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Florence in Words

Barbados Redux

Sea Turtles in Barbados
Ten years ago, in 2003, Mariam Chamberlain and I traveled to Barbados for a meeting of the International Association of Feminist Economists. There we met Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which in 2001 had announced the establishment of the Marian K. Chamberlain Fellowship in Women and Public Policy. The three of us met frequently at meals and, after some discussion about sight-seeing on the island, we also decided that we would rent a boat to take us to where we might snorkel among large turtles. I was an old hand at snorkeling, had even been—in the sixties and seventies—a scuba diver. But Heidi had not tried any of it, though she was a strong swimmer and jumping off a boat, she said, she could do. Mariam laughed at both of us, but she thought she’d like the boat ride and she agreed to sit on the boat and enjoy the breeze while we frolicked with the turtles.

Two weeks ago, Heidi and I traveled to Barbados to spend a week together, escaping, we thought, entirely from meetings. I was also escaping for a time from the work of being Mariam’s executor, and Heidi, from the work of celebrating the 25th anniversary of her organization. We had no agenda but rest and swimming, and of course we wondered whether the turtles were still around.

Florence with a seaturtleA seaturtleHeidi and the seaturtles

To our delight, they were, and we scheduled a visit to them, this time on a so-called glass bottom boat equipped with ladders, snorkels, and even fins. And yes, the turtles were not only there, but the boatman got into the water with us, in part to feed the turtles cooked fish from a plastic bag, in part to photograph us among these huge yellow creatures. Within days he had sent photos to us. Yes, ten years had made this difference among others.

While we snorkeled with the turtles a school of small, cigar-shaped silvery fish filled the same area, also eating the bits of fish too small for the turtles’ perception, so our huge bodies suspended in the sea floated among these creatures. And I had a glimpse of what was to affect me in a few minutes.

We left the turtles and began to swim towards a shipwreck, coinciding for a few minutes with a school of Sergeant Majors, blue and yellow round fish that I had never seen before in so large a mass. They too were attracted by the bits of fish our guide was dribbling out of his plastic bag.

Then, among those shining blue and yellow fish, I felt that out-of-body experience I had only experienced once when scuba-diving 100 feet beneath the surface, and looking up at the matchbook-size ship. Here, my position was reversed: the wreck was no more than 25 feet below, and I was above, surrounded by fish as far as my eye could see. The feeling endured for a minute or two, and then returned on the last day of ordinary snorkeling, in relatively shallow water off the beach, when a school of royal blue fish of medium size came by, surrounding me and allowing me, once more, to feel what I can name only eerily, virtually, as “out of body.”

Does this matter? Probably not to anyone but me, a non-religious person who has been touched by poetry, by kindness and by justice. I can’t tell you what it means, but it was a lovely feeling.
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