I’ve been gone a long time. When I wake up in the morning and look out my window, the deep topaz sky over Carmel Valley is so inviting. Palm fronds clack at my window, beckoning me outside. Despite the faux tropical landscape and the beach-babe cutouts, San Diego is bloated with serious natural wonders.
One sunny day I make plans to go snorkeling with my sister and her kids at the Cove. It is noon, the seagulls yelp, the kelp glows amber. Despite the fact that it is a Monday, it’s crowded and I can’t find a spot on the beach. Squished between cliff walls and surrounded by five different towels, each its own fiefdom, I manage to situate myself semi-comfortably in my area for a while, watching an ambiguously European family spray some aerosol substance all over each other. The youngest son seems more interested in the BBQ-flavor Pringles than the scenery.
I waddle into the sparkling ocean waters and maneuver my way through fins and swim trunks. Suddenly one guy turns toward me and gurgles through his snorkel-face, “There’s a sea turtle!” There it is, fins flapping away, slowly disappearing into the watery blue shadows, elusive yet adorable. It wouldn’t have been more magical if we had just seen a unicorn. Even though I was born and raised in San Diego, I had never seen or heard of sea turtles here.
And so my summer ended in San Diego. I had no job and was completely broke. It was only two weeks since I had moved back into my parents’ house after living in San Francisco.
I have a lot of pressure to realize the American dream. My father is Syrian, my mother is American. Ever since I was a kid I have been told how great it is to be an Atassi. I’m told that being an Atassi in Syria is something akin to being a Kennedy in America. Sure, we’ve had our share of Syrian presidents in the past, but these days Atassis are getting ridiculously educated abroad. We have even published books about our great legacy. In fact, someone has put them in the University of Michigan Dearborn Library.
Being an Atassi heiress is something I might mention casually to boyfriends to mix things up. It’s a convenient parlor trick. I even got complimentary baklava once.
It’s difficult to explain my obscure interests and myriad hobbies, such as solving the turtle mystery, to my family. I do some research and find that it is actually an Eastern Pacific green turtle with a distribution typically between 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south. San Diego is right outside this range. Was that turtle I saw smuggled home over the Mexican border in a suitcase packed with novelty-size sombrero hats and artisan ceramics? All it would take is one accidental spill down the storm drain for a clutch of eggs to spawn an exotic species.
San Diego is home to a thriving and established colony of approximately 60 turtles. There are several stories explaining their origins.
One story describes the sea turtles as renegades busted free from turtle-meat farms where they awaited slaughter during the earlier half of the 20th Century. Another eerily posits the turtles being attracted to the warm-water canals of the power plant in south San Diego Bay.
Sandwiched between Interstate 5 and the South Bay, the electric power plant sits on the edge of the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. This complicates things because it seems these endangered sea turtles are protected in an area where they exist artificially. To a species swimming around, foraging for eel grass and generally being turtles, it makes no difference.
I call ecologist Jeff Seminoff at the Marine Turtle Research Program for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. According to his findings, the turtles are in the bay for the bounty of eel grass. That thing about tropical power-plant waters is a rumor, he says. He goes on to explain that sea turtles travel thousands of miles foraging for food. The Navy plants eel grass out in the Bay.
“Imagine you are a sea turtle,” he says. “Wouldn’t you stay here, too?”
He seems rushed, and we don’t get to talk much before the phone conversation ends. His obvious explanation doesn’t explain why there are so many stories about the turtles.
One day, back in San Francisco, I was having a chat with my fun-loving boss, Mustafa. He owned Cafe du Soleil, where I worked as a barista. Mustafa held a wad of receipts in one hand and used the other to pour beer from the tap. The foam spilled onto the bills, when he said to me, “You’re young, you don’t need to be so serious. Just go have fun, get yourself a boyfriend or two, get yourself a girlfriend — I’m not the kind to judge — enjoy yourself. I’m stuck here, I gotta go down to city hall, I gotta get some papers signed, the kids are driving me nuts, the customers…”
I sold everything I owned and flew to South America.
My parents reminded me I was running out of money, but I explained that the exchange rate would actually make me better off. All I needed was my backpack.
When I came home, my dad took me to Syria. It was a bummer. The idea of getting married was brought up by relatives between suggestions about grad school. Why wasn’t I pursuing a profession or an engagement, the family asked. There was a cousin in Ukraine asking about me, and another man in Alberta, they said with optimism.
This was nothing new. While I was away in San Francisco, I would call home when I desperately needed cash. If I needed to see the dentist, my dad would suggest I marry one. There was a husband for whatever professional service was needed.
“There is a man in San Francisco asking about you,” he would say. “He just bought a Lexus, new!”
According to my dad, marriage would solve any of the self-inflicted headaches I was experiencing. Turning down marriage was as ludicrous as turning down free health insurance, which I still don’t have, free or otherwise.