(Mis)Adventures of Yin & Yang: Scuba Newbie (1)
Have you ever felt the need to challenge yourself, “just because”?
It is my birthday. We are in a stunningly beautiful resort in Phi Phi, and have just arrived at the activities center to enquire about a scuba diving lesson.
As a birthday present to me (I’d like to imagine) A has agreed to try scuba as well.
Before giving us any information, the lady behind the counter looks to me and says “I’m sorry sweetie, please don’t mind my asking. But can you even swim?”
I feel like slapping her. She has instantly assumed, because of my nationality, that chances are that I can’t swim. (AND she has used the word “sweetie”).
She is right of course, but I’m still indignant… I want to tell her about my mom and my aunts (all of whom at various points in the distant past have taken me for swimming lessons) and the four swimming instructors. Unfortunately, as my brother, cousins, best friend (and her sister!) all graduated to the deep end of the pool, I just kept languishing in the shallows.
“No, not really. I know how to, but can’t swim very well. But you’ll have ropes right?” is all I can manage. I decide it’ll probably not help to tell her that I hate putting my head under water.
“No sweetie, there are no ropes! Since you’ll be in water, some basic knowledge of swimming is useful. But the first step is, you’ve got to want to do it. So you’re really half way there! Why don’t you try the lessons in the swimming pool first?”, she says and then gives us some more information.
But has already lost us as customers.
“Great, she has made me even more nervous”, I say to A as we walk out.
“Kan, are you sure you want to do this? Do you even know what it’s going to be like?”
Actually I don’t. I imagine it is going to be crazily scary. Or it could be fantastic. I don’t know, and I would like to find out.
“Look, the guy at Aquanauts did not say that I necessarily needed to know swimming”, I retort.
So, we take a long-tail boat and head to Tonsai Bay Pier in search of their dive centre.
It is rainy season and the sea is choppy.
“Can you imagine plunging into THAT”, asks A.
“Nope!”, I say, while trying to ignore the fact that the boat is eerily reminiscent of the one that Pi Patel found himself on. I just hope that I can find my inner Richard Parker.
We walk into the dive center, and almost turn on our heels (It is one of those, very basic looking joints). Before we can do that however, we are greeted by the manager, Hugo.
He instantly makes us feel comfortable and starts explaining the dive process. We are going to be wearing BCDs (Bouancy Control Devices) so that we will float in water. By adjusting the volume of air in the device, we can sink or rise back up in the water easily. We’ll have one instructor between the two of us, who will guide us all the way. In a stroke of genius, he equates the dive experience to tandem skydiving. Instantly he has me sold.
We meet Raz, our instructor, who helps us find diving gear in our sizes. He is really friendly, and as it turns out, has worked in the Andamans in India before.
Thus, we return to our resort in the evening, feeling relaxed and much more confident.
As we settle into bed after a romantic private BBQ dinner, I even dare to dream about my own moment of transcendence (in Hrithik Roshan fashion).
We wake up early, marvel at the gorgeous colors of the morning sky and vow to make an effort to rise earlier while on vacation.
The sea is calmer and seems more inviting as we make our way to Tonsai Bay Pier.
We will be doing two dives at different sites that day. Before doing a deeper dive, we need to do some exercises in the water. Raz covers basics of those, and provides instructions on using the scuba equipment (the mask to help see under water, the regulator to fit in the mouth and breathe through, the BCD, the fins for our feet, etc.) and on ear equalization (to equalize the pressure underwater) techniques.
Besides the crew, there are 4 other people on the boat with us as we make our way to the first dive site. Two, who are trying to get their PADI certification, their instructor, and a fourth diver with one of those deeply tanned, leathery skins which make it seem that he just spends all his time out in the glare of the equatorial sun.
My heart starts beating faster as the boat stops. A gives me a nervous look and we start changing into our wet suits.
Raz slides the straps of the oxygen tank on to our shoulders and helps me put on the fins.
I try to get up and am able to manage only a few inches before the weight of the tank pulls me back onto the wooden bench.
“F**K, this thing is heavy!”, I exclaim as I manage to stand after a humongous effort.
The other divers have long gone and Raz jumps into the water as well. A follows him, executing an elegant just-step-off-the-boat-and-land-in-the-water move.
I put my mask on, and suddenly can’t breathe, hear or see very well. The weight of the oxygen tank is really uncomfortable and the fins make me clumsy.
“Just step off”, they yell. I try to, but keep clutching at the sides of the boat. Finally one of the crew members just pushes me in and I land, spluttering, in the water.
Raz starts A with some exercises, which he manages fine. These involve removing your regulator under water and then putting it back in your mouth, and clearing out water from your mask by blowing through your nose.
My turn arrives and I put on the mask, clutch the regulator between my teeth, and lower into the water.
My heart starts beating in my head. “Air, I need air”, I think. The regulator provides ample supply of oxygen for my lungs, yet I have this urge to breathe through my nose. I can’t do that because the mask encases my nose and has no air supply. I feel like I am suffocated. I am sure I am going to drown. Notwithstanding Raz’s gesticulations, there is no way I will let go of my regulator.
After an agonizing minute, I am back up in five seconds.
This goes on for a long while, but Raz is extremely patient. “Just be calm and breathe slowly”, he advises.
Instead of making me do the exercises he suggests we go for bit of a shallow dive.
We go underwater, and I try and follow his advice, focusing on breathing slowly, feeling the oxygen fill up my lungs.
As we descend further, a pain starts pulling inside my ears. I panic momentarily, but remember the equalization exercises.
Things improve. I calm down and start to notice the fish. There are soooo many of them in unimaginable colors! And the rocks on the sea bed!
Seizing the moment, Raz asks me to remove my regulator and try putting it back in. Amazingly, I am able to manage all the different exercises in one go.
We come back up and it’s A’s turn. He’s really enjoying this s**t, and has learnt to control the inflator on his BCD device, to make him less dependent on the instructor.
My turn again, and we descend underwater. This time as I move my legs to swim forward, I get a cramp, and want to scream out as a sharp pain starts shooting through my calf. Without realizing it, I clutch at my mask and yank it off my face. Thankfully, Raz catches this movement, and we hastily come back up to the surface, with me having inhaled only a bit of water.
It’s time to get back on the boat and on to our next dive site. A and I look at each other in triumph (for what we have just accomplished) and trepidation (there is more yet to be done).
The second dive site is deeper and we will be going a maximum depth of 12 meters.
We put our gear back on, without assistance this time, and A jumps into the water like a pro. I don’t need to be pushed and manage a half decent plunge.
The water is choppier here. As I descend in the water, all the previous feelings of terror re-surface. I try to calm down and breathe slowly. It doesn’t work. I need to breathe through my nose.
I just know at this point, that there is no way I’ll be able to control this fear through a depth of 40 feet, far away from the surface of the water.
So… I opt out and get back up on the boat.
What can I say? I am a creature of the land. Of the mountains. Of the skies. I like to breathe through my nose! Yoga & meditation – may be that’s the key to having better luck with scuba next time.
P.S. In celebration of completing my 30-day post-a-day challenge, tomorrow I will have A do a guest blog and tell you about his experience. Read both, and then make up your mind regarding scuba diving 🙂