Above Water at Wildquest Dolphin Retreat

By Air, By Water, Roving, , , , ,

I did a lot of brainstorming about what solo trip I want to do during my six months off between college and work. I hoped that stripping away the comforts of family and friends will test my mettle and force me to engage in my surroundings, but at the same time I wanted to travel in a safe group environment.

When I suggested a backpackers bus journey around Laos and Thailand, my mother became convinced I’ll be stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle and sold into the white sex trade – guess I’ll save that one for later.

Instead, I decided to make my dreams a reality by heading to the Bahamas to swim with wild dolphins, my favorite animal / shamanic spirit guide.  WildQuest offers a week-long retreat where on average half the participants are solo travelers.  A last-minute discount on their mailing list combined with incredible airfare (<$300 round-trip from SFO) and it felt like the stars were aligning.

I’m off to the Bahamas.

porgy-bay-bimini

I arrive in Florida a night early and stay at a hostel in Hollywood before taking the water taxi over to Fort Lauderdale the next day.  These first 24 hours are the most trying time on the trip, with moments where I feel terribly alone and vulnerable, but I manage to push through my shyness and make some new connections with some folks at the hostel, including a Cuban immigrant I coincidentally meet on the city bus.

I also didn’t realize that being a young female travelling alone is basically a beacon for guys to hit on you – here I am, this disheveled and plain-looking girl clad in a simple t-shirt and shorts somehow finding it difficult to be inconspicuous in a land of bikinis.  The creepiest experience is when this drunk, drug-addict-looking guy at the beach bar gives me a $100 bill so I can order us identical food and drinks. The opposite end of the spectrum is a cute local guy on the water taxi who, after discussing books (I’m reading my Kindle, naturally) and music, asks about my favorite food in a lead-up to asking me out to dinner.  I wish I could say yes, but it’s time to check into the hotel WildQuest set up for us.

I will have a roommate for the trip, but on my arrival the room is empty.  I try to recline with my book, but my every muscle was taut is waiting.  The sound of a roomkey sliding into the lock sets my heart pounding.  I say a reflexive, cheery, “Hi!” as the door opens before registering that the person standing there is a large mustachio’d man.  A moment passes in which we gape at each other and the panicked thought “They paired me up with a man?!” races through my mind,  before he hurriedly apologizes and slams the door.

The time comes to meet the people I’ll be spending the next week with, over dinner in the hotel banquet room.  As expected, my nerves settle down as waiting turned into doing.  I connect right away with the first few women I meet.  It’s fun to join these tentative strangers in figuring out how we’ll mesh as a “human pod”.  By the end of the meal, there’s much conversation and laughter, even across languages.

wildquest-april-2012-group

Not everyone can make it that first evening, but it’s quite a varied group – of the 22 participants, about half are American, from California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Texas.  The international crowd has several Germans and Swiss (including people from the same town who had never met before!), a female doctor from Portugal, and a Colombian. There are many solo travelers like myself, lots of couples, and one family from Germany who brought along a teenage boy with the same disinterested mien as my brother.

After dinner, the Wildquest stateside coordinator and her daughter invite me to go to a piano bar with them and I push my drowsiness aside to hit the festive streets of Fort Lauderdale.  The pianist and his girlfriend are interesting characters, barefoot hippies (literally – they eschew shoes) living off their art.

When I make it back to the hotel, my roommate for the week, Ikumi, is just arriving. Whoever assigns roommates did a fantastic job – I regret that moment of doubt with the mustache man incident.  In addition to being female and relatively close in age, it turns out she’s also from the Bay Area (even lived in Berkeley before, as her husband works at Pixar in nearby Emeryville).  We find much to talk about as the hour grows late and I slip into sleep with the newfound security that my first “solo trip” will not be so alone after all.

A wakeup call rouses us at some unheard of hour in the morning.   The time difference makes it feel earlier than my usual bedtime.  I have a bleary-eyed recollection of being shuttled over to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where we breakfast in a little room.  They weigh our luggage to ensure our materialism won’t overburden a tiny plane, then we board said tiny planes and wing our way across a small stretch of the Atlantic Ocean to the island of South Bimini.

wildquest-plane-flight

I sit just behind the pilot and soak it all in.  The three islands of Bimini look like little more than tree-filled sand spits rising out of a swirling blue mosaic of water.  We touch down on the narrow runway without incident.

The journey isn’t over yet – after passing through customs, WildQuest’s neighbor Ebbie takes us on his boat to North Bimini.  We breeze past colorful houses and heaps of discarded conch shells before getting our first glimpse at the WildQuest property, with its clean white walls and the catamaran bobbing outside.  The crew welcomes us with smiles and hugs as we disembark.  Ikumi and I find our room, which is refreshingly simple and clean with a stunning view of the bay.

wildquest-exterior

wildquest-grounds

wildquest-meditation-room

After settling in, we have our first gathering in the meditation room, where we array ourselves on a circle of cushions.  It’s an open space in more ways than one and later becomes the site of morning yoga, breathwork sessions, dolphin lessons, singing, and group reflections.  The goal of this initial meeting is to lay down a flexible framework for the week and learn everyone’s names.  The game of recitation is nerve-wracking but effective.

Since it’s too windy to go out on the boat, we decide to spend the afternoon swimming in the ocean instead.  This means walking across the width of the island, which is easier than it sounds – head out the back gate, cross the island’s only street, pass an abandoned house, and step onto the beach. (Seriously, the island’s only an average of 700 feet across).  I run into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, eager for its touch.  We splash around like children, letting the waves wash over and around us.

wildquest-neighboring-beach

wildquest-playing-in-the-waves

In the evening, we eat the first of many healthy and immaculately prepared dinners to the sound of a megaphone and a boom box dance party in the street, the local version of a political rally.  We also sign up for shifts to help out with dishes and other chores.

bimini-politics

bimini-no-dumping

The rest of the week passes by in a pleasant blur.  Each day, there’s yoga followed by breakfast.  Then we pack our lunches and head out to sea on the catamaran.

On board, we snack on fresh fruit and sweets.  For the return journey, each person has the option of jumping ship and swimming to shore on the beach side, or taking the leisurely way back around the bayside (which usually involves a lot of dancing).

wildquest-dining-room

wildquest-yoga

wildquest-swimming-home

And the people are fascinating.  All are calm and open-hearted, which fosters an environment in which everyone could open up about faith, personal trials, and… all manner of far out thoughts.

A few characters stand out, like Meinhardt, who keeps us in stitches with his mustachioed grin and German-accented quips.  One couple is convinced that dolphins are extraterrestrials.  Once, we’re talking about drone planes and they just nod solemnly and remark, “Alien technology.”   I often feel like I have very little to contribute, so when the socializing gets to be too much I head to a hammock with my book.

On Wednesday, we hit the town for a night out. A water taxi takes us part of the way, then we transfer to the brightly painted “Magic Bus”.  The shattered bus window sends the sunset splintering off into a kaleidoscope.

wildquest-sunset

wildquest-magic-bus

At the restaurant, we sip Bahama Mamas and conch chowder then dance barefoot to the live band late into the night.  I opt not to take a cab back, and a calm sleepiness sets in as I pad back along the single street.  Residents call out greetings from their stoops and the doorways of ramshackle bars.  Some stray dogs we’ve been warned against slink by but don’t start any trouble, and before I know it I’m tucked away fast asleep in my little bed.

wilquest-dancing

The week ends all too soon.  A storm whips up on our last morning.  During our cab ride back to the airport, the driver has to make a few extra stops to pass around a cell phone.  At one point, a loud noise from the back causes us all to whip around in our seats.  The trunk popped open and our luggage has spilled out in a comical trail down the street.  It gives us a laugh in the midst of our sadness at leaving.

Amlas warned us that we would be out of sorts on our return to the “real world”.  She wasn’t joking.  The Fort Lauderdale airport is chaos.  I feel like reality and I have taken different directions for a week and now we both find the other changed.  I can’t wait until I can escape to dreamland again.

Read about my experience swimming with wild dolphins on this trip…

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