I kept thinking about home on the way to a sea turtle conservation center located at the northern most tip of Zanzibar, in the village of Nungwi. It was an early, rain-soaked Saturday morning, and as we wound up Zanzibar’s roads lined with lush green banana leaves and bursting coconut palms, I was thinking a lot about how we end up anywhere, circumstance or crisis, birth or burden.
I was on a bus full of scholars and fellows from America, on a bus full of young people with expansive futures, plugged into I-pod sounds and twitter feeds that fill them with promise. Here we were together on a class trip, off to the see the sea turtles who lived, protected, in the small aquarium built as a joint partnership between Zanzibar and other nations.
Under a drizzly, overcast sky, our guide introduced us to these marbled creatures with flippers, floating in the murky, dark green pool. Standing there with our shiny pink and green umbrellas, we watched as our guide threw vitamin-rich fists of green into the water, drawing nearly fifteen sea turtles to the edge of the wooden boardwalk where we all stood in a huddle, marvelling their ancient shelled bodies.
There, in the rain, we learned that sea turtles are incredible travelers with an innate compass tilted toward home. Their entire life cycles are defined by being homeward bound, with great distances traveled across the seas – hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home — all the while knowing instinctively that one day they’ll return to the place where they were born.
From those earliest hours, their be ings are bound by the sand in which they were hatched. The sex of a turtle is determined by its temperature — the hotter sand, the more female the egg. Some say the mama secretes salty tears and enters a nesting trance when burrowing her eggs in the sand. A single mama can lay one hundred eggs, and once firmly buried, she leaves those hatchlings to emerge on their own, usually at night, during a rainstorm, while she is already far from the shore, on her way to a new or familiar feeding spot.
That’s the most extraordinary thing about sea turtles — they swim far, far away from their nesting grounds where they hang out and mingle with other sea turtles that have also travelled perplexingly far distances from their homes. There, sea turtles stay for varying lengths of time in the great Diaspora of Sea Turtles, until, that is, it’s time to nest.
When it comes time to lay eggs, the female turtle will always return to the place where she herself emerged on the nesting shore and made her way to swim or sink at sea. She can be gone for years, but when it comes time to hatch her eggs, she knows instinctively to head back to where she came from, no matter the distance or the struggle to get there.
Our guide told us that a sea turtle’s poor eyesight actually makes it quite a struggle for them to return home, and yet, according to some marine biologists, it’s a sea turtle’s innate sense of the earth’s magnetic fields that leads a sea turtle home to nest again. They can barely see the road they make by swimming. They feel their way home. They are pulled toward it. Yes, they struggle, but they are bound by the pull itself to return.
In the drizzling rain, I sat under the thatched roof of a little shelter facing the sea, and kept wondering if human females are anything like the sea turtle ladies. Is there some part of us that will always be pulled home again? No matter how far we travel will our bodies lead us homeward bound?
I can’t help but thinking it’s a certain kind of blindness that leads away from our nesting grounds, too. We want to see what’s over there. We want our eyes to see otherwise. We want to sing that naive melody that lulls us into building and taking down our many temporary nests in places far from home. What makes any of us travel, leave home, take jobs, follow loves, sign up for conferences and cohorts in other cities and spaces?
I’m talking here about the ultimate privilege of moving – of agency – of desire and power that allows us to begin and end multiple lives in multiple places without much consequence, except, hopefully, the good kind – love, good fortune, joy, beauty, friendship. I’m definitely not talking about those who are forced or running from homes. And I guess it’s not even fair to say that home should in any way be defined by some sort of assumed comfort.
Arts collaborator and dear friend Rachel McIntire considers nesting one of life’s essential practices – one’s aesthetic, one’s way of being in the world, creating beautiful, functional, safe spaces, no matter how far from our original homes, the womb, and all that comes with it. Can every place be home if we make it so ?
I want to say yes – home is where we make it. Home is not a place, it’s a feeling. But there’s something really powerful about place and the feelings it stirs. And that feeling is about magnetism, far-flung from any sort of logic. I also gather it’s rooted in the senses and familial sense as well. If we’re anything at all like sea turtles, there’s only one home and we’re bound to return there if possible at some point, barring obstacles that would keep us from our return.
I am not certain that home is where I was born, or that Skokie, IL is my nesting ground, but those sweet little Zanzibar sea turtles got me thinking about how far we’re all willing to boomerang out into the universe before we find ourselves flung back in time to the place where we “belong.” You’re a stranger even to paradise if you weren’t born there.
Maybe home is anywhere that makes us feel this must be the place.
And so I end this essay lip-syncing one of my favourite songs for you. And I’m lip-syncing these Byrne lyrics with fervour. Opening my mouth wide open. Squeezing my eyes shut. Singing out loud. Because maybe I can sing my way home and, like sea turtles, I don’t have to look too hard for a certain way back. I don’t even have to see. I can just be pulled back through those magnetic fields, spiral back to move forward.
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It’s okay, I know nothing’s wrong, nothing
Hey, I got plenty of time
Hey, you got light in your eyes
And you’re standing here beside me
Out of the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight
Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home, she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me ?
There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this where I’ll be, where I’ll be
Hey, we drift in and out
Hey, sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I’m just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you’ll love me ’til my heart stops
Love me ’til I’m dead
Eyes that light up, eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head
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You do write very well.
Here is a tale about turtles in Nungwi.
In 2001 or thereaabouts when Sazani was still remote turtles laid their eggs in the deep sand below the new beach bar. It was a secret I watched over. One fine morning the turtle eggs hatched at breakfast time and the baby turtles ran for the sea. But the crows were ready and swooped upon the new hatchlings. The guests and I were pro turtle and and anti crow so we leapt up to scare the crows and protect the turtles most of whom thus made it to the foam on the incoming tide.
I stayed there, most often in that bar, watching the tides another seven years but I never saw the turtles again. That remote place-Sazani, “the place beyond” became much less remote in the follownig years. Though not crowded, my whale like dawn swim was largely undisturbed.
By and by I went home: I had traveled, been gone and moved much in the forty years I had been gone from my village in England. I never married, nor had children, lived more or less only in hotels. some of which I ran. So whe came the time to come home I went back by the same instinct to the place where I was born. No longer Bata Kubwa but back to being Casa.
Yet, as I remember Zanzibar, remember lost and wonderful love, anwer the query as we walk between golf shots on the Links, as old men do, “What took you there? What brought you back?” I have never yet said anything about the day, the unique day, the turtles hatched. I watched for them seven years more but they never hatched again.
… So awe inspiring….7 years later and I’m taking 3 year old daughter to experience what took me back to Zanzibar … Swimming with the dolphins!
My only hope is that she actually gets to experience this.
Your experience with the turtles is one that’s truly memorable, just like mine