One of my greatest adventures in 2010 was learning to scuba dive. I have always been in love with people. Before I learned to dive, I did not know how much I loved fish. Once you see what lies beneath the surface, you life is changed forever. Isn’t that always the way? Below the waves waits Bob the Grouper. He hangs by the shallow Caribbean corals off the coast of Little Cayman Island in hopes that divers will swim by and stoke his scales. There is nothing like feeling the skin of a living fish suspended in water. There is nothing like diving.
After my slow start as a scuba diver in the cold water of the Puget Sound, I found myself on a trip to the Wakatobi Resort in Indonesia. I had a rudimentary idea of where I was going. Indonesia was somewhere above Australia. I had never heard of Sulawesi, the enormous U-shaped Island to the west and only knew of Bali to the south, through books and Hollywood films. The day I walked into my dive shop to inquire about dive locations, one precious space opened up on the trip to Indonesia. There had been a cancelation. It was the scuba adventure of a lifetime. I wrote a big fat check and tried to submerge the fear of traveling to the other side of the globe with strangers. Something was calling me. I was not about to miss it.
The location was exotic. The Wakatobi Dive Resort is situated on Tolandono, one of a circle of islands called Tukang Besi, southeast of Malaysia. The surrounding coral reefs extend for 100,000 square miles and encompass one of the largest protected marine parks in the world. From the air, the reefs look like a glass marble, swirls of turquoise, green, and blue. The scuba divers who stared down at the coral reefs below were awestruck. It is reassuring that nature such as this exists, and the excitement was tangible. We watched uninhabited jungle islands pass beneath us. The round dark tops of palm trees formed thick unbroken masses from shoreline to shoreline. There were no huts or roads to break the lush green vegetation. We felt lucky to be visiting a place that few tourists find. Places such as these are where divers go.
The plane landed at a tiny private airport. We were loaded into several ramshackle vans and driven through narrow island dirt roads past cinderblock style houses. Small children ran to the road to watch the vans pass. We hiked down the stone steps to our waiting resort boat. We watch the sea gypsies swim beside the dock. The sea gypsies are the Indonesian homeless who live on the water throughout the archipelago. We were handed pink welcoming drinks and iced towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Ours is not the life of most Indonesians. The children waved to us as we slip away into the darker blue water.
Wakatobi Dive Resort looks like the set from Gilligan’s Island. The waves lap against the narrow white sand beach where tall palms curve down and back up again, reaching for the sky. The smell of sea salt and jungle fill the air. We put down our drinks and made our way along shell lined paths to our bungalows. We had barely arrived, and it was time for our first dive. We rushed into our wetsuits to explore the house reef, one of the best in the world.
We only swam a few meters when the underworld magic of this coral reef was revealed. We released our air and sank below the surface to have a closer look. Like an underwater garden, the reef bloomed in color, shape, and texture. Everything was alive with activity. What appeared to be a feathery green and black fern was an animal reaching for food in the passing current. What seemed to be a sediment rock was a deadly stonefish waiting for prey. Anemones of pink or orange sheltered fish of matching colors. Camouflage and color is the way of life for creatures beneath the surface of the sea. Schools of dazzling striped or spotted fish swam around us. Some fish were both striped and spotted, as if the decision made at their creation was a jumbled error. I was amazed and gasped in my regulator, not for air, but in joy for the viewing the reef for the first time. I had been at Wakatobi for a matter of hours, and I had seen incredible things.
Divers seek tiny creatures like a treasure hunt, peering under ledges on rocks for slugs in brilliant blue and yellow. We hovered beside pink fan coral with magnifying glasses in search of pygmy sea horses. We strained our eyes at the sand looking for crocodile fish buried for protection. The moray eels yawned their jaws to display their teeth as we drifted on the current near their hiding holes. All the while the goby fish peered at us to see if we were predators while his enlisted shrimp dug his hole. Life continued nonstop in the ocean while we, for as long as our air allowed, watched and learned.
Nowhere is there a more beautiful place than a dive site named for ancient Rome. In Roma the giant barrel sponges look like the ruins of Pompei. At the bottom of a ridge, a giant cabbage coral grows in the shape of an enormous pink rose. As we swam in humble respect for the underwater Indonesian landscape we were experiencing, a school of large silver snapper swam by. Then quickly to our side, a regiment of bright blue fusiliers darted in precision across the rose.
Oh the fishies, the beautiful fishies. My instructor, Marielle, laughed at my pleasure as she wrote the names of fish on her slate. We could not speak. We had regulators in our mouths to keep the air flowing and us alive. Without the use of spoken words, we communicated to each other with our hands. We tapped our chests to tell each other how much we appreciated the unique sights that drifted by.
It is a bonding experience to engage in a life threatening activity with another person. A diver does not dive without his buddy. It is a dive buddy’s responsibility to make sure that his partner is safe. Every few minutes you make eye contact with your buddy and signal with your fingers the message, Are you OK? If only relationships were that caring above the water’s surface on the land, every few minutes someone looking and checking to see, are you OK? Eyes beside you that watch closely for your response. Yes, I am OK for now.
A diver can easily get narced. This is the slang for nitrogen narcosis, when too much nitrogen had gathered in your blood. One of the first symptoms can be a lack of focus or perhaps giddiness. As I swam circles like a mermaid and chased fleeting turtles, Marielle was always watching. If I became narced, she was ready to help me to the surface and share her life sustaining air. The lessons of scuba can extend beyond the water, to the eyes of those in need with whom we have contact. Are you OK for now? Let me know, and I will be there to help if you need me.
Returning home from such a beautiful place with such great need was difficult. I knew that one day I would return to Indonesia. In the mean time, I began diving in the Puget Sound. Diving in a drysuit is much more difficult than in warm tropical waters. It is difficult to achieve neutral buoyancy with the addition of quilted undergarments, rubber boots, huge gloves, a thick hood and thirty-two pounds of extra weight. Air is added to the suit itself for warmth against the nearly freezing temperatures. This must be regulated. Visibility is limited. Having a dive buddy close at hand is essential.
Darrell is my instructor at Elliot Bay. He is patient and supportive, generous with his compliments and encouragement. He loves to share what he finds beneath the surf with other divers. While most people feasted on calamari over the water at Seattle’s famous Seafood Restaurant, Salty’s, a hand full of divers submerged below the surface to see the North Pacific Giant Octopus that lives twenty meters away. Hidden under submerged boats and artificial reefs, these enormous creatures lazily eye their visitors with their ten foot tentacles as the rest on bottom of the bay. Darrell and I paused on the bottom as well, watching in amazement at the very existence of such an incredible animal. Darrell grabbed a large orange Sea Star and placed it on my head, like a fancy Easter bonnet and then snapped a photo. I laughed in my regulator. Darrell constantly checked my eyes behind the lens of my mask. Are you OK? Let me know if you are OK. We were here together to make sure that we were both safe on this day’s journey in the salt water of the Sound. That’s how it goes when you dive together. Hey Darrell, I am more than OK. I am fabulous. I took off my orange Sea Star bonnet and looked for more treasures in the deep.
I am reluctant to quote Blanch Dubois, “that I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” but in June, through strangers on Face Book, I met a group of divers heading to the Caribbean. Again there had been a cancellation. One precious spot remained on a trip to the Cayman Islands, and it was offered to me. I jumped at the chance to see more warm water coral reefs. I had been the Caymans only once before, and it was not to dive.
In 1998, several women asked me to join them on a golfing trip to Grand Cayman Island during the November Pirate’s Week. When we landed at the airport, were handed rum drinks by costumed revelers. The party had begun, before we ever reached baggage claim. The leader of our group knew how to party. She owned a condo with her lover on Cayman, along with a bank account where we assumed that money was hidden without scrutiny from the IRS and his ex wife. This trip was doomed before it began. Upon reflection, I am not surprised. Far to the east, storm clouds were gathering.
We landed at night and awoke in the morning to a beautiful narrow white beach. The sky was dark with what appeared to be the typical tropical storm. It was too rainy to play golf, so we played cards instead in the afternoon and headed to dinner for more parting. We were not about to miss a moment of Pirate’s Week. The next day at the pool, we chatted with a group of divers from New Jersey. They had just chartered an airplane to leave the island that afternoon. They were cutting their dive vacation short because of a Hurricane named Mitch that was on the way. I looked around. The rain had stopped. Where was the hurricane? I asked how much it cost to charter a plane. They asked me how much my life was worth and laughed. I began to feel uneasy.
We went into George Town to discuss the storm over fried clams and beer. I looked into the harbor and explained with authority to my buddies that the Navy vessel moored in the bay was a guarantee that we need not be concerned. When hurricanes approached, the Navy always moved their ships to sea. We clicked our beer glasses to calm waters and par golf, when all of a sudden, the Navy ship turned and headed to sea. Mitch was on the way, and the military was not taking any chances.
After learning that all return flights home were booked, and that we would be staying on Cayman for our first hurricane, we looked for candles, matches and flash lights in our holiday condo. None were to be found. The grocery store was nearly as vacant. What had been an aisle filled with loaves of bread a day and a half earlier, was barren. Shoppers were swarming through the aisles grabbing any food and supplies they could find. We managed to buy a few candles and some batteries for the sole remaining flashlight that we triumphantly claimed for our own.
Grand Cayman Island is a sandbar in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The news had reached Seattle that a category five storm was nearing the island. Husbands were calling, concerned about Mitch. They wanted us to leave. There were no planes left to charter. Our host’s lover warned of being too low to the ground in their condo, or too high up in a hotel room if we were to rent one. Everyone else received calls from Seattle, pleas to head to the airport and find a plane. Where was my dive buddy to ask if I was OK? I called home. No worries. You’ll be OK. It’s just a storm.
The television and radio blared continual reports throughout the night as to Mitch’s location. It was predicted to be a direct hit. All foreigners were to be evacuated out immediately. We dragged our unopened golf bags and our suitcases to the airport at 5 AM and watched the palms that lined the tarmac bend flat to the ground in the rushing winds. Huddled on the floor, we waited for our names to be called. Yes. It was our turn to leave. The early morning had turned into late afternoon, and we were finally getting our chance to go home, away from the storm. We did not care that United Airlines was flying us to Miami on an Aeroflot jet. As I gripped the armrest in the wind of our departure, I thought about the people remaining behind on the floor, and the natives who were not being flown to safely. I am going to be OK. Are you?
On my return twelve years later, I was pleased to see that Mitch had spared the Cayman Islands. Only one dive boat was lost in the storm. Mitch decided to turn at the last moment and do his worst to the Spanish speaking countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
Now I was back again. I met my new dive buddies at the Grand Cayman Airport. Pirate week and free airport rum drinks were still five months away. Little Cayman rested quietly off the shore of its bigger sister, waiting for the few arriving divers who flew in to enjoy the reefs and the wrecks. I was immediately welcomed by a friendly group of gregarious divers from North Carolina. They were the Gypsies and were happy to welcome a new member. No problem that you traveled here alone. We will all be your dive buddies.
The experienced divers heaped praises on my skill, boosting my confidence, and gently made suggestions to improve my diving ability. They were always checking to see if I was OK on land as well as underwater. They called my name as I entered the bar to come and join them for drinks. They made sure there was a seat at the dinner table, so that I would never dine alone. I was part of their diving family, a Gypsy Diver too.
This is where I met Bob. I was swimming along the reef, minding my own business, when Bob decided to swim along. He nuzzled below me and did not flinch when I reached down to touch his side. We had been told by our dive master that Bob would be waiting. We were instructed the proper way to pet a fish. We would damage his skin if our caresses did not follow his scales. We had to respect the innocence of a Grouper so friendly that he would let us run our hands along his sides. We had to be careful. I settled as closely to the coral below without touching the bottom, so that I could float beside Bob, as if we were lying together, side by side in a bed. Our heads were close and I cooed to him in bubbles, trying to explain how moved I was that he had decided to be there with me. He seemed for a moment to understand my English, distorted by bubbles from the regulator. Are you OK? I am more than OK as I talk with you now. Be safe from fishing nets, hooks, and sharks. I like you my friend.
I have made a promise to never eat a Grouper again. I think of Bob happily swimming on the current in the Little Cayman reef. I would hate to think that any harm would come to him. And, like the day that I was following the reef when Bob came close to swim beside me, I swim along in life day by day. Perhaps someone will join me for a while. However, there are too many wonderful things to experience while swimming, many wondrous places to go, and many people to meet, to be concerned about who is swimming and where. The current will take me along. It’s been an incredible year drifting along the reefs of the world, and there is one last reef to explore.
I have come back to Indonesia. I am in Bali, this time for a month. I am here to see if this is where I might stay for a while. I am here to make connections with the people of Indonesia. I have packed my dive equipment, my plein air palette and oils, my laptop, and my book of prayers.
I walk back and forth along the long rocky road each night, and back and forth again each morning. On one end of my street lives an old and famous Balinese artist. He has invited me to join him for coffee. At end of the main road, in the opposite direction, is a scuba shop. They are waiting for me to call and return for another dive to a remote and exotic underwater location.
At every corner of the street, and in between, on every road in Ubud, sit the poor, asking to take me on the back of their scooters for twenty cents, so that I won’t have to walk by myself alone down the rocky road. They sleep in the backs of their trucks and smoke on the curbs in front of the few shops that stay open twenty-four hours a day in hopes of a customer. They are polite and always smile. Their smiles belie their true feelings of hunger or despair.
Twenty cents for a ride. Twenty cents that would lie discarded on an American road, walked over by those who pass by, too lazy to bend down and pick up such an insignificant amount of money. On my way home from dinner I am asked at least thirty times if I could use a ride. No thank you. I am OK. I do not need a ride. I am fine on my own, walking on my way alone. Are you OK tonight? Are you OK this morning? What can I do to help you?