Swimming the Laguna again and Doing It Right This Time

Nadando la Laguna una otra vez
(Swimming the Laguna again)
and Doing It Right This Time

By Neal Graham

You may recall (or not care in the least), for the past two years on my birthday I have swum across some part of the Laguna de Apoyo in one direction or the other…or both.  This year I wanted to do it right, the way I’ve always thought it should be done, starting at Vista Lagos on the eastern shore and swimming straight across to the public beach area known as Los Ranchos, also near the Peace Project. I knew this would add almost a full kilometer to my previous routes, but would also allow me to swim with the morning sun and wind behind me.  According to Google Maps, this new route is 2.8 miles, about 4.5 kilometers.

So, this morning, 25 May 2017, at 6:30 am, Jose and I, and our good friend and driver, Bosco, descended the steep cobblestone road that drops down past the Vista Lagos clubhouse to the water’s edge and readied the kayak for our journey to the other side; well, almost.  I had forgotten the road ends about fifty feet above the water, so Jose and I had to carry the kayak down a steep incline to place it in the water.  Already I am worried I am using too much of my precious, limited strength to carry the kayak before even starting to swim.  As usual, we had two life vests, one for Jose to wear and the other to be carried along attached to a long rope.  In the small storage compartment behind the seat, we packed water, clothes for me to wear when we come ashore, and my cell phone in a zip lock bag. Bosco will drive to the other side and wait for us there.  He carries the large white flag he will wave to guide us to the shore.  Jose pushes the vessel out into the shallow water and climbs into the molded plastic seat.  I wade through the smooth rocks that line the bottom of the laguna close to the shoreline.  It only takes a few steps for me to reach the point where I can no longer touch bottom.  So what, I am thinking. Here the water is only ten feet deep, but soon (in an hour or two) we will be over the deepest hole in all of Central America. Jose aims the kayak to the west and calls out to me,

“Allen (my friends in Nicaragua call me Allen), estas listo para comenzar el viaje?”

“Si, amigo,” I call back.  “I am ready.  Lead the way!”

I push off with the powerful breast stroke I have practiced since childhood and soon we are leaving the shore behind us.  We glide along with no more effort than expected at this point and soon I am lost in the repetition of my movements and my steady, rhythmic breathing. It’s as if that most famous waltz by Strauss is pulling me forward with its enchanting melody.  Indeed, I might as well be swimming the waters of the beautiful blue Danube, except there are no castles, cathedrals, monasteries or parliament bulidings lining the shores of the laguna, only the steep green walls separating the surface of the water from the clear blue sky above; and, indeed, if these man-made monuments were anywhere to be seen, these waters would surely be less pure and inviting, even considered medicinal by the local population. I wonder if this offers any kind of evidence that trees, fruits, orchids, iquanas and howler monkeys are less polluting than lords, monks, priests and politicians.

An hour passes before I begin to feel some of the physical and mental stress I have learned to expect from previous outings. I know at some point the soothing melodies of Strauss will give way to the crashing cymbals and cannons of Tchaikovsky and the swirling, turbulent crescendos of Wagner in his most episodic and some say disturbed moments.  We are far enough from shore that even a million crickets howling at the universe cannot drown out the sounds embodied in the pain I now begin to feel. Suddenly I am thinking of a line in a poem I wrote before I was old enough to drink alcohol (legally, I mean).  “I stopped somewhere and told them of the pain. They said, your pain is only pride. I yelled, I’ll not be simplified!…” and so it went.

Jose holds up two fingers, indicating I have been swimming for two hours.  I glance backward to the eastern shore then forward to our destination.  It appears to me we are more than half, perhaps two-thirds of the way, but I cannot be sure.  If my estimate of distance is anything more reliable than a mirage, I must continue to swim for at least another hour and probably longer.  Can I do it?  There is pain, to be sure, but not more than I expected and have been able to manage in the past.  My chronically disadvantaged left knee and left shoulder conspire maliciously with my right elbow to create a triangle of extreme discomfort, a triumvirate of pain, if you will.

But there’s something more.   I now find it difficult to get air in and out of my lungs between unintended mouthfuls of water.  The wind and waves are coming from behind, which is where I wanted them, but still are bouncing me up and down in a way that erodes my physical control, impedes my progress forward and disrupts the pattern of my breathing. Now what’s this?  My chest is heaving up and down… and I can’t breathe. Why try? I can only ask the question…why?  How is it fair that life can make us old when we want nothing more… than live forever and swim from shore to shore.

I now must face the possibility I cannot go on, the painful reality I cannot finish. I roll over on my back and search the morning sky for answers. It offers none.  Being on my back in the water requires little effort, mostly floating. My brother-in-law recently commented on the ability of all the Grahams to float. He may have used a word like “uncanny” or “noteworthy.”  My sister had been a strong swimmer and easy floater.  In fact, she had been to the pool for a swim a day or two before her sudden illness and unexpected passing. I recall now how my first swim across the laguna two years ago was in dedication to her life…and her memory.  Now I must search my own reality for options.  I could ask Jose to toss me the life vest, struggle to get it properly fitted, then give him the extra burden of towing me to shore. We have never practiced this maneuver.  I think it would be relatively easy with a rowboat, but not with a kayak propelled by a single paddle alternating from side to side.

Another reality is that I might be too weak and helpless to cling to the side of the kayak, if that were an option, while Jose tries to propel the unbalanced vessel, being careful not to strike me in the head with the paddle. I watch as a small cloud passes in front of the sun casting an eerie shadow over the surface of the water. From its surface, the laguna becomes incomprehensible.  Distance and shapes melt into the steep green walls that make up its circumference. In such an uncertain environment, the direction that becomes most easy to comprehend is straight down. Is that my last and best option?  I once said lying on the bottom of the laguna or floating in the reeds along its edges would be as good a way as any for it to end.  I have sometimes wondered what suffocation by drowning would behold.  How long after the stomach, lungs and airways were filled with water would unconsciousness occur? How painful would the process be?  What visions of life and other worlds would flash in the darkness of this underwater swirl?  My recollection of time at this point is no more reliable than my estimate of distance.  I may have been lying on my back for ten minutes, breathing deeply to restore my stamina with minimal movement of my arms and legs.

Now I hear Jose calling to me from the kayak.

“Allen!  Why you stopping? Why you don’t swim?  Allen, you must to continue.  You must to finish the swim.  Follow me and I will guide you to the shore.”

I love Jose.  He is like a little brother to me or the son I never had (and should have), although the difference between our ages might place him more in the range of a grandson.  He and his family have been the most constant (and challenging) forces in my life in Nicaragua. When his girlfriend became pregnant, he seemed not at all aware or concerned about what being a father would require.  He might have been twenty or twenty-one.

On the night his baby was born, he frantically used the few precious minutes remaining on his cell phone to call me.  “Allen,” he pleaded, “can you take me to the hospital?  Elena is already there and the baby is coming!”  I rushed him to the Japanese funded “free” hospital at the edge of town and , for the first time, saw concern and possibly fear on his face.  Over the years, I have watched him grow into his commitment to love and care for his family and acquire the skills and confidence to do so.  In fact, he and his wife and now eight-year-old son seem to be the perfect little family, but holding it all together and providing the basic necessities of life is a daily struggle for most Nicaraguans.  His little boy’s performance at school would be considered nothing less than “gifted” and he has been recognized several times by high officials for being the top student in his class. He calls me “Tio” (uncle) and always expects a hug when I see him.  How far will his abilities take him? What challenges will he face?  What will he become? How can I help? I think I need to know. I think I need to be there.

I am acutely aware my face is taking too much sun. I roll towards the kayak and find Jose staring back at me with an expression that can only be interpreted, “Que pasa?”  I feel as if my thoughtful period of repose floating on my back has given me a chance to rest, perhaps the strength to carry on.  I make one tentative stroke then another. I feel life returning to my limbs and find myself pushing forward through the water.  Jose grins and maneuvers the kayak closer to my side.  Together we begin the last leg of our journey to the western shore.

More time passes, more labored strokes and kicks, but the distance to the shore does not seem to change.  I feel trapped in the increasingly choppy waters that seem to bounce me up and down more than push me forward. Then I hear Jose calling excitedly,

“Mira, Allen!  Es Bosco, alli!  I can see la bandera blanca!  Look! Look there!

The bandera blanca indeed.  Now I too can see the tiny white spot on the distant shore that seems to move slightly from side to side, the white flag crafted from a bed sheet I had packed in my suitcase and a piece of PCV pipe I bought at the local hardware store.  Unlike our previous crossing, when we swam passed our target and had to painfully double back, we seem to be directly on course for our destination…which does not change the fact that our destination remains unobtainably distant. Every stroke, every breath, every wish seems less productive as the waters toss about in mounting opposition to my hopes.  I begin to focus on the flag and other objects on the shore and hope that counting every stroke and breath will offer some measure of progress.   I pass one thousand and begin to think those shoreline objects are closer and more distinquishable.  At two thousand I imagine my limbs are breaking off piece by piece and floating away, but I am closer to my goal  Oh Johann Baptist Strauss II where are you when we need you most?  Send down a melody to ease my pain and soothe my soul. Send a waltz to lift me to my destination.

Now I hear Jose calling to me from the kayak.

“Allen, necesita ayuda?  Are you OK?  Allen, no mueras!  Please don’t die!  Allen, how can I help you?”

I say nothing as I think about that little boy and what he might become.  How far will he go? How will I know? Will I be there? I break into a steady, slow crawl stroke.  I feel water gliding past me. I breathe to the right…two…three…four.  To the right…two…three…four.  For how long, I do not know.  My feet are touching earth.  The water is at my neck, then my chest, then my waist, and now I am stunbling, falling, falling face down, lying in the mixture of silt and smooth rocks that line the bottom of the laguna, but I am not dying because my face is resting on my folded hands (in prayer, I wonder?) elevating my mouth and nose above the water.  My lungs and airways are not filling with water and pulling me into a deep, dark eternity.  Not now.  Not this time…not this time.

I see Jose pulling the kayak onto the shore.  He seems to show little concern for me at the moment, knowing by now that is the sentiment I would prefer. He has seen the cycle of my recovery serveral times before.  He knows I cannot stand nor walk and must lie still and breathe deeply for the next few minutes.  He calls out to me,

“Allen, no te muevas (don’t move). Solo descansa por ahora (only rest for now).”

Good advice, I think, since there is nothing more I can do.  When I think it might be possible for me to move, I slide deeper into the water so I can wash the bottom of the laguna off my body.  Now I’m on my knees.  Now I try to stand, but cannot.  Bosco has removed his shoes and is wearing short pants.  He and Jose wade far enough into the water to reach out to me and, one on each side, they lift me up and help me to the shore.  After a few minutes I am able to stand up and strip out of my clinging wet swimming apparel (I always wear a shirt for protection against the sun) and change into the dry clothes we carried with us.  The driver from the recreational facility where we rented the kayak shows up to retrieve the vessel. Bosco, Jose and I walk to the car and climb in. I lean back in the seat and close my eyes as we bounce along the rough, rocky trail that will take us back out to the circumference road and we begin the steep climb out of the circular canyon that holds the waters of the Laguna de Apoyo. As we move up the side of the mountain, I can look out over the entire laguna, imagining the point from where we began our journey nearly four hours ago.  Will I feel this pain and know this joy again? Will I know how far that little boy’s abilities will take him? Only time will tell. Only time.

As with previous swims across the laguna, the age I became today continues to be a prominent consideration in my desire and ability to complete this challenge.  This year there may be readers to whom I do not wish to announce my age. So, for those of you “in the know,” I will tell you this.  I have collected Social Security for a decade (from the earliest possible age) and have been using Medicare for seven years. Go figure.  I think that says it all.  I think I will sleep tonight.  I think I do not know what another year will bring.

Neal 1
Neal 3 Neal 4

One Comment

  1. Glen

    May 28, 2017 at 6:16 am

    Thanks for letting us into your private struggle against the ravages of aging. Your triumph gives each of us hope for our own struggle. Thank you.