Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Beyond Fear

I fear water! 

It is a force of nature, untamable, uncontrollable.

 I don’t like to be in deep water, to not have the bottom in reach. If I have to, I will do it, but not for fun. It is a conscious decision. So how come I am taking a SCUBA diving open water course? We’re doing it as a family, we’re taking advantage of being in Thailand where the waters are warm, 28-30 ºC. There are a huge number of schools, that makes the prices lower and also you get to choose what kind of school you want. For us is a small group, just our family (we exceed the group limit by one) and it is made possible by New Way Dive School. Anna is going to be our instructor and Sarah will join us in the diving sessions.

Once we take the decision, we sign our lives over, and we start the boring and absolutely necessary stuff: rules and what to do in case of... We have to watch a DVD, follow what they are saying in our manual, and in the end take a test. For the first chapter we are full of energy and good will but by the end of the evening, after a short night on the train and a morning on the bus and ferryboat, our eyes are getting smaller and smaller, and we can’t even understand what they are saying. We plow through our questions, verify the answers as a group and go home. 
Next morning we’re eager to prove that we’ve done our homework, that we know. Anna tells us again what we’ve watched last night, and then we take another test, for each chapter. Then we have a lunch break and at 12 we leave for the boat. 
While the boat is moving toward the diving spot, we put in practice what we’ve learned. You open the bag, put the equipment together, check it, do things in order. Anna is very patient with us, she always has a smile and an encouragement for us. Ioan is a little bit lost, the equipment is heavy for his 12 year-old body, but he gets help.

 We are busy with ourselves. The wet-suit is tight, I know it will get larger in the water, bur for now I am uncomfortable, it pinches my armpits. The weight belt, the one that will hold me anchored in water, and not floating toward surface, is resting painfully on my hip bone. The BCD (buoyancy control device) a vest that inflates and deflates on command, with the tank of compressed air attached and the regulator with the four tubes and tools, is heavy on my back.
I have to do a buddy check with Mihai, that everything is in its own place, and the girls are doing with each other. Ioan is with Anna. The theory is fresh in my mind, but still it is humbling not finding easily all the things.
Now that everything is checked twice, we put our fins and masks on, our regulators in our mouth, climb the side of the boat and this is where my fear is summoned up and strangles my throat: I have to take a big step over the water. I take two deep breaths, do the visual check, hold my regulator and my mask and step in the water. 

I’m in and I’m OK.
We were told to breath through our snorkels at the surface, but to get used to the feeling we switch to the air from the tank. By the time that I have my mouth piece, they are far away from me. I try to catch them up, but I can’t, for some reason I am floating toward my left. I remember to turn on my back, it’s supposed to be easier to float that way. Now I turn to my right. Is it a current? There doesn’t seem to be, the others are swimming straight, but they are so far away. I start kicking harder, but then I don’t have enough air through the regulator, what do I do, I can’t breath through my nose, it’s in the mask, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH AIR! “You’re panicking!” a voice says in my mind. “Calm down! Stop and rest, the BCD is fully inflated. Float, catch your breath... There is enough air.” So that’s what I do, and when I can breath normally, I pace myself and start to catch up. They’ve already arrived at the spot where we’re supposed to train, in waist-high water (for Ioan it is almost to his neck). 
Anna has all the things that she’s required to teach us on a slate, and we’re going one by one through the skills. Then we go a little bit deeper, we’re sitting on the ocean floor at 1,82 m and we’re supposed to flood and clear our masks of water! I look at the children, the way they are doing it, I review the theory, I try to keep myself calm, but I am scared. Anna asks me through signs if I’m OK, and I answer yes. I do a partial flood, just half of my mask is full of water. I keep my eyes shut, I don’t like the feeling of salted water in my eyes. “Take a deep breath and blow through your nose” and as magic, the water clears out. Now for the full flood. I blow but clears only partially. As I take a breath to do a final clearing, water seeps through my nostrils, into my sinuses, down my throat and trickles on the wrong side. I feel the need to cough, but I can’t, I am out of breath already, if I breath again, the water will go on the same route, I can’t open my mouth because I’m under water, so I just kick hard, surface, pull the mask and start coughing. Anna is right beside me, she immediately inflates my BCD, and talks to me so I can calm down. I am calm now, because I am at the surface, but I feel sick. I get some stomach reflux, and now I have that to deal with too. After a few minutes, Anna tells me to return and I dread the moment, but I’m doing it anyway. Another voice asks me “What are you doing here? This is not for you.” I’m cold, and tired, but continue. 
Now that we’re done, we still have to swim to the boat and do some more skills. I have to tow and push Mihai, and he has to do the same with me. He has some problems with his BCD and his tank is completely out of air.
As we get next to the boat, I have to take off my flippers, hand them above me, and get on the ladder. Everything seems heavier now that it is wet and I’m tired. Fortunately one of the men pulled me up and helped me put the tank in its place, so I could take the harness off.

 I go through the motions, while Anna reminds us what we have to do. Once my weight belt is off, I realize there are slices of fresh pineapple, bananas and cookies, and that’s where I spend the next 10 minutes.
We arrive in port, get off the boat, climb into the pickup truck, arrive at school, and after cleaning our equipment of salt water, it’s back to school for us. We’re supposed to watch chapters 4 and 5 and give the answers to the tests. But before, we have to talk. I don’t want to do it anymore! I could say that I did a discover scuba, didn’t like it, and pay a lower price, and more important for me, I don’t have to return! Maria is feeling the same. Mihai didn’t like it either, but he wants to stick with it. Ileana and Ioan loved it. I have my jaw set, I’ve had it. I’m ready to throw the towel!  But then Mihai says that we have to fight our fears, what we did today are skills that hopefully will never have to use, give it a chance to find the beauty in it. I sip some tea while letting those words sink in. I talk myself into it: yeaah, you could do it, look at you, you are feeling comfortable floating at the surface, you could breathe with your regulator, it was different from normal, true, but you had enough air. They say that the next dive we won’t have so many skills to do, and we will get to see some fish, you could try...And then and there I became a responsible parent again: what kind of example am I setting for my children? If I follow the rules, my life is not in danger, I am in a supervised environment, I have all the help that I need, and I want to chicken out because it’s not something that I like? I started something, I can and I will finish! I don’t have to do it ever again in my life, but this course I will finish.
We’re four to one. Maria still wants to fight it, but I tell her, “We’ll talk in the morning”.
Fortunately the chapters are easier and we finish quickly, eat, and go to sleep.
In the morning I don’t feel different from the other day. I still want to quit, but then I have an example to set.  Maria is kind of forced into finishing too. Anna tries her best to cheer us up, she can sense that our hearts are not in it, and after some time, we have visions of nice things underwater. At 12 we start again for the boat, do the same things: set our equipment, do the buddy check, jump. 

This time we have to take all out the BCD, the tank, the regulator, sit on them and put them back. I can’t find my balance on it, but in the end I manage to show both my hands and to sit gingerly. We have to go down the line, a rope tied to the bottom. It is our first deep dive, and we have to learn to equalize the pressure in our ears. If you go down too quickly without equalizing you feel a sharp pain in your eardrums. To ease, you have to swallow or blow with your nose plugged, or move your jaw. I don’t know how long we stayed on that line, but Ioan, Maria and Mihai had problems.

 In the end Mihai had to surface. Anna signaled us to go up, and after she saw us on the boat she took Mihai down again. 
He managed to get to 8 meters, but it took forever. He took a mild decongestant and tried a third time, when we spent more than 20 minutes under water. That would be the first official dive, we barely completed all the requirements, Mihai continued to have serious problems. 
In the end Anna said  “Mihai, I will have to do you a favor and take you out of your misery” His ears hurt him so badly, that from now on he will not complain of any pain, as it would seem like a joke compared with this one. 
I felt tricked: I wanted to stop, he wanted to continue, he can’t, I have to! Not fair! But... I took a deep breath, and continued. We had a second dive, not as deep as the first one. Other skills, and while we were down there we saw some fishes, but we didn’t have enough time. 
We call it a day, and hit the hay very early 8:30- 9:00. The last day starts at 5:50am. We go to Chumphon Pinnacle on a choppy sea. I feel nauseous. The equipment is still wet. The four of us jump, dive on the line and again we wait for a long time for Ioan to feel comfortable. 
It is a different world there. The top looks like a wavy mirror. 

I am aware that I have to breath, I hear the hiss of air released in my mouth. I breath out and lots of bubbles spread up around my face, tickling me. And again... I see them going up: the top one, big, like a jelly fish, with long, dancing tentacles made from smaller bubbles. 

Water seeps in my mouth. I clench my teeth on the mouth piece, seal my lips and swallow the bitter-salted saliva. I can’t hear much besides the hiss and the bubbles. Sometimes there is a sharp short knock on someone’s tank, but I can’t see who’s doing it. The light around me has a blue green tint, and is more material. I don’t feel the weight on my back or mine, I’m floating, bobbing up and down with my breath. My movements are slowed down by innumerable droplets of salted water, pressing their way around me. I start moving toward some corals. They look like on TV, but this time it is different: they are in my reach. Here is a brain coral, honey-brown, massive; there’s another one like a deer antlers, chocolate-brown with the tips white. Further are rocks with anemones and other living things that wave their tendrils to feed, but hide in their tubes when they sense the water moving in a different way.

 The sea urchins look like black stars with six twinkly blue eyes. 

A sea slug makes its way moving carefully its frilly white and reddish brown ventures. 

And all kinds of fish. One is living in the crater of a coral, another between the arms of a pink anemone.

 A parrot fish defends its territory. A school of silvery barracudas is way under me, going one way, and then twirling in circles, to turn around.

 I realize that I am surrounded by big yellow flat fishes. I can’t see them very well because whenever I turn, they’re doing it too. I move around from place to place  following Anna. She found a scorpion fish, it looks like a rock,

 some shrimps, an eel. 

Though there are 60 ft (18m) of water above me, I feel comfortable, safe. I look around myself and understand why some people like to do this. It is never the same, always changing, challenging, exciting. It is for me! I’m trying to commit every bit of it to my memory. 
It is time to return to our world. But before I have to do another test with a flooded mask and also, to take it out completely and put it back. Last time I had problems with this. Above me is a fortress of water and I am my own prisoner: I can’t ascend slowly enough to breath, the gas in my lungs would expand if too quickly, causing a rupture. I have no choice, but be calm and talk myself step by step through it. “Take a deep breath, close your eyes, blow bubbles, flood the mask, blow through your nose, there is still water in the mask, block your nose so the water will not seep in, breath again from the regulator, tilt your head back and blow again through your nose so the water will be forced outside, seal the mask on your face... You’re done!”

 I am relieved, I didn’t panic, I kept myself calm and did what was required of me. After this, taking off and replacing the mask is a piece of cake. 
Time underwater passed too quickly, I still want to look and see, and feel. Getting on the boat I realize that we’re done, we’ve completed the course! Mixed feelings of relief ( I don’t have to do it again) of happiness ( it was wonderful) of accomplishment. 
We return to school to wash our equipment, to go through our test. The DVD with our adventure under water is ready so we watched it with Anna, Sarah (she was helping Anna), Jim (the manager of the school) and Charlie (the creator of the dvd). We received our open water diver cards and the loggers, congratulations, hugs and new fans for our Facebook page.
In the end we were all happy to finish. Mihai will never dive again, his body is not letting him. He is happy that he tried, and proud of us. Ioan has a certificate of scuba diver. He had problems equalizing and we’re happy that we trusted him not to do the last dive. The medical examination showed some trauma. He can earn his open water title if he’s doing his fourth dive in the next year.

 We will see how things work out. I am proud of our girls, our little mermaids, who handled the course and themselves so well, especially the buddy thing (it’s not easy to be all the time, everywhere, together). Ileana did things with ease and maturity. Maria fought her wish to quit and won, and her test result was the best.
So what comes after fear? A different world, underwater, new for me. An intriguing one, that makes me want to experience more about it. A confidence; I can do many things if I decide to do them. A calm feeling; there is no need to fear. 

Am I proud? Yeah, just a LITTLE!
 Am I still afraid of water? Hey, nobody’s perfect!

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