By Kate Iida
“You’ll never see a caguama,” Chucho said as the white truck sped down the coastal highway near midnight. The breeze from the window caught in his dark brown curls, and I smelled salt; a moist, fresh humidity.
“Hm?” I balanced a cup filled with scalding gas-station coffee in my hands.
“Two types of turtles lay their eggs on these beaches, Kate,” Chucho explained to me, “the green turtle and the caguama. The ones we’ll see tonight will mostly be green turtles. You’d have to be very lucky to see a caguama. This isn’t their laying season.”
The truck bounced over potholes as we moved toward the island’s southern side. Due to its coral reefs, endemic species, and endangered ecosystems, the south side of Cozumel, a tropical island located off the coast of Mexico, is a nature reserve protected by the federal government.
The white, fine-grained sand of the beach, interrupted only by piles of dried seaweed washed up on the shore, the palm trees, and the bright blue rolling surf, continues for miles before merging into the sticky mud of the mangrove forest located at the island’s far southern end.
I was squeezed into the truck beside Arra, a local from the island. I’d met him, dark-haired with a reddish-brown beard and John Lennon glasses, dancing salsa in a packed mezcal bar in downtown Mérida four years before.
“Do you want to come with me and my friends tomorrow?” he’d asked, moving his lips closer to my ear as I paused, sweating, by the side of the dance floor. Conversations mixed in and out as the swaying melody of the horn pulsed through me. “We’re going to a cenote to dive.”
I shook my head no, but I passed him my phone to put his number in. When he returned it to me, I glanced down at the illuminated screen and saw his full name: Arraxid.
“How do you pronounce your name?” I asked.
“Ah-rashid,” he said, then paused. “It’s Arabic. My parents were Sufis for a while when they were living in Mexico City. But my friends call me Arra.”
In that second, I wondered whether he, like me, might feel tied between multiple countries and cultures. My father from Peru, his grandfather from Japan, my mother from upstate New York, me from California. I felt pulled in multiple directions, as if parts of me belonged in many places at once. Did Arra feel the same way?
He kissed my hand before I returned to the hostel where I was staying with two friends.
The next day, he sent me videos of their trip to the cave surrounded by lush, green foliage. The sun reflected off the water, dappling the walls like a prism. I watched Arra, beneath the surface, strike down vertically, the water refracting so it seemed that he swam through a ray of sunlight.
Water and sky becoming one.
Years afterward, in a graduate archaeology class, I would learn that the Maya saw cenotes as passageways between the world of the living and of the dead. Seeing the lights sparkling beneath the surface, I’d felt I understood that almost subconsciously. It could be easy to forget which direction led toward the surface and which to the cave’s depths.
I knew that feeling from the days I’d spent alone, an only child, hiking through vast forests near my Northern California home. My parents and I lived on the edge of a nature preserve with paths that wound through and around the often-dry creek bed. In summer, my parents at work, I spent long days alone in the forest, following the path laid out by the creek, tripping over stones, and crunching dried bay leaves until I reached a clearing.
There, alone, lying on my back in the drying summer grass, I had felt the hills on the horizon melt into the sky.
The words of the traveler Mary Morris came to me.
“When you travel alone, you learn to read … inner maps,” she wrote. “You learn to trust a landscape that is familiar only inside your head.”
The lizards, the flies, the trees, the dust were my childhood companions. But it was a sense of unity I found difficult to feel as I grew older.
Watching the videos, I had felt that Arra would understand that feeling. Alone, but not quite lonely. After I returned to California, we kept in touch, and when I came to Mexico half a year later, we started our relationship.
Arra’s twin brother, Albar, had told us about the turtles. Though twenty-eight years old, he and his brother still looked and dressed so much alike they passed for each other when collecting their driver’s licenses. Albar and his girlfriend had gone to help with the turtles the week before, and Albar had returned, his hiking boots covered in wet sand, in the early morning the next day.
“We walked for, like, five hours, dude,” Albar said, pouring coffee beans into the espresso machine in the kitchen and pressing the button to start. Rich, dark coffee flowed into the cup he held beneath it. “It was intense.”
“No way,” Arra said without looking up as he sliced the slippery pit of a mango away from its skin.
I hovered near the coffee machine, not sure what to do or where to make myself useful. I had arrived from California a few weeks before and was staying with Arra in the apartments he and his brother shared near the center of the city. The apartments sat by an empty lot, and vines crawled up and over the sides of the buildings, enveloping the electricity cables like ravenous parasites. I wanted to be a helpful guest but didn’t yet feel quite at home.
“They go out every night,” Albar continued, “the entire year. The government pays them next to nothing.” Albar ripped open a packet of green chili and poured it over his eggs, sunny-side up. “One of them, Chucho, he works during the day as a garbage collector for the municipality, can you believe it? Then he goes out every night to count and track the nests.”
“Sounds intense,” Arra agreed, using his knife to feed mango slices into an open Tupperware.
“Anyway, let me know if you want to go,” Albar said, pulling open the screen door onto the patio. “My girlfriend can give you his number or something. But I wouldn’t recommend it.”
We had reached a section of the highway where the road drew up level to the beach. Chucho pulled over, and I gulped the rest of my coffee, stepping out onto the gravel.
The stars bathed the ground in light, and I remembered the billboards in midtown New York, where I’d gone to college. They shone with the same mesmerizing brightness and movement. It was mid-August, the height of the Perseid meteor showers. Comets spun and danced in the sparkling sky.
Chucho stepped out of the truck, grabbing a wooden meterstick and leaning forward on it like a cane. His white T-shirt seemed to glow in the dark. In the front, it had a black-and-white illustration of a turtle, and on the back, the word Chucho in capital letters. Two other men jumped out to join him: Pancho and Jaime. They came with Chucho most nights to help with the turtles.
“I’ve been tracking these nests for twenty years,” Chucho began, lowering the hatch from the back of the truck. He pulled out a pile of red stakes, a black plastic box filled with pencils, a red notebook, and a GPS; a long, yellow measuring tape, two black markers, and a set of headlamps.
“It all began with el Pantera,” Chucho continued, then paused, resting on the meterstick. “Back in the seventies some biologists came out to the island to study the turtles, and they met the Panther.”
An image of a black jungle cat meeting with a team of biologists flashed in my mind. The confusion must have shown on my face, even in the dim light.
“The Panther, my uncle,” Chucho explained. “The biologists taught the Panther all they knew about the turtles, and then, when they left, he stayed on, keeping the records.”
Chucho passed out a set of black markers to Arra, me, and the other family who had pulled up in their own car to join us that night. He pointed out places on the red stakes to mark the date and time we found the nests. On the opposite side he instructed me to write, in block letters, the words no tocar and don’t touch so visitors wouldn’t disturb the nests.
“When did you start?” I asked Chucho, pausing for a moment to place the last completed stake in a pile in the bed of the truck.
“When I was nine.” He picked up a long, hollow metal rod. “But now the Panther’s too old to go out each night, so I do it.”
The preparations completed, we paused in a semicircle on the pavement.
Chucho leaped, catlike, up into the bed of the truck, then passed out equipment to each of us. Headlamps, stakes, measuring tape, a spool of colored plastic ribbon to mark the location of the eggs. To Arra, he passed a red, gridded notebook, entries already set up to gather data for that night. He passed me a GPS on a long string to mark the location of the nests.
Holding our supplies, Chucho looked around at us, and nodded. We set off toward the beach.
We walked. My feet scratched in the sand, over dips and crevasses, by the crisp, dark green sargasso seaweed which smelled of rotten fish and mold. The waves, a deep, penetrating blue, swished and thundered, rising to the shore and pulling back into darkness. Chucho prowled ahead of us in the darkness, guided by knowledge and intuition to the site of the nests. I walked on, holding Arra’s rough, sturdy hand, steps illuminated by the bright moonlight.
Thoughts came, almost unconsciously. I planned to stay in Cozumel for less than two months as I finished my degree in history. Beyond that, the future stretched in front of me as an unknown, unformed vapor.
“In six months, we’re selling the house.”
My father had spooned pad Thai from a white cardboard takeout box onto his plate. We sat on the sofa in the living room in California, books and papers stacked so tall on the dining room table we couldn’t clear a place to eat.
“Why?” I asked, noodles bound in my fork. I felt my stomach churn.
After starting college in New York, I had spent less and less time in the California home where I’d grown up. But the existence of the house and my parents living there felt like a way to ground myself. Whenever I felt I might lose myself in my travels, I could return to the house and remember who I was. Without the house, I would feel lost, without a home or a place I belonged to.
“I’m going to retire, and it’s too expensive to pay the mortgage,” he said.
Should I go home to California? I wondered, trudging through the sand, steps illuminated by the stars above. Look for a job, spend the last time that I could in the place I felt was home? Or should I, as Arra often said I could, move to Mexico and stay?
Lying on a hammock tied beneath two palm trees, I devoured novels while Arra, his glasses pushed up the bridge of his nose, read philosophy, poetry. Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition, I read over his shoulder as he wrapped his fingers through mine.
“Stay here anytime you want,” he said, looking up from The Labyrinth of Solitude. “My house is your house.”
With Arra in Mexico, friends from university in New York, my parents in California and on the verge of leaving, I felt adrift, afloat, ungrounded. My homes felt stretched and tenuous; parts of me in many places, not fully belonging anywhere.
Each time I visited the island, I saw the backpackers passing through. Some even stayed with the twins as couch surfers, sleeping in the igloo-shaped unit behind Antojitos Dona Pili, the quesadilla restaurant founded by their grandmother.
“She started selling tacos de canasta on the street,” Arra told me once, one hand on the truck’s steering wheel as we sped down the highway beside the beach. “After my grandfather left her. When I was young, we were poor.”
He paused, looking at the road, the muscles in his face tensed, anger seeming to seethe just beneath his skin.
“But the business did well. That’s what it’s like here in Mexico. People do what they have to, to survive.”
The twins themselves had couch surfed their way through six months in Europe, relying on the kindness of strangers for a roof and a warm place to sleep.
The backpackers’ stuffed packs and weathered skin seemed to me a freedom, a life untethered to all but the present moment. It drew me in but also, in a sense, repelled me. I longed for that freedom but also the safety of a followed path, of connections to a place, of belonging. I thought of the words of traveler Cal Flynn.
“But with freedom comes danger. By stepping off the well-trodden trail, whatever our reasons, we risk becoming lost. Worse, we might be unable to be found.”
Who would I be, I wondered, if I chose to live that way?
“Red light! Red light!”
Chucho’s shout came out of the darkness ahead of us. I switched my headlamp to red and crept forward, cautiously. “Slowly, slowly,” Chucho warned, and out of the darkness before me, a shape emerged.
The turtle sat still at the foot of a deep crater dug out of the sand. The red light from my headlamp illuminated her shell, ridges and grooves written across it like a map of her journey across the ocean. I noticed gray scales on her oval-shaped head, which she turned inward, looking up toward the road.
I crept closer and crouched by the edge of the crater, near enough to reach out my hand and stroke her back. But then, in an instant, she jolted from her stillness.
The turtle shook her body back and forth, hurling the sand which had settled into the grooves in her dark green shell. With powerful strokes, she raised her legs and kicked the grains away from her, deepening the hole she sat in.
“She’ll do this for a while before she lays her eggs,” Chucho said. “So we won’t mark the nest yet.”
Back on the road, I leaned against the open door of Chucho’s truck and took a long drink from my water bottle. We had paused, an hour or two into the night, to take a rest and prepare for the next slog through the sand.
By the front of the truck, Chucho flicked his flashlight on and passed it, like a brush, over the sand dunes in front of us. In the middle, he paused.
“Crocodile,” he said.
Arra and I moved forward to the edge of the sand. I strained to see any shapes hidden within it but saw nothing but the regular dips and mounds.
Chucho kept the flashlight pointed at the same darkened area of sand. “Just there,” he said without moving. “You can see the reflection of its eyes.”
Jaime, who had driven the truck while the rest of us marched across the sand, jumped down from the bed. He walked across the dunes toward the place where Chucho held the flashlight. A few paces away, he paused. I watched from the edge of the road as he picked up a branch beside the dune and tossed it toward the dark shape.
Nothing happened, all remained still.
Is it dead? I wondered.
Jaime may have also thought so. In one swift movement, he bent down and grabbed at the darkened shape beside him. It sprung to life, twisting and snapping, hurling its body back and forth, its teeth searching for Jaime’s wrist.
Jaime, holding the crocodile by its tail, stepped back. It twisted itself an inch closer to him, and he released the reptile to the ground. In an instant, it became like stone again, an unmoving, darkened patch no different from any other sand-weathered groove.
“These dudes know what they’re doing,” Arra said with respect. “I would never have seen that; would you?”
“No,” I said, “never,” and I stared into the darkness, at the place I knew the crocodile to be, but could still see nothing.
As we packed up to continue our walk along the beach, I couldn’t help but to think about the way death hides, disguised, in places of beauty. To know the sand and the ocean the way Chucho did was another level of knowledge, of experience, but one hard to quantify. What could the biologists, coming from elsewhere, have taught him that he didn’t already know about his home?
We continued across the beach, and sand worked its way between the laces of my tennis shoes. Every few minutes, lightning slashed across the sky above the ocean, burning a fiery yellow streak into the darkness. A few seconds later, thunder boomed across the sea.
At nearly two in the morning, a shout came from up ahead. As I approached the mound of sand where the others had gathered, Chucho bent down and picked up a small, dark object. I took a step closer.
“They’re hatching,” he said.
Chucho placed the newborn turtle into my open hands, its greenish-black shell smaller than my open palm. I grasped it gingerly by the edge of its shell and felt with my index finger its smooth shell interspersed with grooves. The baby wriggled its small legs back and forth.
“Take her to the shore.”
I stepped carefully across the sand, each moment afraid I’d trip or step accidentally on one of the other newborns crawling toward the water. The baby, resting delicately between my fingers, unnerved me. Who am I, I thought, to have power over such a life?
I stood by the edge of the water. The waves, pulling, rushing out, lapped at the sides of my tennis shoes. I bent down, feeling the moistened sand, and placed it on the ground, head turned toward the lights flickering on the surface of the water.
“Go,” I said, stepping back.
The baby took one cautious step toward the waves. But then, almost immediately, it turned around, crawling back up toward the beach and the direction of its nest. “No.” I picked it up again, turning it to face the water. “This way.”
But again, once released, it turned around again, drawn as if by magnetism to the dry sand of its birth.
I knew already that newly hatched sea turtles must go quickly to the ocean to survive. In high school, I’d read about the sea turtles of Barbados who, confused by lights from a nearby city, turned away from the ocean after hatching. The perils they met on land spelled certain death. Dehydration and predators like crocodiles posed existential threats. In the water, their chances of survival increased, but only slightly. Scientists estimated that only one in a thousand or a hundred thousand hatched sea turtles survived to adulthood.
Even so, the open ocean held the most promise for the newborns. It offered them a chance, though slim, that they may one day survive long enough to return to the beach and lay their own nests.
Again, and again, I picked the newborn up, turned it around, and released it toward the waves. Each time, it turned itself back toward dry land. Lightly holding the edges of its shell, I knelt in the wet sand, looking at its dark, round eyes. What are you afraid of? I thought. Why won’t you swim?
But even as the question formed, I realized I understood, perhaps, the baby’s paralyzing fear of the future. I, too, felt I looked out into a dark and uncontrollable unknown.
I crouched down and picked the baby up by the edges of its shell. Then, as the next dark, thrashing wave rushed out, I placed it on top of it. The baby, united with the tide, moved away toward its new life in the unknown ocean.
It was my second to last day in California before returning to the university. I walked alone through the forest, smelling the crisp tang of dried bay leaves. The sunlight streaming through the leaves dappled my face like paint, drops of heat and chill.
I walked and felt my younger selves walking with me. I passed the tree where, as a child, I’d crawled up to sit in its nook with a notebook and pen. Now, it seemed close to collapse, its branches broken, trunk aged and rotting. I passed the bridge where, at twelve, I had picked up a rock and scratched the word time. But now it was just a faint etching in the bark, worn down by years of rain and moss and dust.
I thought of the words of the traveler Pico Iyer. “You can be at home almost anywhere you go,” he wrote. “Home is the condition, the state of unencumbered ease you export to everyone you visit.”
The forest is always changing, I thought. But that doesn’t make it any less of home.
We arrived on the final beach past 3:00 a.m. My eyes swelled with tiredness, legs aching from exhaustion. We had one red stake left and one more set of measurements to take.
I approached the final nest, which lay in darkness about halfway up the beach. As I neared it, however, I realized something was different.
The mother sitting at the bottom of the crater had a square, boxy head. Flaps of thick, wrinkled skin encircled her neck. Her large, glittering black eyes sat offset on either side.
Kneeling to see her more closely, I sensed Chucho approach.
“The caguama,” he said. “You all are lucky tonight.”
As if on his words, the aged mother raised her head and turned to look toward the ocean tides. In one quick, forceful movement, she pulled herself out of the crater and began to move forward. Her belly, dragging in the sand, left an imprint in her wake.
I followed her at a distance down the beach until I stood by the edge of the shore. The caguama slid with ease into the black, swirling water. A wave appeared, crested with foam, and she pushed herself headfirst into the spray. Her powerful legs propelled her farther and farther into the ocean’s depths.
Battered survivor of the open ocean, she swam with strength into that dangerous unknown. I watched her until her back became just a speck in the distance that melted into the churning waves.
Kate Iida is a journalist and researcher from the San Francisco Bay Area. An avid traveler, she has lived in New York, Washington, Peru, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. As a journalist, she has written for both print and radio on the environment, immigration, arts, and music. Her news stories have aired on KPFA radio and been published in newspapers in California and Washington, including The Sacramento Bee, The Tacoma News Tribune, and The Olympian. She now lives in London and works as a public policy researcher.