety and logistics we would have been lost without. We knew that we could count on her to make a decision when one needed to be made. Once she asked for all of our passports and purposefully walked off the dock into town to take care of immigration. She seized every opportunity to forge connections with the locals, from skiff drivers to leaders of conservation groups—buying T-shirts and hot sauce to begin the relationships. And on board she made a point to join in the laughter, start conversations, and talk about her “sweetheart.” She seemed to never tire, yet she was the earliest to go to bed. But I don’t think it was because she didn’t like to party. I think it was because she knew she needed her rest to do all the amazing captain things she did by day. When she woke me up at 7 a.m. on the net asking me to move so they could raise the anchor, it was with a softness that paired beautifully with her strength.

The Director

I met the director an hour into the trip when four of us walked into town for dinner. I quickly understood I could trust him to help us feel safe in town and find a good place to eat. He had the down-to-earth demeanor of the leader with the townspeople, leaning in softly saying “hey, man…,” and the foresight and awareness of the captain. When we finished that first meal of Belikin beers and stewed chicken he said he was going to the restroom but discreetly paid the bill. The others didn’t notice, but I did. His quiet kindness and subtle relationship-building carried on throughout trip with guides, skiff drivers, bartenders, and us in the group—five of whom he’d never met before. When he slunk back and photographed us, omnisciently watching through his camera lens, he seemed to disappear like camouflaged jungle cat. But when he talked to you, there was no one else. You knew he was intently listening. He made you feel like the most important person in the room…err catamaran. And for a small group of people confined to a small space, that kind of intimacy was a gift I didn’t know we needed.

The Sales Manager

The sales manager has been called kind, cool, and charming. And she was all those things...and so much more. Maybe it was that combination and some other ineffable quality that truly made you want to “buy whatever she was selling,” a trite phrase to describe a badass, fun lady. She had a cat-like wink and twinkle that made you want to smile and follow her to wherever she knew the good time was. A party attitude and cool hairdo that assured you she’d seen and done things you hadn’t. And with all this coolness came the warmest, most helpful energy. Being with her was like being with the best version of an older sister: one who could buy you beer or listen with heart. The camera loved her and so did we. And while the leader, captain, and director safely guided us, the sales manager was the most organized. She had every cooling towel on the market, a perfect-for-the-occasion, day-to-evening tropical dress, and an apothecary of bug sprays and sunscreen to rival any pharmacy. Be it friendship-inducing joy or didn’t-know-you-needed-it precautions, she was our endearing mermaid ushering us through the sea.

The Cook

The cook made sure we always had chilled fruit—caring for us as only a cook can. She cut up cold mangos mid-morning. Then whipped up fresh, thick guacamole with heavy avocados, jalapenos, and real lime juice. When she sensed we were hungry, she made cheese quesadillas we ate in minutes. For dinners she served African peanut stew, spaghetti in meat sauce, curry, and stewed chicken. Not boat food but actual delicious meals. She made them as sweat dripped down her tank top and the Pixies wailed on. When she got sick and lost her voice, she sprayed mushroom tincture in her throat and went right back in the galley. She never missed a meal. The most amazing thing about this woman was that with all she did for us, she made sure to do what she needed for herself. She did jumping jacks in between meetings, yoga on the back deck while we slept, and climbed into a perch on the bow, put in earbuds, and rocked out into the wind. Our own dancing masthead. When I told her I wanted to do the same she said, “Just let it go.” The next day I got in the other bow perch and danced as I’d never danced before. I extended my arms and let it all go. She taught me that.

The Photographer

The photographer was the one I knew best before the trip. And while he’d made me laugh dozens of times in the office, he hadn’t made me laugh so hard and so often as he did those nine days on the catamaran. Perhaps it was our eerily synced up musical knowledge, our uncanny ability for one of us to sing one bar of anyone from Crosby, Stills, and Nash to Aaron Neville and Steve Perry and the other to jump in. I have a terrible voice, but he made me want to sing. And yes, he’s a great photographer, too. That greatness comes from a willingness to partake and encourage: to keep the vibe going so there’s something to photograph. But he also just got in the mix and shot, no matter what anybody else was doing. He balanced on the edge of skiff with a GoPro and climbed the mast in the boatswain’s chair with a 360 camera. He’d wake up not knowing if he’d be tossed in the ocean to snorkel, in the galley to make eggs, or on deck to raise the main. Because somewhere in the midst of all that singing, laughing, and taking photographs and video, he learned how to sail.

And who was I to them? The writer? The one who noticed things? The one who took meticulous notes? I found every possible way to misspell every possible bird. I couldn’t sail, navigate, or drive a skiff. But I could cut a pineapple and do dishes. I did a lot of dishes. And like dishes, any skill I picked up I tried to put to use. Once I learned how to open the hatch that held the garbage and snorkeling gear, I tried to reload the gear each time. After I used up all the water to wash my hair with apples and kale shampoo and conditioner (I’m so sorry guys, but my hair smelled amazing) I puréed an entire watermelon to drink and made sure everyone had a cocktail in hand that night. Mea culpa, friends. But I think, most importantly, I was the one who assured the leader at the end of the trip, “I can make anything romantic.” I can and I did.

The whole point of the trip was to create—in both the “make something” and creativity sense. As a reconnaissance trip, every moment of every activity was spent wondering, “Will this work? Can we do this with 66 people on a small ship?” We were creating an experience. In my tendency to follow directions and crank out whatever content people ask for, there was something pretty incredible about making up an experience. I once told the leader that as a small ship adventure company we don’t actually give people wildlife and wild places. Well, we do. But what we really give them is opportunity. We put them in places, and the people and places take care of the rest.

The photo with this post was taken when the photographer was taking a video and we broke out into “Hooked on a Feeling.” There was no plan or rehearsal. The leader just started chanting “Ooga chaka, ooga ooga ooga chaka…” That’s what this place and these people created: the opportunity for us, and hopefully our guests, to be our most authentic selves. I’ve listened to “Don’t Stop Believin’” a lot during and after the trip. It’s always been one of my favorite songs, and any phrase or song with the word “believe” got turned into “Belize” and repeated often. I like that song even more now because it reminds me to “hold on to that feelin’” of being your authentic self in an authentic place.

Because I felt free to be myself, I felt free to rattle off the most ridiculous phrases to market the trip (“Rock out with your croc out” “Such a mana-tease”). In the end, few of these made it into copy. But I had the freedom to say them. That freedom is the best thing you can give a writer, and these boat people gave that to me. Maybe that’s why on the last night the photographer announced to the group, “I’ve sat nine feet away from this woman for the last year and a half and I’ve never seen her smile bigger or laugh harder than I have in the last nine days.”

When I felt myself smiling, I let myself smile even bigger. When I stood on the beach at night doubled over in laughter I kept going. I let my freak flag fly as high as the sails. Maybe it was all of our freak flags that kept the boat going when we ran out of fuel. At least that’s the romantic’s version of the story. The romantic’s version is that I had more fun with this ragtag “ship of fools” than I’d had in a long time. I did laugh harder and smile bigger. Blame it on the rum or paradise, but I found a piece of myself with these boat people. For nine days I was one of them. That’s the romantic’s version, but it’s also the truth.

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