Boats, sharks and sleeping underwater!
A couple of months ago I sent in a submission for a more literary travel magazine about my travels ... having heard nothing back so far, I'm assuming that they will not publish it so I'm gonna! LOL
This entry is more flowery, detailed and literary than previous entries but I enjoyed writing it a lot.
What do you think? I'd love to know!
Scorching boards underfoot burn through the thick, hard skin of my soles as I scuttle, comically, like a cartoon burglar down the jetty towards the cool mercy of the shopping center. I haven't worn shoes for weeks.
Waves lap beneath and a sparkling ray catches the water between the wooden strips, stinging my eyes, temporarily blinding me. The musical tinkling of rope against metal and a gentle, hollow singing followed by a flap of nylon announces the afternoon breeze through the masts.
Three pm, the heat has driven most of the locals and shop owners into the sanctum of air conditioned homes. Only sun starved tourists, oblivious to scorn, lie on neon towels nearby, twisting their fingers through glittering sand or slathering alabaster cream over reddened, capacious backs.
Pascha, pushing a wheelbarrow onto the marina. The rubber tire slap-slapping over the walkway. He calls out in greeting. Russian, handsome, guttural and bare chested, the sun shining on his shaved pate.
Peter walking calmly barefoot on the scalding dock. The only one who can. He has been here the longest and is walnut like in his complexion, his sun-ridden skin almost entirely comprised of laughter lines and bleached hair. He is the one the locals know, the one to go to if homesickness or alcohol bring on the need for companionship, the one who knows the best spots for diving and the one who will never ask questions.
I sit for a moment. Awkwardly perched on a blistering bench that divides the distance, allowing my feet to momentarily float up, giving them a brief moment of respite. Testing myself brutally.
How long can I stand it? Stay still, don't move!
I had come here 3 weeks previously. Following an ill chosen boyfriend with the promise of exotic love. Reality proving to be decidedly less romantic.
After a brief, perplexing and uninspiring encounter we had parted ways and I had struck out on my own.
Alone and naive, I came to the place that gives the best prospect for work. Going from boat to boat asking if anyone needed employees was less humiliating than the recent breakup and eventually I secure a place on the only underwater observatory on the marina.
The work was easy. I was not.
Reminiscing about encounters with clientele is today an embarrassing and jarring reminder of how insular we can become in our cultural differences and how our inherent need to be right marrs many an interaction.
My rudeness, a lack of understanding, nothing more … and my arrogance? Perhaps only my age and naivety.
I sleep under the water, relishing the coolness and gentle swaying of the observatory. The smell of rubber flooring lingering in my nostrils and the plastic, circular pattern stretching away from me as I lay, head on rucksack, staring out at the black ocean.
In the darkness, cockroaches scamper across my body seeking the heat. I don't mind. I prefer them to the incessant squealing and ominous silences of the mosquitoes that inhabit the deck, once counting 46 bites on my right leg where I inexpertly allowed my blanket to slip during the night. The ensuing itching giving me the appearance of a demented meerkat as I twitch and hum, straight backed and staring in the attempt to refrain myself from scratching.
One morning, I awake to find a shark swimming inches from my face. His sleek skin the granite of an English sky and his bright, bulging eye a mere foot from my own. He glides effortlessly past, flicking his tail insolently at me. I am transfixed.
Another time, a diver cleaning the windows. His face obscured by an over large mask, giving him an insectile appearance and the rushing, bubbling of his breathing menacing in the quivering shafts of early morning light. Not knowing how else to react, I wave and his slow motion hand waves back.
During the day, we sail three times to the border, float for a while, allowing our guests down into the observatory to view the wonders of the ocean, before speeding back, slapping the waves away with our giant hull. The heat is relentless.
A coveted part of the job as deckhand is to be in the bubble; a glass container at the front of the hull where a designated person will be the eyes for the skipper. It takes weeks of training to know the different creatures and plants. We quietly narrate the ocean floor into a microphone that is then piped, by the skipper's wife, through to the eager clients, her Eastern accent turning the words into a beautiful, lilting story.
On the right side, a school of parrot fish.
‘On the right side you will see a school of parrotfish, these iridescent creatures have a sharp beak on their heads that allow them to eat the tougher corals’.
On the left side a patch of fire coral.
‘On the left side you will see a patch of fire coral. This fierce plant getting its name from the burning sensation you feel should it make contact with your skin’.
On the left side a sea turtle.
‘On the left side you can see a sea turtle gliding majestically through the water’.
On the right side, three clown fish.
‘On the right side, you can see three clown fish. These fish with their characteristic red and white stripes are not to be missed’.
With every announcement, the boat rocks slightly as the crowd rush to see each spectacle.
When we are called to the bubble, the mundane parts of the job seem to disappear into insignificance and we are lost into the beauty of the ocean. Nothing but a strip of glass between you and the silent, endless blue.
I become lean, fit and sunburnt. I learn how to tie marine knots using the thick ropes. Over, figure eight, over again, loop and pull. I learn to jump from boat to jetty, only once misjudging the distance and scraping my shin badly on the rough wood. Blood dripping and in pain, I ignore it and carry on, only too aware that the entire crew and all the passengers just witnessed my error.
During my limited time off, I gain a modicum of familiarity with the other cultures surrounding me. I have dinner with families sitting on floors, eating with our hands, learn how to speak snippets of beautiful new languages (inevitably starting with profanities!) and sing with the Hare Krishna’s. The locals mock me because of my poor choice of clothing and I come to realise how hopelessly naive I am. Unmatched beauty both on the Earth and in the ocean becomes a daily experience and I gaze, open mouthed at sunsets and sunrises of the like I have never before witnessed.
Slowly and painfully my mind expands.
The skipper, a quiet man with smiling eyes and a deep bass voice is barely glimpsed. On the rare occasions when he comes on deck, he simply stands, listening benignly to our nonsense before wandering away, not to be seen until the following day.
In the end, he terminates my employment in the most beautiful manner; ‘you tried your best … but you were not the best’, adding a sad little smile and a shake of his dark head. I can't be angry, he is right!
The dolphins, though, are the highlight for all. Having long learned that the sound of myriad hand claps mean dropped sandwiches and sugary treats, they congregate near the bow as we clap rhythmically to attract them.
Their long snouts breaking through cobalt water and their lean, grey backs sliding up and down alongside us. Throwing their beautiful heads back as they chirrup in their special way. They are smart, if nothing is thrown within a few seconds they effortlessly disappear, to the great dismay of all on board.
Our lives sparkle when we see the dolphins and for a few moments we are no longer people of difference, no longer employee and client, skipper and deckhand, Muslim, Catholic or Christian. All is in balance and we revel together in joy, sharing smiles and amazed faces at seeing these magical guardians of the ocean.
Eight minutes. That is how long one can sit in a 53 degree heat before burning through an already deep tan.
14 weeks. That is how long it took for this first trip to change me forever. By the time I was to return home, I was a changed person.
One is not able to sleep underwater, see dolphins every day, sit in the baking desert heat and come eye to eye with a shark, only to go back to a sodden, chilly village and return, unmoved to a former life.
Brimming with excitement to share the tales of adventure upon my return, I was not prepared for my somber return. Not many seemed to want to hear my stories of sharks and dolphins and underwater adventures, it was enough simply to say I had a great time.
I found myself distanced and alone.
I could no longer sit in the pub discussing social problems or become embroiled in political debates about the latest candidate, it just felt so trivial. The subject matter that many wanted to talk about seemed mundane and shallow and disappointment washed over me the longer I lingered. The realisation started to manifest that even though I had spent my youth and adolescence here, I was now as much a stranger as any other tourist. The difference was me. I had changed ….
Maybe that should have been sad and for a while it was...I was wracked with loneliness but after a while, it also led to astounding joy! I realized that I was now free of the fear of judgement that terrifies even the bravest of village dwellers. Free to plan my life the way I wanted. Free not to keep up with the Jones's or ‘settle down with a nice husband and think about having a family’. That works for some but not for me.