Life & Travel Lessons From Jellyfish

Written by Sara Ivanhoe

The statute of limitations for being traumatized by jellyfish is one year. Or at least that is the legal limit that I have imposed on myself. It was exactly one year ago that I courageously ventured to Nicaragua with a group of students on a yoga retreat. I’ve been teaching yoga for fifteen years and choose my destinations selectively. I have frequently been invited to five star resorts in popular locations, but decided to accept this invitation because it was a “sustainable” retreat center.

I had recently completed yet another certification course (my fifth teacher training course -- what is wrong with me?) in “Green Yoga”. Inspired by yoga’s origins in connecting with the planet, having the postures named after animals and aspects of nature, I was fired up to take my new method for a real test drive and bring a group down to Nica and into nature where we could do yoga and really connect with the land. The backdrop of a totally sustainable resort couldn’t have been better. The images on the internet were captivating. It looked picturesque; luxurious without being ostentatious and a way to be comfortable and yet simple at the same time.

Beware the unforeseen pitfalls of eco-travel. It’s my fault really. I just didn’t do the math. “Eco” of course means that they do absolutely no damage to the wildlife in the surrounding area. I had never thought much about it, but all of those Four Seasons resorts located in tropical places exist because the entire surrounding area is absolutely doused with insecticides. “How horrible” I would have thought previously. So important for us to learn to co-exist with the indigenous wildlife… Until I encountered it.

It began the first night. I had arrived early to prepare for the group’s arrival. After dropping my bags and tipping the porter I headed straight to the elegant slate and brushed aluminum bathroom to settle down onto the toilet and have a relaxing pee after a hard flight. As I was enjoying my private moment, I looked up and crawling towards me was a thick black spider the size (and I know you’re going to think I’m exaggerating) of a dinner plate. I screamed, wiped, and ran the whole gravelly path (no, there were no house phones) back to the front desk to get help.

The housecleaning staff came to “liberate” the spider -- no damage would come to it -- and as a matter of protocol, they decided to just check around to make sure there was nothing else there. “Oh, it’s all clear,” the housekeeper said. “Just a small scorpion under the bed, we took care of that too…”

Um. Did you say “scorpion”?

I tried to put all of this out of my mind and just get into the spirit of things but as the trip progressed, things went from bad to worse. The group that came down was amazing. We called ourselves “Charlie’s Angels Double Force” as we were all women and there were two brunettes, two blondes and two redheads. What a bunch of troopers! This trip was not inexpensive and they navigated spiders in their rooms, scorpions in their shoes, a snake under the bed and one very terrifying encounter with a monkey. Everyone was so on edge, fearing the worst about what might show up next, that all we could do to ease our fears was drink. Not the usual course for a yoga retreat, but following the afternoon session all the girls would start drinking. By the end of dinner it would sounds something like “I dare that scorpion to come back to my room -- I’ll pour it a glass of sangria!” or “What spiders? Whatever!” But by morning everyone would be agitated again, and this time, with a hangover. The breaking point occurred when one girl had an infestation of black ants that covered her entire bathroom floor (and of course there were no walls between the bathroom and the rest of the room). It was really like something out of a horror movie. She vomited with fright and spent the night on a sofa in the lobby.

I have been told that there are many sustainable resorts, hotels and retreat centers that pamper the guest and provide every comfort. I have full trust in my sources that this is true, however it just wasn’t the case here. I look forward to exploring more of these places in years to come; in fact, one of my best friends is building one in Costa Rica due to open in 2011. But in the meantime, this was a kind of roughing-it we just weren’t prepared for. Instead, we jumped ship and landed in a much more populated, much less peaceful resort in the nearest town. It was a tough decision to leave the picturesque beach and private bungalows, but everyone agreed that we hadn’t really been able to settle in. We spent the next few days doing yoga, seeing sights, having meals; it was great. By the last day, I felt I could finally relax and enjoy myself a little; it looked like we were “in the clear.”

My friend and I hired a boat to take us out along the coast where we could just relax and watch the emerald shoreline and sandy beaches. A father and son team drove the boat at a relaxed pace and we were having what felt like out first moment of letting go. We pulled ashore on a random sandy beach and I asked the father if it would be okay if I jumped in for a swim. The water was so clean and glassy… He said yes so I stripped down to my bikini and being comfortable in the water, I dove off the boat head first.

Diving into the water felt cool and soothing at first. But within seconds, what felt like normal, salty ocean turned into a vat of acid. I was on fire! My whole body felt as thought it had been skinned and had a combination of lemon juice and salt poured over it. I struggled to the surface, gasped for air and began screaming my head off. I had no idea what was going on, but quickly the father and son boatmen had me back in the boat and headed to town. On the way, they told me that yes, it is common for jellyfish and stinging ocean spiders to frequent the area -- why was I surprised? My poor friend spent the whole trip back trying to remind me to breathe (there she was, reminding a yoga instructor to breathe) and pouring cold water on me.

Red gashes began to welt all over me. From head to toe. The pain was so unbearable, I could only stop screaming long enough to ask “why didn’t they tell me there were jellyfish?” My friend would shake her head in bewilderment. “Why did they tell me it was okay to jump in the water?” Again, what could she answer? In response to her silence, I would just resume my wailing, which ranged from an all out shriek to a low moan.

It was certainly not in my fantasy of “relaxing vacation” to blast into the town pharmacy soaking wet, wearing only a bikini, screaming bloody murder and pointing to my skin. The locals didn’t need to speak English. They knew exactly what had happened, and even though my Spanish is limited, I could decipher something like “oh, there goes another white American girl getting stung by a jellyfish.” They gave me some topical cream and Benadryl and sent me back to the hotel. My poor friend gave me a Xanax and put me to bed.

Turns out that jellyfish are the gift that keeps on giving. Three weeks later, when I was home and trying to put the whole experience behind me, I started to break out in hives, have dizzy spells, nausea and a racing pulse.  I had no idea what was happening but a doctor friend explained that poison can easily take three weeks to go through your system and having a delayed allergic reaction is more than common for what I experienced.  

It was then that I finally decided to look up “jellyfish sting” on Web MD to see if I could learn anything about it. Why it took me so long to do such an obvious thing I have no idea, but the first thing I read was that some stings can kill a human. Great. And if one gets stung on a large area, a doctor should be visited immediately. A large area was considered to be “a whole arm” or “a whole leg.” I was incredulous. Whole arm? Whole leg? I was stung on both arms, both legs, my back, my butt, my chest, my stomach and all over my face -- not a patch of exposed skin had escaped. How could there have been so many of them? No wonder I was “uncomfortable.”

This was information enough, but what I read next was the real shocker. (And yes, I’m sure you’ll be going to Web MD to verify this.) In some areas including Central America, jellyfish have -- and I kid you not this is what they called it -- “Reproductive Gatherings” 10 days after the full moon.

Reproductive Gatherings? You mean an orgy?

Did Web MD actually reference the full moon? Are they kidding?

I looked at the calendar and sure enough, my jellyfish incident had happened at exactly 10 days after the full moon.

I had jumped into a jellyfish orgy.

I made a mental note to be more specific in my prayers. When I had asked for “some action” to help me get past my most recent break up, I should have been more precise. Getting in on some jellyfish action wasn’t really what I had in mind. It has taken me a year to find any of this funny. But as the statute of limitations has closed, I have to chuckle. Prayers answered, are prayers answered.

Now, when anyone asks for advice on how to spice up their life, I feel like a witch giving out magical instructions…”Next time you’re feeling lonely, wait until ten days after the full moon, fly to a remote area in Nicaragua and jump in the ocean. It is there that you will find love…”

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