Friday, May 22, 2009

Now I'm a mermaid

It took six days, private coaching and a remedial course-for-dummies, but I finally got my darn scuba-diving license.

But man, it took forever.

The ordeal began when I innocently signed up for a 4-day class that certifies students to dive unsupervised down to 60 feet. About a zillion people I know have this license, and they'll all universally agreed that it was an easy class.

I should mention that in Thailand, there are certain islands where there's only one thing to do; there's one theme that draws visitors. People go to Rai Leh and Ton Sai to rock-climb. EVERYONE there is a climber, and if you're not, don't bother going. Similarly, people go to Koh Tao to get a scuba-diving license. It's not the best place to dive if you're already certified -- there are areas on Thailand's Andaman Coast with more coral life -- but thanks to warm waters and zero ocean currents, it's the best place to take classes.

I should also mention that Koh Tao looks like a postcard. Crystal-clear turquoise waters that run royal blue over the reefs. Blossoming scented trees. Coconut trees that entire porches are built around. Straw rooftops. Young, beautiful people. Our hotel has a deep blue swimming pool with infinity edges, where introductory scuba lessons are held, and hardwood floors, and banisters made from teakwood logs.

Should be paradise, right?

It was until Day 3 of the class, when our instructor, Julian, took us 6 students into the ocean on our first dive. The instructions sounded simple enough: deflate your buoyancy control device, achieve neutral buoyancy, equalize your ears and sinuses, descend a meter, equalize again, don't forget to breathe through your regulator, check your air levels, and adjust the inflation levels in your vest as needed.

Okay, the instructions sounded complicated. But manageable.

So I went under, a few feet at first, and then a few more, until finally I was about 20 feet underwater. I was breathing through my mouth, since my nose was enclosed in a mask. It felt fine at first.

But then water flooded my mouth. I blew it out. More water flooded it. I coughed it out. I reminded myself that my mouthpiece was designed for coughing in; I could even vomit into it if I needed to. But then an enormous amount of ocean saltwater flooded into my mouth, more than I could cough out. I couldn't breathe with a mouth was full of saltwater. I needed to clear my mouth to be able to breathe again. I tried swallowing it. I coughed some more. I swallowed again. No avail. There was too much water inside my mouth.

I signaled to the instructor that I had a problem (you obviously can't talk underwater, so you're trained to use specific hand signals to communicate). The instructor, who had 5 other students distanced between 5 feet to 60 feet underwater, wasn't looking anywhere near me. I decided to ascend. It felt like the only way to clear my mouth.

I came up sputtering, breaking the surface of the water with a cough that cleared my mouth. A minute later my instructor followed me. He was angry; the veins in his temple showed it. "Back on the boat," he barked.

I swam back to the boat ready to cry. I had just flunked out of scuba school. I had ascended when everyone else stayed underwater. This meant I couldn't get my license.

It's okay, I tried to tell myself. Lots of people drop out of high school. Lots more drop out of college. You made it through both of those. You'll just be a scuba-school dropout. Or, rather, a flunkee.

A couple minutes later, Nicole, a sweet and tiny German girl in my class, came up behind me on the boat. She had tears in her bright blue eyes.

"I'm out of the class," she cried. "I got too much water in my mask, and I couldn't clear it out very well. I had to surface. He yelled at me."

I was glad to have a fellow flunkee to commisserate with. We moped for the rest of the afternoon, waiting on the boat while our classmates finished their underwater tests. We both went home feeling like crap.

But my two friends back at the hotel, both of whom have Advanced Diver licenses which certify them to dive 130 feet underwater, had a different reaction. "How can he throw you out if you feel uncomfortable on your very first dive?" they said. "It's your very first dive! An instructor is supposed to instruct!"

At their urging, Nicole and I appealed to the head of the school, who assigned us a new teacher; a South African named Nick who spent the next two days working with just the two of us.

I honestly didn't think getting a new teacher would help; I thought the problem was me. I figured I was just a bad athlete. I'm the slowest high-Himalayan trekker in our group, I'm too scared to lead-climb most routes, and we all know how ill-fated my Spanish bicycle trip was. And Julian, the dive instructor who flunked Nicole and I, confirmed this fear: "Some people aren't meant to scuba," he said, "just like some people aren't meant to drive a car."

Oh crap, I thought; I'm also bad at driving a car. I hate driving at night, in the rain and in snow. Geez, can't I do ANYTHING? Am I just bad at EVERYTHING?

But if there's one thing I've got going for me, it's persistance. With Nick, my new instructor, I practiced scuba drills again and again and again in the hotel swimming pool. I dove 10 feet underwater, exhaled every ounce of air from my lungs, filled my mouth with pool water, and practiced clearing my mouth so I could breathe through it again. I took my mask off underwater, dropped the mouthpiece, and located it blindly. I went through everything -- everything that was so-called 'easy' to do by the zillions of people who came before me -- until I had it down, better than any other student I observed.

And then I went back for another test in the salty open ocean. And now, after six days, private coaching with Nick, and endless practice, I finally have that license.

Well, not THAT license, exactly. I aimed for a lesser license, one that certifies me to dive 40 feet underwater instead of 60 feet underwater. But hey, the devil's in the details. I'm licensed. As my friend says -- "now you're a mermaid!"

And Julian was wrong. Some people ARE meant to scuba -- with a little extra effort.