My parents love to tell me about how terrified of everything I was as a child. One of their favorite anecdotes involves taking me to a county fair one summer and waiting in line for a pony ride. I would wait quietly in line with them, silently eying the lethargic equines as they trudged in a slow circle, each one guided by a bored-looking fair attendant. When we got to the front and my turn was imminent, everything about the ride started to change. The ponies were galloping around a massive track in what may have been a small version of the Kentucky Derby. Some of the children on their backs were experienced riders; the other children would hold on as best they could, but inevitably fall to the ground and die in a brutal pony trampling. The ponies’ backs were at least six meters high. I would need a ladder to climb onto them. And so, I panicked. It would have been implausible for a six-year-old (or, let’s be honest, a ten-year-old) to calmly state a change of mind, so I did the best I could to illustrate that I did not want to get on the pony. I screamed, cried, heaved, begged, and finally would point at a different ride a ways away with an equally long line and swear enthusiastically that that was the ride I wanted to go on. Relieved, I’d wipe my runny nose and happily follow my frustrated parents to the next line. And then the entire situation would repeat itself.
As an adult, my brain still functions pretty much the same way. My brain is the slightly overweight, British attendant featured in every Disney movie; whenever I’m gearing up for an adventure of some sort, it becomes overly vocal and does its best to convince me that I should pass on this one, that if I jump out of that plane or strap on that snowboard, I will inevitably die. (While waiting with Shar to skydive, my brain would dizzingly flip flop between adamantly stating that I would stay on the ground and watch her go and resolving to, more simply, beeline it out of there. )
It was much the same in Dahab, except the scorching sun and the gentle seabreeze and the scenery made it pretty hard to be nervous. While the divers went into Dahab, I spent the day at the pool doing absolutely nothing. And it was fabulous. I swam around and floated in the impossibly blue water, scanning the vermilion mountains in the distance, discordant peaks pushing against the sky; the tall, swaying palm trees around the pool; the blazing ball of sun; the pipe-tile roofs. I played “Where am I?” a game where I pretend I’ve just woken up in the place I’m currently at and have to guess where it is that I am. New Mexico. Arizona. Australia.
Around four, we headed into town and lounged at the Yalla Bar, sipping juice and non-alcoholic beverages. I began to get nervous. Why was I going to dive? What if my ears exploded? What if my tank didn’t work and I passed out? What if I couldn’t perform the skill correctly and inhaled gallons of water and drowned? What was down there for me anyway?
And the truth is, diving certainly has its share of dangers: the bends (decompression sickness), ruptured lungs, eardrums, drowning. It’s a sport that encourages participants to relax while at the same time issuing gentle reminders that it is very possible to rupture an eardrum if you don’t equalize properly. Water is 800 times denser than air, so the amount of pressure you feel at, say, ten meters is something akin to the amount of pressure you’d feel 20,000 km in the air. And while most of your body is liquid and the water pressure doesn’t affect it that much, you do have air cavities in places like your sinuses, your ears, your lungs, your stomach. (And, possibly, a corroded tooth filling.) So if you don’t equalize when you have a squeeze, there’s a chance you’ll rupture an eardrum or, if you’re lucky, simply feel severe pain. (Are you running out to sign up for a course right now? No?)
I sat there like this for an hour until Kilian arrived and announced that the gear was ready and we could go. I followed him down to the “easy entrance” and finally switched off my brain. Although it was an intro dive, Kilian was all about teaching some of the skills required to successfully dive, and I liked this. It sounded way cooler than just having him carry me around like a suitcase, as his friend put it. I focused on everything he said. I breathed through the salty regulator. I memorized the equipment-checking acronym he taught me. I carefully noted how to perform each skill. Then it was time to suit up.
One website estimates that the oxygen tank and BCD collectively weigh about 56 pounds. This obviously excludes the weight belt you have to wear, probably because the weight amount differs from person to person. Let me tell you. There’s nothing quite like waddling over a shore of rocks and loose pebbles in booties with 56 pounds of equipment on your back. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall over and flail like an incapacitated turtle.
We waded into the water and inflated the BCDs. I put on my fins. I swam backward until he told me to stop. And then we went under.
The first few minutes I felt pretty disoriented. My ears were crackling from the pressure and I nearly panicked because of it. But Kilian was a pretty solid teacher and took me down very slowly until we were at a sandy slope of bottom not far from where people were swimming in the water.
Here, I took off my regulator, exhaled, cleared it, and put it back in. I threw it over my shoulder and made the proper motions to bring it back to my mouth. I cleaned my mask – rather unsuccessfully – and cleared it. I experienced buoyancy by inhaling and exhaling. It was extraordinary. I watched him intently and tried my best to do everything as he did it. And while I thought I would panic, I did not.
Finally, it was time to explore the reef. Kilian controlled my buoyancy and carried me around like a suitcase. And while my ears occasionally seared with the pain I feel in airplanes, it was totally worth it. There was way too much to see. It was like stumbling on an entirely new and different world.
There were corals and parrotfish and lionfish and, the highlight of the dive, a massive Napoleonfish swimming beneath us. It was unreal. We were only underwater for about a half an hour, but it was phenomenal. Fish were everywhere. Light penetrated the water, highlighting the reefs and colors all around us. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done.
When we came up to the surface, my ears hurt again. The sun was setting. Although I was partially deaf, I couldn’t help but shout out how wonderful it had been. (Later, Kilian told me that I looked ridiculous and had drool all over my face, a misplaced mask, and apparently a strange overbite I didn’t know I had. I like to think this wasn’t the case, but knowing me, it probably was.)
The rest of the trip to Dahab was perfect in its own way; we went out that night and spent an hour at Rush talking about travel and openmindedness and the world. We spent the next day in the pool playing a wonderfully vicious game of water polo. We spent another five hours driving home. It was perfect.
So the moral of this entry is:
Seriously. Go and do it. Right now. Face whatever fear you have of being underwater, because it’s so absolutely worth it. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. It’s exhilarating. And while you’ll spend the rest of your day in a happy, oxygen-filled environment, your head will still be swimming underwater somewhere on its own.