Photo by Nicole Santly

It was my eleventh day in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands and my first day of vacation.

Despite the tempting white sands just a few [hundred] steps from my tent cabin at the Maho Bay Camps, I simply hadn’t had enough time to take much advantage of them. I was, unlike 99% of the tourists here, on a work trip, and my days were spent running around organizing a laptop pilot in three schools with my new job, Waveplace, while simultaneously coordinating and executing the first ever One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Realness Summit, an opportunity for members of OLPC deployments to come together and talk about their successes and brainstorm solutions to program challenges.

We had people coming from all over the world representing laptop programs from a variety of communities- Afghanistan, Austria, Haiti, Madagascar, Peru, Paraguay and, my own favorite, São Tomé e Príncipe (to name only a few). My job was to make sure everyone was happy (you could say I lived to please).

But today, today was my day. My boss gave me and his daughter’s nanny, Nicole, a couple of hours off in the middle of the day. The two of us nearly ran to the ocean. We didn’t have much time, and we were going to do EVERYTHING.

As I finally dug my feet into the sand, Nicole, already dark from many hours of chasing an adventurous four year old around the beach, caught my focus in the clearest water you have ever seen. Isabel was behind her, paddling her little hands and feet in a puffy blue life jacket. “I bought an underwater camera,” she said, whipping out the little blue disposable Polaroid shot in its clear plastic casing. “I’ve reserved kayaks for us that are waiting on the beach right now, and we’re both renting snorkel gear.”

We were unstoppable.

Photo by Nicole Santly

Jumping in our kayaks, we headed for the first island we saw off Little Maho Bay, the small beach that is home to our campsite. In the distance you could see a couple other kayakers and swimmers, motorboats, a ferry, and an ocean of water that was bluer than the most pristine swimming pool. We paddled as we laughed hysterically, marveling at the clear water, the tiny fish swimming just under the surface, the palm trees surrounding little colorful houses peppered on the hills of St. John, the island ahead of us that was so green with foliage and, just on shore, an old stone house in ruins. Finally, we had encountered paradise.

When we reached the island, we jumped out of our kayaks and pulled them to shore. Nicole had been dying to go snorkeling and convinced me to do it after a few “won’t-take-no-for-an-answer” pleas. To be honest, I was terrified of snorkeling. I’m a decent swimmer (I did row and then coach crew since high school), but I don’t particularly like putting my head underwater. I also hate the idea of thinking about what’s under my feet when I’m swimming…a sort of fear of the unknown, or perhaps the known. But Nicole was persistent, and I relented, if anything to shut her up.

We put our flippers on first, falling over into the water every time a small wave approached, knocking us clear off our feet. We could barely walk, neither of us ever having worn flippers before. We put on our masks and talked to each other with our mouths around the snorkel tubes’ mouthpieces, making gestures to accompany our incomprehensible grunts and laughing so hysterically that we could hardly look at each other, in fear we’d start to laugh underwater. We were drunk with excitement.

And then, we plunged forward, figuring out the maneuvers as we went. First a little bit of hyperventilating until I realized that I actually could breathe. Then a short discovery session when we took pictures of each other underwater and received the harsh reminder that our snorkel tubes didn’t reach out of the water that high. Then a series of awkward hand maneuvers until we noticed that we didn’t need our arms to swim.

And then, small moments of silence, when we entered a different world that we had never known before.

First it was nothing- then, small fish, hundreds of them, traveling in schools. They seemed used to tourists and didn’t really even seem to move out of the way. We literally swam through them, watching them from either side as we passed. Then the fish got bigger, bright blue and purple, flat and round and some long, bright violet and fluorescent yellow ferns, a giant yellow piece of coral that seemed to jut out of the water by surprise, so beautiful and yet so terrifying as I had never seen anything like it in my whole life. Little white sea urchins that made me gasp as they came into view along the ocean floor.

I looked beside me and there was Nicole, snapping pictures of this fish and that fish, living the same experience. We didn’t travel far – I was still quite often too scared to leave my safety zone – yet it was still another fear conquered, another step taken, another adventure that I want to repeat. When we resurfaced and returned to our kayaks, I thanked Nicole effusively for her courage. If she didn’t make me snorkel, I probably wouldn’t have.

We kayaked back to Little Maho with 15 minutes to spare before work resumed. We sat in the little beachside café and ate hot dogs and slurped down mango smoothies. It was two hours of vacation, but two hours well spent.

We had been talking to people all over the world at Realness. But today we became members of a whole other community that spoke an entirely different language and lived a whole different life.