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Day 15 – He Could Just Take Me in Circles and I’d Be Happy (A Diver’s First Dive)

March 18, 2010

Dateline: Ko Phi-Phi Leh, Thursday, March 18, 2010

I’m a special forces secret agent man. I’m seated on the edge of the speedboat, back to the water at Viking Cave near Ko Phi-Phi Leh. The scuba mask and regulator are pressed into my face with my right hand. My left is pressed against the weight belt. The wetsuit bulges in places, some flattering and some not so much. The water laps against the side of the boat. I can barely hear it because I’m breathing like Darth Vader. I am a dark Sith Lord.

I cross my fins and prepare to enter the water. I inhale deeply and push myself backwards into the ocean. My back hits the water and the world is all upside down and bubbles.

I am Bond. James Bond. This is cool.

This is just the beginning.

Some people have a hard time getting used to the idea that they can breathe underwater. I’m not one of them. I’ve always loved swimming. I’ve always wished I didn’t have to come up for air. One of my favorite things to do in a pool is to swim along the bottom. Skimming the floor feels like flying.

Scuba takes that feeling to the next level. Scuba is like skimming the bottom of the pool, except you never have to come up for air and instead of soaring over concrete, you’re flying over a living coral reef. I am an underwater Superman, soaring higher than the highest reef.

I’m not saying I’m a great diver. Today, I had a terrible time of finding “neutral buoyancy,” the state in which you are neither floating to the surface nor sinking to the bottom. Also, since everything underwater is magnified by a third, I’d run into Denis, my scuba instructor. There’s still a lot to learn. I do, though, like the feeling of flying.

There are moments during that first dive where I feel serenity. When I hover in the water as a giant school of fish dart backwards and forwards and around me, I feel as if I’m in a shimmering, living fog.

Denis flicks at a cuttlefish and it instantly changes into a brilliant color, darts away, and returns to the color of the sand. A huge batfish eases by me and I feel like I’m visiting the best aquarium in the world.

I see Nemo and his dad sitting in the middle of an anemone. Through the first dive, I end up meeting every cast member of the movie except the pelican. I am a celebrity stalker.

Denis points out this fish and this coral and that sea horse and that squid. I’m so fascinated with what it feels like to breathe underwater, though, that he could just take me in circles and I’d be happy staring at the sand.

The second dive round the corner from Maya Bay is even better. The place is called Arai Godai, because the guides got tired of trying to tell boat drivers where to go. “Around the corner from Maya Bay. No the other way around. But not Viking Cave. Etc. etc.” In the end, they settled on Arai Godai which, in Thai, means “whatever.”

If you recall, Maya Bay was crowded with tourists. Beneath the surface, Arai Godai is crowded with awesomeness. I feel like I’ve taken acid and am watching the nature channel.

By this point, I’m so comfortable in the water that when Denis gives me the hand signal for shark, I’m not even fazed. We are floating around a leopard shark that’s resting on the bottom. Part of its tail’s been sheared off by a boat propeller.

Denis points out a turtle that’s finning its way to the surface. I am watching National Geographic on a 5,000 inch HD LED 3D TV.

A school of snapper are hovering in the current. They give us a sideways glance, mostly because their eyes are in the sides of their heads. I look up and I see a school of smaller fish whipping around the pinnacle of the reef to get away from us divers. I am Ariel in the Little Mermaid.

It’s an epic day of firsts. First time I’ve been under 12 meters (36 feet) of water. First time I’ve entered the ocean like I’m on a Navy SEAL dive team. First time I’ve stared into the haze of the deep ocean and not been totally terrified (this time I panicked, just slightly, then turned off my brain). First time I fell in love with diving.

Looks like I’ve found my next expensive hobby. I feel like Jacques Cousteau but without any money. Sure beats swimming along the bottom of the pool.

Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Learn to breathe like a fish, it will cut down on the costs of diving.

Not So Stupid Tip: Buy a dry bag, which you can get at just about any outdoor store. It’s one of those rucksack things that is waterproof, whose opening folds down on itself, and either clips or velcros down to keep the contents dry. It’s one of the most handy items I’ve brought so far.

For example, when you ride speedboats, it keeps your camera and book and shirt dry. When I’ve done boat transfers and there’s no dock, you have to walk in the water to shore. The dry bag is worth its weight there, too. I keep one in my pack at all times just in case it rains. The also bag keeps out dust and dirt, which was helpful when I almost climbed up into the lagoon.

Just trust me on this. The dry bag doesn’t have to be that big. No need for an over the shoulder model unless you’re really planning on going into the water all the time. It’s something you should have, even if you’re bringing proper luggage and not just a backpack.

Programming Note: Lars left today. After six months of travel, he’ll be back in Holland. He put himself on the overnight bus to Bangkok and is catching a flight out tomorrow. I don’t envy him. We ended up chatting last night about just how weird it is to live in America (having a house and Senate, how NYC isn’t America, trial by jury, America’s national food, etc. etc.). Good stuff.

On my end, this means I’m now paying double for a room with no sink. Not so good stuff.

Such is life on the road, though. Best of luck to Lars and his transition back into the real world. Since he’s going to Amsterdam, perhaps he can find a way to blunt the culture shock.

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