Tuesday, February 16, 2010

18,995 Miles Traveled

Feb 13, 2010
The Maldives
Overcast, rain and lightening in the night. Warm.

Late last night I lay in bed knowing that I had to wake up in just a few hours, but I had the irrepressible buzz that is necessarily coupled with having one of the best days of my life. Yesterday morning started pretty early too. After class, we were taken out to a dive site around eleven. I gasped like a newborn when I jumped into the water and felt complete ecstasy as I descended past a cliff of coral. This was the most amazing underwater ecosystem I’ve ever seen – It put Thailand, Catalina Island, Monterey Bay, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii to shame. The diversity was unbelievable; everywhere I looked there was a new type of fish. As we all gaped at a huge moray eel, a sea turtle brushed past, and a two foot long giant purple clam silently gaped back at us. And despite the awesome sea life, I have to admit my favorite part was free-floating as the strong current allowed me to soar past the underwater mountains. This was just the test dive.
After far too short a time, we had to go back to the boat. It left me wishing that I could have three or four tanks. We ate lunch, which was delicious as usual. Our cook is a Sri Lankan chef who is apparently specializes in pastries (though it is impossible to whip those up in a tiny boat galley). I was just laying on the lower deck afterwards, and Matt came down from the upper deck and grabbed me. “You have to come up!” I climbed up the ladder to see Nate, John, Allen, Jake, and Tim standing on the ledge, looking thirty feet down into water. I saw a school of blue and yellow fish swimming beneath them, and they counted to three and launched themselves off the side.
I immediately put my bathing suit back on, and climbed up the ladder, ready to jump, looked over the edge… and thought I was going to throw up all of that delicious food. I grabbed onto the boat, and when the next group counted to three I thought I was about to go, but at the last moment my feet just wouldn’t leave the ground. I felt increasingly terrified, and clung tighter to the boat. People cheered me on, “When are you going to be in the Maldives again?!” “Come on in! It’s amazing!” “You can do it!”
I backed up and decided I just wouldn’t jump. It wasn’t necessary, my life could be complete nevertheless. Then Allen looked at me, and said, “You can’t do it, can you?” At that moment, something overcame me and I turned around and leaped off the deck, screaming as I experienced the freeing feeling of free fall for milliseconds before slapping every surface of my body onto the hard water. My mouth was open; I think that even my tongue got slapped.
I surfaced immediately, and floated in the water as another handful of people joined me from the upper deck. So many times on this trip, like when I let go of twenty pounds of baggage, or climbed Haleakala, or jumped off the waterfall in Thailand, I’ve felt liberated. I think it’s a combination of feeling self-efficacy, or independence, or an ability to overcome fear. Let my bruised thigh, arm, and neck from my rough hug with the water be testament to my willingness to change myself and relinquish anxiety.
We all leapt into the water, including Denny, and posed for a group picture. Then it was time to go for the next dive. Again, I did my newborn gasp and descended past the underwater peaks. This time, there were even more fish and I floated through a school, feeling perhaps this is what it was like to be a creature of the sea. My dive master put his hands on his head and made the sign for shark. I turned around, and saw a handful of white and black tipped reef sharks milling around. A few weeks ago, this would have terrified me, but I felt only fascination. And luck – sharks are just cool.
The rest of our dive continued to be amazing. I went down and flipped over to float on my back and look at the people swimming above me, and my bubbles, and the sheer face of the coral. The current was even stronger, and our dive master held out his arms like wings and we flew along. On one side, there was the teeming coral, on the other side empty blueness, except for the sharks swimming in and out of sight. We went up slowly, with the slope of the coral, and hovered around a meter to look at the shallow coral, then popped up and returned to the boat all too soon.
We realized then the black clouds were headed right for us. The air became cooler and even more humid, and the storm began with a slight mist, then a few raindrops, then suddenly the sky dumped down on us and we ran to put all our stuff under deck. We huddled in the cabins until dinner, which included the best papaya I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was soft but firm, and melted my mouth. When the storm cleared a bit, we went back to the island, and our dive masters walked us back to our room. Becky and I were standing in the doorway, when they came back and asked if we’d like to go out with them.
We immediately decided that it would be an excellent idea, and they came back for us about half an hour later. Together, we walked to a coffee shop on the beach, where the waves crashed against the shore and the palm trees clacked in the wind. They brought us some Maldivian snacks – a butter and chocolate cake, coconut biscuits filled with spicy fish, and a small samosa like snack with a creamy sweet bean paste inside. This last one shared its name with women’s underwear, named for the shape.
Despite the slight language barrier, we had a great time talking and watching the Maldivian sports awards. They talked a little about the politics, specifically the pre-2008 dictator. They also told us about participating in the larger simultaneous dive in the world, and helping out with the underwater cabinet meeting held a few months ago. Towards the end of the evening, a plate with cloves, a few cut up nuts, and a leaf was put on the table. “Here, try one.” One of our dive masters rolled up a nut into a leaf, sprinkled in with some red powder, and handed the small package to me. I put in it my mouth and it took all of my willpower not to spit it out, it was bitter and made my mouth numb. My body instinctively knew not to swallow. “Beetlenut,” he said, “You like it?”
In India, I had seen everyone from small children to elderly grandparents chewing this disgusting stuff, and I discreetly spit it out in my napkin. Everyone laughed, and told me it was an acquired taste. Maybe it was that I was still rocking from a day on the boat, but thankfully I felt none of the intended effects. We finished our tea and coffee, and they walked us back to our room. Becky happened to mention that she loved mangoes more than any fruit in the world, and the guys pointed to the tree right outside our room: “Mango tree,” they said, while pretending to shake her down some fruit. They did hand us the fruit that was growing, unfortunately, they were inch-long green baby mangoes.
We thanked them, and stumbled tiredly into our room. We didn’t bother to shower, just collapsed into bed and tried unsuccessfully to calm the buzz. I’m sure I fell asleep smiling. And then this morning, I jumped out of bed still smiling. We’re on our way to the next dive site, and I’m sitting on the lower deck writing this as I look out over the ocean. I could spend the rest of my life like this.

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