I love water. I love being in water. I love being in deep water. I love being upside down in deep water. I love gliding through it, feeling its silky caress against my skin. I love the aquamarine blueness of it, the way the light dances through it, the way I drift and float and submerge and emerge with perfect ease and grace. I love the serenity of this glowing world to which I can escape and suspend time — until my lungs oblige me to surface for a little bit of oxygen.
You can imagine, then, the appeal of staying in this underwater world indefinitely, unconcerned about the trivialities of inhaling and exhaling — just drifting from one delight to the next in a slow ballet of submarine bliss.
Scuba diving, I thought, is exactly what my life has been missing. I must go scuba diving. I will be a natural at manoeuvring through this liquid paradise. I will feel utterly at ease in my favoured element.
I chose a diving club called “Atlantis” something-or-other. It seemed fitting, given that I was on the Greek isle of Santorini, so close to the mythical sunken city. The person with whom I corresponded via email was sensibly named (Marta, I believe it was), and therefore must be reliable. The fee was 20 Euros less than the other companies I looked at. Perfect, I thought. Atlantis it is.
I was herded into the official Atlantis pick-up truck at the designated pick-up point, and transported to the “office” where I was to suit up.
“First time?” The guy at the desk grunted with a knowing laugh. He had the look, but none of the meekness, of a not-quite-obese Christ figure (think sweat pants, pot belly and ponytail). He seemed amused at my growing discomfort. Amused.
The others in the group all appeared to be experienced divers. One was on his 60-somethingth dive. He was friendly and knowledgeable. He spoke the comfortable English of the Pacific Northwest. This man will rescue me, I thought, if Sweat Pants can’t make it to me on time.
Still, I had understood that this would be a beginners’ group. Would I be expected to plop backwards into the water with the rest of them and figure it out as I went along? Sweat Pants’ grin was starting to seem a little malicious.
“Sign this,” he grunted (Greeks are big on grunting, if you haven’t noticed). The waiver held ominous text absolving Atlantis of any responsibility for my well-being, even if my injury or death is a direct result of their negligence. I was relieved when the ink in my pen ran out before I reached the end of my signature. Maybe it wouldn’t count.
Beside the waiver was a statement requesting my confirmation that the instructor had taught me a bunch of things (like how to rise and sink, I suspect, and other gear-related miscellanea that I did not understand). I did not sign. Surely he will explain these things before we leave, and then I will sign, I thought. But he uttered not a word, and I never did sign.
I filled out the medical questionnaire, which he cast off without a glance. He did not ask me if I knew how to swim. He did not ask me if I would be flying in the next 18 hours. He left me standing there with my faulty pen and more than a few misgivings.
Soon there arrived a charming Bangladeshi couple that looked equally uneasy. Well, Mr. Charming was a happy neutral. But Ms. Charming was rife with trepidation. We bonded immediately in our mutual anxiety.
We got on the boat. Sweat Pants drove off in the official Atlantis pick-up truck, and left us in the hands of three swaggering anti-Christs. One was a woman, sustaining herself casually on Coke, cigarettes, and chocolate bars as she stripped off her leather jacket and wiggled into her wetsuit. The other two were bare-chested jocks (razor-bare, I suspect, and rippling with pagan virility). They, too, grinned and grunted, but never spoke a word of welcome or explanation. Get in the boat. We’re off.
In 7 to 8 minutes we dropped anchor off the shore of a jaggedly beautiful little island (as all Greek islands are, I suspect). Jock #1 rattled off a series of instructions to the experienced divers. Hand signals, equipment, 40 minutes, 40 metres, stick with your buddy, off you go, and plop, off they went. Good-bye.
The snorkelers received a similar rapid-fire series of heavily accented remarks, and plop, off they went as well. I was beginning to envy the snorkelers.
Our turn. Me and the Bangladeshi Charmings. Plug your nose and blow to depressurize your ears. Put the regulator in your mouth. Don’t stop breathing. Never stop breathing. Put your face in the water. Plop.
Face-down, so far so good. Except that I keep rolling over. These tanks (not exactly feather-weights) keep shifting around on my back and pulling me this way and that. Oh look, someone’s flipper (called a “fin” in the scuba world, I later deduced) is on the bottom of the sea. How irresponsible to litter this sublime environment with discarded fins. Someone should really retrieve it. But not me. It takes all my concentration to avoid taking on the posture of a dead bug.
“Keep your face in the water,” I tell myself. “Belly down. Breathe. Don’t stop breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.” I do not like the noise my breathing makes. I am the Darth Vader of the marine underworld. How do I even know what’s in these tanks, anyway?
“Hold onto the side of the boat,” barked the jock. “You lost your fin,” he glared accusingly. “What are you looking for?” He asked impatiently. “It’s in your hand!” He rolled his eyes.
Let me repeat that. He rolled his eyes. There are three tubes sticking out from my tank. Only one of them is the one I am to affix to my mouth, and therefore my lungs. One would like to ensure that one has the correct tube before inhaling. Understandably. But he rolled his eyes.
My fin fell off again. “You’re kicking too hard. You must be gentle.” Like you? I sincerely wished I could just do an honest eggbeater.
“We are going down now,” grunted Poseidon. Here’s me thinking, we’ll go down for a few seconds and see how it feels, and then come back up and debrief. “How did it feel?” he’ll say. “Do you have any questions?” he’ll ask, with gentle-minded concern for my emotional well-being.
I had a glaring question, and a few corollaries: What do I do if I’m in trouble? How do I come back up if I need to? What are these gadgets attached to my tank? Are those weights you’re affixing to my body?
But we did not resurface for glaring questions and corollaries. We did not resurface at all. We stayed down there. And by “down there,” I mean at the bottom of the sea. Now, it might not have been a very deep part of the sea. Maybe only a few metres. But Poseidon abandoned me in the depths (because I was the best swimmer, apparently) while he attended to the less nautically-inclined Charmings.
Breathing felt yucky. The bottom of the sea felt yucky. My tanks felt yucky. I could look nowhere but down, because if I turned my head, I rolled over. Where was Poseidon?
My unease was tending toward panic. “I’ll just swim up again,” I thought. But there were weights — weights — anchoring me in the underworld. I had no control over my own movements. Poseidon returned and flashed me the universal “Okay?” gesture. I responded with what I thought was the scuba-specific “not really” gesture, which he ignored as he swam away.
When he returned at last, he took my hand and the hand of Ms. Charming, and off we went. Further. Deeper. Breathe. Breathe. He tried to shake off my death-grip on his hand to point out some fish that in any other circumstance I might consider pretty. He showed Ms. Charming how to tap on the bottom of the sea with a rock. For what purpose, I have no idea. To beckon the fish? To tap out a desperate SOS? I never did find out.
I didn’t care about the fish. I didn’t care about Mr. Charming, who was left to fend for himself while we terrified women desperately clutched at our demigod for support. I didn’t care about the dappling of the sunlight through the crystal-clear Aegean Sea. I wanted my head above the surface. Now.
Eventually Poseidon corralled the three of us into his grasp and we swam in a direction that I thought might be up. We broke the surface and he pressed a magic button that inflated me and set me bobbing in the tender-loving safety of the upper-world. He ripped off my fins and sent me to the other side of the boat, where I eventually hauled myself on deck, with the help of the Pacific Northwest.
I lurched to a seat on the boat. I was gasping for air. I was shaking violently. I was reeling. No one noticed except for the Pacific Northwest, who noted my discomfort and turned away. I didn’t stop shaking for hours.
We ate pathetic snacks and drank water from unsanitary cups. The others suited up and plopped back into the water for a second go. I sat on the boat conflictedly. I paid 100 Euros for this experience that I myself had chosen and anticipated with great pleasure. The “instructor,” however brash, did seem to know what he was doing. He does this all the time. I just need to settle my mind. It will be better the second time.
I asked a few of my glaring questions and their corollaries, which he answered curtly with “I already told you that” and “I will just know if you need help. I am an expert.”
With some coaxing, I think I could have done it. With some gentle prodding, and some clearer explanations of hand signals and gadgets and weights and inflators, I could probably have mastered myself and had the full 100-Euro experience.
But he did none of these things. “Your turn,” he said, ready to strap the weights on me again (as in a Salem witch trial, I couldn’t help thinking). “I don’t know if I can,” I said timidly. This was a clear invitation for encouragement and a display of friendly reassurance.
He rolled his eyes. “As you wish,” he snapped, and plopped into the water and was gone.
I sat on the boat with the Russian called Tonya whose job it was to sit on the boat and smoke. I fingered a snorkelling tube and considered paddling along face down on the surface. I even tentatively put it in my mouth. But I could not leave the boat. I did not swim around in the pristine Aegean Sea. I did not jump off the perfectly-safe cliffs with the other snorkelers. I did nothing but breathe, and shake, and berate myself for my cowardice.
Eventually the Charmings reemerged with their demigod. “OMG it was incredible! It was so beautiful! There were so many fish! I’ll never forget this! OMG OMG it was so incredible!” Happy, dripping wetsuit hugs. Tender affirmations of pride in one another. Charming.
Everyone else on this boat is half of a couple, I noted suddenly. Everyone else has someone to help them along. Everyone else has someone with whom to share this experience, be it “incredible” or panic-stricken or just one of sixty-something dives. I alone sat and trembled, unacknowledged.
But I had the power to acknowledge myself — my own shame, my regret, and, at the same time, my incredible relief to be in, and not under, the boat. I had the power to choose to trust or not trust this person who was utterly unconcerned with my well-being. I had the power to stay in the boat or plunge back into the depths, as I wished.
Did I make the “right” choice? Who knows? Most likely, a second dive would have been fine. I would have relaxed as I got more comfortable with the equipment, and I would have reveled in a submarine paradise that few in this world get to experience firsthand. Or, at the very least, I would have felt uncomfortable, but endured the experience and emerged unharmed. That is the likely scenario.
But what I could not get past was the possibility of damage to my inner self. Not my lungs or my blood or my eardrums, but that visceral part of me that insists on paying attention to my instincts for self-preservation.
It was a matter of trust, I realized. Trust in the apparatus — with which I had not been properly familiarized, and which felt like an oppressive alien life form intent on overturning me; trust in my instructor — who assumed no liability for my safety and no concern for my state of mind; and trust in myself — to quell my own panic and master my own movements unaided.
Given the shoddy preparation we had received for the endeavour, perhaps I was wise not to trust. Perhaps I did, in fact, demonstrate a higher trust in myself by staying in the boat than I would have by jumping in against my better judgement. Perhaps it took more courage to brush aside the others’ scorn than it would have taken to dive out of embarrassment rather than good sense.
It’s true, sometimes one must trust, because to do otherwise would be to cease living a meaningful life. Settling into an airplane seat for a flight over the Atlantic is like that. So is climbing into a Moroccan taxi, or undergoing surgery. One can choose against these things, but to do so is to choose confinement over freedom.
But sometimes, freedom means not trusting. It means weighing the facts of a situation and deciding clearheadedly that mistrust is a life-preserving and life-enhancing state of being. It means holding the power in one’s hands to trust only the trustworthy, and being content to exercise that power at will.
I would like to try scuba diving again one day — in a heated pool, with properly-worded waivers and safety-minded instructors who care about their clients. It’s not the act of diving that is the issue; it’s the demonstrated character of the guides that matters, and their response to the entirely valid perceptions of the people whose lives are in their hands.
In any case, I talked Sweat Pants into giving me a 20-Euro discount when it came time to pay, and then went on a three-hour cliffside hike across the island. My capacity for adventure is not permanently blighted, I hope. And one day, perhaps I will return with confidence (and certification!) to make my peace with the bottom of the Aegean Sea.