We do not have the best track record in Antigua. Organized group tours, in general, are seldom as good as they sound. There was one nice catamran excursion, a few years ago. Others have been doomed.
The worst to date, by far, was a banana boat snorkeling and beach excursion. This was a speed boat with one faulty engine. (Read: no speed.) A boat that couldn’t reach plane (Read: long, cold, salt-saturated ride.) Arrogant and rude tour operators who were, please note, transplants from northeastern U.S. (Read: unprofessional and abusive.) All of this, topped off by choppy snorkeling conditions and deceivingly smooth rum punch. What a day.
People were complaining left and right. Some were cold and uncomfortable, after two hours under a sticky salt spray. Some were mad the swimming stop was nixed. Some were upset the ailing boat left the dock to begin with. The guide had no sympathy. “Go home and tell your friends, ‘I went to an island called Antigua and I got wet,'” he snickered. But the mood of the group did not bode well for tips.
So on the return, we made an abrupt and very brief stop at a beach. They floated a 48-quart Igloo chest cooler to shore and distributed a deadly concoction from plastic gallon jugs in generous quantities. It looked like Hawaiian Punch. Tasted like it, too. We, the unsuspecting, parched by salt and sun, drank greedily. (Read: sick. Sick like a dog.) I swear I can still hear them laughing as we tumbled off the boat. (Read: evil, evil men.) It was so bad that I petitioned and got our money back but it was small comfort. It was an introduction to Antigua we’d like to forget.
However, this spring we were feeling adventuresome in Antigua. We wanted something active. Something to remind us that, though we’ve become grandparents, we’re young, yet! So we agreed upon a rainforest canopy zip line tour. Actually, we signed up for that plus a challenge course. This latter fact was somehow, unfortunately, lost on me. I was too busy swallowing my apprehension about zip lining.
Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to try it. I am not afraid of heights. Fast is usually fun, too. But I am not athletic, not by a long shot. What business did I have harnessing up in such fashion? The thought gave me pause.
Well, it turned out that I had reason to be apprehensive. I only wish I’d managed to take photos — though cameras are forbidden. Live action video on the Antigua Rainforest Company website will have to suffice. Don’t be surprised if you find me featured in the “what not to do” section!
In Antigua, it seems, there is a natural approach. (Read: OSEA compliance?) Zip line infrastructure is built into the trees, living or dead. (Drive those pins in deep, please.) In addition to these cables, platforms and such, your safety depends upon a few crucial elements: your harness (seemed perfectly fine); your brake — that would be your “strong hand”, gloved, applying pressure to the steel cable running above your head (ummm, okay); and your ability to remember as you zip and spin through the canopy how to position hands and feet. Most importantly, you should not place either hand in front of the wheels running along the upper most cable (yikes)!
This zip line course is a series of nine segments, each different. Some are fast; some are long. Some require you to sit and launch; others to step off into thin air. All require you to position for landing, raising your feet to avoid colliding with the platform, and braking with that handy dandy glove to slow down in time. Brake too hard, and you may hurt yourself. Brake too soon and you may become stranded mid-line, requiring a rescue. But if you fail to brake enough, you must trust their safety brake — a block of wood thrown out onto the line to slow your approach.
Once you start, there is no way to get where you’re going except go. When I felt myself moving too fast, out of control, spinning toward the landing platform, I’d lose my bearings and my grip. I was secure in the harness, thank God, but I wasn’t sure where I could safely put my hands to brake. So I didn’t. Instead, I’d yell, “BRAKE ME!” while hurtling along at God-knows-what speed toward a small wooden platform on a tall post of a tree high in the forest. Most of the time, the block sufficiently slowed my approach.
There was one time I nearly swept the attendant off the platform as I came crashing in. There was another time my feet clipped the landing platform. It didn’t bother me until later, when my knee swelled up with an extra large egg and it became painful to walk. That’s when I learned the value of the ship’s on board infirmary.* But I am getting ahead of myself, eh?
Meanwhile, I was counting down the segments. Everyone else in our group of twelve seemed to be relishing each zip — jocks and jockettes alike. I was too stressed about getting from point A to Z. I asked every platform attendant, “How many more?” because by the time I’d gotten through yet another landing I’d lost count again.
But then, finally, the end. Whew! And wooooo-hoo! I was proud to have conquered my anxieties. I’d survived the zip line, fingers intact. And I really wanted a cold brew…
Except, cruel fate, it was not the end! No, indeed, recall we had also signed on for the challenge course, six more segments constructed of ropes, cables, and ladders stretching through the canopy. It required a lot of balance and some upper body strength. My hair was plastered to the inside of my ill-fitting helmet, tilted askew. My shirt was stuck to my back. I was parched and weak all over. Oh, my mercy.
“I’ll go last,” I said. “I know I will be slow. I don’t want to hold everyone up.” The rest of the group seemed quite relieved.
“I’m nervous,” I confessed to the attendant.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re here to help.”
The Hubs offered to follow me, ready to help out if necessary. “No,” I said, “You go ahead. Just not too far ahead. Don’t leave me behind.” I was worried about connecting my safety cable. It was heavy and I was tired.
I did okay at first. And then that dratted cable got stuck. I couldn’t move it. I was alone, the Hubs far enough ahead to be of absolutely no help to me. I was frustrated. And angry. I said a bad word. About him. (Of course, then I also had to apologize. But not just yet. I’m getting ahead of myself again.) I mustered my strength, climbed up the side of the pole, and flung the cable into place with great irritation. This was more than I’d bargained for and I was not going to pretend to like it.
On the very last stretch, an attendant called out to me from the other side. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I said. “Why? Are you worried about me?”
“Yes,” he said, making his way toward me.
“Well, you look shaky.”
Hmm. I guess I could concede that point. I wasn’t sorry to see him, halfway across a particularly tricky obstacle suspended from the treetops. He gave me a few pointers as we worked our way through to the end. I thanked him for his help. “It’s sure nice to have friends in high places,” I said. And I meant it, although I know I could have managed.
It occurred to me then, in that very moment midst the rainforest canopy, that the challenge course is an analogy for life. We can go it alone. And we can be thankful we don’t have to.
~ René Morley
*Because I was injured on a tour purchased though the ship, the $111 fee to use the infirmary was waived. The doctor was very thorough, even offering to do x-rays. He provided a brace, heavy duty ibuprofen, and assurance that all would be well. He also supplied a doctor’s note, which allowed us to cancel our 5 hour hike of the Pitons the next day without penalty. He was right. I was in no condition to hike. I guess one adventure per cruise is enough!