Trapped in Paradise

I am developing a roll of forgotten snapshots. I am tracing a dark line over the faded route we took when I was eight, connecting dots of scattered memories that still flash up through layers of time. It’s taken me years to return to this place. It is a good story, one I will write someday. But right now the words are not coming. I feel choked, clogged, trapped.

What could make me feel so trapped in so much beauty? Little things add up. All this wind maybe. My body cries for movement. I step on deck to stretch, and cringe my face in the gusts. I duck back into the cockpit to sit some more.

I am trapped by this wind.


Or sounds maybe. I want to write, need to write, to file my experiences, sort my mind, watch my ideas manifest on the page. The human mind is addicted to creativity, in one form or another. I need some sense of accomplishment. But there is no silence here. In this small space the six of us are living, eating, breathing, speaking, working around each other and with each other as best we can. We are functioning impressively as a unit, but compromising a bit of our individual efficiency. Is it worth it?

Some days I think ‘no’. I feel like it is time to burst back out on my own. My flight response kicks, and kicks hard. I swim to shore and run loops on the small beach, shaking out my angst, hoping to kickstart some strong focus. Focus that can persevere through distraction. That of an intent bookworm, oblivious to the stimulus around her. Zone out and write.

Trapped by my mind.

My mind, which is always there and there, but never here. ‘Dwelling on the past brings depression, dwelling on the future brings anxiety.’ I have made peace with my past, lately I am anxious. I prefer the anxiety, though, at least there is energy in that. As long as I have a way to shake it out and come back to myself.


We sailed from Mayreau to the Tobago Cays, beating against the wind, carving long, low angle tacks. We were going to just motor, but Chris argued that we should be sailors and sail. So he helped set the sails…and then disappeared below, leaving Luci and me struggling to pinch upwind. Galeb slammed up and over sharp swells, shuddering and shaking. I danced with the helm, exhilarated. A falcon dipped past our mast, spotted belly, hooked head.


Three years ago, as I left Bocas Del Toro, I looked out the ferry window, four flours above the surface of the sea, to see a falcon soaring along with me. I was on the run again, hesitant and confused. In my short month there I had found an instant home among sailors and surfers. But I needed to leave, needed to sail across an ocean and uncover some link to my past. One link connected another, and another, into a long chain that’s stretched across years and oceans. Until now, three years later, and I circle closer than ever to where it all started.

And now the falcon comes again to reassure me. Its medicine power is that of intuition and timing. Gliding, watching from a distance, choosing the right moment to act, to strike. I feel a change on the wind. Maybe it’s time to leave Galeb and head straight to St. John.


The Tobago Cays Marine Park is smaller than I expected for all its fame, and packed with boats. Bright kite surfers zip through the bays. Dark blue water bolts up to light blue shallows. Tucked in a crescent shaped fortress of reef sit Petit Rameau, Petit Bateau, Jamesby, and Baradal, tiny rock islands nestled close with boats squeezed in between. We lay plenty of anchor chain for the thirty knot gusts. The water is murky from all the wind.


My mother doesn’t think we stopped here on our trip. The name sounds familiar to me, but I can’t recognize much. I have her journals with me, letters she mailed home every few weeks, before email and cell phones. My grandfather has typed them for her by now. But I haven’t looked at them yet. I’ve been…unmotivated. The others set off to explore, but I stay behind, hoping the solitude will help me write. But I am melancholy, I cannot focus. The harder I try, the more frustrated I become.

Trapped by my expectation to write.

The next day I swim and swim. I cannot sit still, so I move. They dinghy to Jamesby island, I swim. We walk, explore. Arek makes obscene sculptures in the sand.

They dinghy to Petit Rameau, I swim across the channel. The wind and waves push at my side. It feels good, powerful. We walk some more, stare at iguanas and Arek and Luci poke crabs hiding in their holes.

They dinghy back to the boat, I swim. I stay in the water, diving deep, almost reaching the bottom. I cannot stop moving. If I stop moving I feel trapped again. Surely this will pass soon.


Day three, I am still anxious. I swim to Baradal before the rest of the world gets moving with their coffee and snorkels and kite boards. I will do some yoga on that sand spit stabbing into the ocean.

As the water shallows, I see turtles feeding on algae. Four at once, a turtle party. Lazy, waving their fins in the current. Not lazy really, just how they are…they might be super stressed. How can you tell? Can anyone tell that I am panicking inside my skin, running away to solutions just beyond my reach.

Trapped outside of myself.

I wrangle my body into poses, I reign my mind in with my breathe. It’s not easy. I rebel, grumpy to stand still. But finally, things loosen and give way, like a baby surrendering to sleep. My nervous system kicks down a notch and my breathe takes over, and everything looks a bit more crisp. I end sitting peaceful in front of the sea, entranced and amused by the smallest grains of shells at my feet. I explore the tiny island, alone and silent, a moment of peaceful presence, with my mind right where it should be by my side.


By time I swam back to the boat, however, my focus had faded. And now we were anchor up and moving again. I fell into frustration. How could my creative pudding ever gel if it’s always being shaken! I dove back into the comfort of grand future plans. I scoured my phone, desperate for some response for a ride to the USVI, indulging in photos of the friends and family waiting for me there, fantasizing about the shacks I might live and write in…all of which may or may not exist.

Trapped in future fantasy.

One more island is part of the marine park. Petit Tabac. It sits apart to the east, an outcast beyond the main coral fortress. Just a solitary boomerang of sand and palms wrapped in its own ring of reefs. Independent. No boats. Our own little paradise.

By time we anchored in the lee of the low island, a couple other boats had anchored up also. The wind was down a bit and others wanted in on the private paradise. We cursed them under our breathe. I rested on the boat with the guitar while the others snorkeled and explored, waiting for inspiration to hit, waiting for a response, waiting for my mood to change, waiting for something to happen for me. I stared at the water.


“Ah, what’s wrong Michelle?” chided Chris, compassion at his core. “What do you need? You need me to pull you on your surfboard with the dinghy?” I smirked. I would love that, but let’s be real, our outboard could barely pull the dinghy. And I didn’t want someone trying to make me feel better! I convince myself that the lull is important. It’s the lull that portends change.

Trapped by stubbornness.

I had the inclination to go to shore, explore alone, keep to myself. I put on my swimsuit and stopped at the water, unwilling to get wet again. “C’mon Michelle,” pushed Chris. “You want to go get some coconuts?”

I looked in at the perfect desert island, my mind flat with indecision, tired from three days of silent brooding, and surrendered to his prodding. “Yeah,” I shrugged. At least it was something. We loaded the dinghy with ropes, axe, GoPro, and cruised to shore. My new mission: climb a coconut tree.

My first barefoot steps through leaves and trees settled me. Grounded, literally. Blessed trees. I felt giddy with adventure. Petit Tabac is the island from Pirates of the Caribbean, the one where Captain Jack Sparrow and Kate Swan are marooned and drinking rum. “Why is the rum gone?!” That one. We’re here! Johnny Depp was here! These coconut trees are here because of the movie! I was star struck.

I’ve always wanted to be strong enough to climb for cocos, just like my brother, who I’d watch from below. I followed Chris through the bush, like I used to follow my brother. After days of silent brooding, I found solace in having an adventure buddy. He listened and led as I lamented. Again, remembering the importance of my “crew”. Chris knew this all along, but also that I was too stubborn to listen, so he just had to take me out and show me.

We tracked down the perfect tree. Basically, one loaded with coconuts, but less than fifteen feet high. And with the added bonus of old coconuts on the ground…in case we couldn’t reach the hanging ones. (Confession…neither of us actually knew how to climb a coconut tree…we brought an axe, for God’s sake!)

We looked that tree up and down, walked around it a few times, discussed. Couldn’t we just shake it a little? Nope…didn’t work. What if we lassoed the cocos with a rope and pulled? No, I wanted to climb! So I tied the rope around my waist and around the trunk. I think I’d seen that in a cartoon or something.

There were some notches cut in the wood, perfect size for my monkey toes, and I started up, using the rope for nothing more than to sit back and rest…quite often. My toe-steps ended and I clung to the tree like a bat in a hurricane. I grabbed and gripped at the trunk, scraping a layer of skin off my forearm, ungraceful and desperate, exploding all my pent up energy. Finally I reached the nuts, only twelve feet up, maybe less. I cut one loose with a knife, victorious as it clunked to the ground.

Good enough for me. I slipped and slammed back to the ground, high and calmed by adrenaline, proud of my new scrapes and battle wounds. As is my tendency when I find something that makes me feel so good, I resolved to do it every day! New goal…climb a coconut tree once a day, build my strength. (That didn’t happen.)

After his own awkward attempt to climb, Chris resorted to a rock on a line, lassoing and yanking down three more cocos, but getting the line so caught in the process that we had to cut and leave it in the tree. We hacked off the husks and returned to the boat with five whole nuts, which we drank, opened, and ate with the rest of the crew.

On the stern, a set to work sawing the cocos in half, making four fine coconut bowls (or cocktail cups) for the boat. A project I’d been thinking about for a while. As the sun set, I nibbled coconut meat from my new bowls and felt centered, accomplished, finally connected to my island adventure. Climbing trees, getting bloody. Childish pleasures, visceral pleasures.

By nightfall we were all alone at Petit Tabac. We only half wondered why no one else was staying the night as we eyed the small breakers 100 feet off our bow and the shallow reef 50 feet off our stern. We jumped every time the anchor yanked, ready for a quick escape. We expected an uneasy night’s sleep. We cozied up to watch Pirates of the Caribbean…obligated. I snuggled down between Alice and Lukas, allowing myself to relax with my family, my future planning on pause for an evening.

Our daring escape from our desert island was mercifully postponed until daylight. Just after sunrise, one strong swell jolted the boat to the side. Chris and Luci, sleeping in the bow, felt the anchor skid and bolted out to the cockpit. The anchor alarm blared as they cranked the engine and circled away from the encroaching reef. So we were off to the next island, Canouan, just like that.

As we sailed, I settled down again to write. Aided by my previous day of adventure, and by a hot cup of Yerba Mate, I finally wrote. When the boat stopped, I poked my head above to find a small cove, rock walls sheltered from wind and swell. Peaceful. I swam to shore and walked a long walk. I sat and meditated, deeply, finally steady enough to confront the thought patterns that had me so trapped. I reminded myself to stay with my present moment, and the people sharing life with me. To free myself by surrendering to my reality, now.

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Then I returned to the boat, to dinghy “surf” with Lukas and Are on their newly built, slightly dysfunctional fender raft.

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