Gift Of A Song
I had already taken 12 people kayaking for two hours on a warm and sunny Saturday. Now, I sat in the shade with a bottle of water, waiting for the second group of people to arrive. I reapplied sunscreen and bug spray and adjusted my sweaty visor. I considered changing my shirt, but it had already dried. No worries, I told myself. Nobody will notice.
As much as I love kayaking and being around the water, I really just wanted to go home, unpeel my sweaty clothes and make a nice dinner. This was my sixth straight work day and I was starting to feel it. “Don’t complain if you have work,” I told myself. And “never, ever, ever complain when you get to do something you enjoy.”
This particular afternoon kayak trip was a special charter trip with 12 musicians. The musicians are visiting here in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., in a special program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. They came here from around the world to study for two weeks with top mentor musicians and to perform concerts both here and in Orlando.
So as I sat there waiting for the musicians to arrive, I wondered how this kayak eco-tour would go. How many of them could speak English? How should I adapt the tour for people who speak English as a second language? What would they understand about the Indian River Lagoon? What was important for them to understand? And how much should we focus merely on paddling and the experience of being in the water – away from cellos and percussion – and in an environment that most of them had never experienced.
I advised my kayak assistant that this group likely would not be athletic, so we would take a much slower pace on the paddling route. I also surmised that we would probably need more small-sized life jackets, since these musicians would not be Americans who typically need the larger sizes. (Sorry, but this is true!)
A big white van pulled up and an eclectic group of young men and women jumped out of the van, excited about this new adventure. They walked over to me with giant smiles on their faces and a readiness that gave me the kick in the pants that I needed. They were here from Poland, Egypt, Lebanon, South Korea, Beijing, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, England, Venezuela and India.
I signed them in, fitted each with a life jacket and gave each paddler a whistle to use for emergencies. They were thrilled to receive the whistles and soon sounded like a creative chorus of crickets, finding ways to make sounds with the whistles that had never occurred to me.
As we prepared to head to the kayaks, I watched the young man from India carefully tie his hair into a topknot. I counseled the young woman from London about the safest way to bring along her rather large camera. And then I locked all of their arts center room keys into a waterproof box and the parade to the water began.
As suspected, these folks were not especially physically gifted, but their spirits were willing. I loaded the man from Cairo into a kayak and he leaned frighteningly to the left and to the right. I felt, for sure, I would soon be in the water helping him back into his boat. Even though he paddled in a zigzag fashion, running into mangrove trees that snagged his beard, and T-boning my boat from the side at least three times, his joy was apparent. He paddled fast, as if he were on a mission, and when I suggested that he might have a little more control if he could slow down his boat, he just laughed and said, “I don’t know how to stop.”
One very tall young man from Senegal plied carefully through the water with his dark skin glowing in the sun. The fair-skinned young man from Poland had a perpetual smile on his face from start to finish. Two young women from Beijing and Seoul shared a tandem kayak and squealed with delight as fish leaped from the water around their boat.
I kept the narrative simple. For example, rather than explaining the virtues of mangrove trees, I simply told them they are tropical trees that grow around the world. And then I asked how many of them had mangrove trees in their countries. Several hands shot up. The young man from India added that there are estuaries in his homeland, but said they were not allowed to paddle there. “Why not?” we asked. “Because of tigers,” he answered.
I took this group of paddlers to a sandbar in the middle of the lagoon. It was low tide and we were able to wade on the sandbar. Some got out and rolled around in the warm salt water. The African men began singing a song about walking on water. The British woman gathered the group and photographed them standing together, colorful kayaks providing a backdrop for their radiant faces.
I showed the paddlers some clams and where they lived on the sandbar. One clam was dead, leaving behind its two large shells. The paddler from Egypt asked if he could have the shells and seemed pleased with his prize from the lagoon.
We paddled on. As I spotted birds, I would identify what they were. I could hear the paddlers repeating the words in their respective boats around me. Ibis. Egret. Osprey. Great blue heron.
Soon, it was time to paddle back to shore. The musicians were tired, but they were still excited and determined. The Egyptian led the way, still speeding in a leaning zigzag, followed by a musician from Kenya and a bright yellow tandem with a Venezuelan string player and a young woman from Lebanon. The group pulled into shore and took more photos together.
And then, as if it were as normal as breathing air, the paddlers drifted into a circle on the sand and began making rhythmic music out of their whistles and water bottles. I looked over and the paddler from Egypt was leading the song with a sophisticated, syncopated downbeat by cupping his clam shells. That out-of-control paddler was a percussionist extraordinaire, albeit with mollusks in his hands and sand in his toes.
Their song filled the air with its impromptu delight and the musicians fed off each other. Their feet moved in the sand and their faces reflected the music that lives within each of them. They were black, white, Asian, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant.
And they were 12 people from around the world who came to the water for a simple Saturday afternoon activity. Maybe they did not notice that they absolutely left their kayak leader gobsmacked and amazed with the simple beauty of their heartfelt song. They probably did not see the goose bumps on her arms as their song swelled in the late afternoon sun.
Even as they climbed back into their van and waved goodbye, I could hear the whistles and water bottles exploring new notes. I’m sure it was a concert inside that van all the way back to the arts center because it was a simple symphony today among the mangroves of the Indian River Lagoon.
- Lisa D. Mickey, Sept. 15, 2012