Travel: SCUBA diving at Kovalam(1)

I  know it’s a cliche for my generation in India but still, here we go. “Ever since I watched the movie ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’(2011) during my college days, SCUBA diving has always been a part of my ’10 things to do before I die’ lists. ” ๐Ÿ˜‚ I know, cliche. ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

Maybe because ‘underwater diving in Costa Brava’ looked far more aesthetic and safer to the coward in me(I kind of like the Hindi word ‘darpok’ more) when compared to ‘skydiving in Seville’ or ‘running of bulls in Pamplona’. But even in my fantasies, I knew that travelling to Costa Brava, Spain wouldn’t be an affordable plan for me for a very long time in my life. So when Appooppanthaadi(a women’s travel group based in Kerala, India) came up with the event ‘Scuba diving at Kovalam‘(a coastal tourist spot in Kerala, India)  in 2017, I was one of the first persons to sign up. The fact that I didn’t know swimming didn’t stop me at all. 

Even though I tried to encourage my friends to join me, none of them agreed to come. Either their family refused to give them permission or they already had other plans for the weekend. So I decided to go alone. But I couldn’t attend the event with the first batch consisting of about 30 travellers, due to a personal emergency.

The second batch which I attended had only two other travellers. One of them worked as an online maths tutor. She is married and has a school-going-child. She also didn’t know swimming which was a relief for me. ๐Ÿค— The third traveller was a designer. She designed handbags made from banana fibre. Apart from them, our event coordinator and founder of Appooppanthaadi was also there in the divers’ office. Needless to say, I loved talking to these amazing women and hearing their life stories. Getting to spend almost half a day with them was the best part of the trip. ๐Ÿ’ž

As we settled, our instructors walked in. They introduced themselves and the facilities offered by their institution. The main instructor gave us an introductory class on SCUBA diving starting with the word SCUBA. SCUBA stands for ‘Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus’. He showed us the entire apparatus and helped us to recognise various parts of the scuba gear like a snorkel, buoyancy compensator, masks etc. Snorkel, oxygen tanks etc. helps us to breathe underwater. Whereas various regulators and buoyancy compensator helps us to sink or float(move up or down inside the sea) against water’s buoyancy.

scuba

Then the instructor taught us the sign language to use underwater, obviously because we can’t speak underwater. Up(๐Ÿ‘), down(๐Ÿ‘Ž), okay (๐Ÿ‘Œ), not okay(open hand facing downwards rotating sideways) etc. I knew these four symbols already from Katrina Kaif’s diving lessons in the movie. But there was a slight correction. When someone shows the sign ๐Ÿ‘Œthey are actually saying:  ‘I’m okay. Are you okay?’. You can reply that you are okay by using the same sign ‘๐Ÿ‘Œ’.

Once the theoretical part of our class was over, the instructor shared some of his personal experiences with us. He had been diving for more than two decades by then. He told us about the meditative powers of SCUBA diving, ‘it’s like yoga’. He said meditation is more powerful and peaceful underwater since there are rarely any disturbances at the bottom of the sea. Having seen movies like ‘Chemmeen‘, ‘Deep blue sea‘; what ran through my mind was whirlpools and shark jaws. ๐Ÿค” But being the introvert that I am, I didn’t say a word. Apart from the meditative powers of diving, he also told us about how good diving is, as an exercise. A single dive can burn about 400-700 calories per hour. As a fun part, our teacher also showed us the video of an underwater wedding shot in Kovalam. It turned out the bridegroom was one of our instructors. ๐Ÿ˜Š

Once the theory class was over, we changed into diving clothes(wetsuit). We were taken to the beach in a car. Near the beach, our instructors and other divers in their group, helped us to wear the entire breathing apparatus including the oxygen cylinders. They were too heavy and capable of lasting a dive of about 4 hours. Our instructors helped us to hold it when we were standing on the shore.

 But as soon we walked to the sea, our waist length in the water, the weight of cylinders became tolerable due to help from water’s buoyancy. There we were taught how to breathe through the mouth using the snorkel underwater. When we breathe in, there won’t be any noise. But when we breathe out, we can see the bubbles floating out of the snorkel. It was impossible to take our breaths for granted. We had to acknowledge and live each moment, each breath to the fullest. If in case our snorkel or the mask covering our nose got filled with water, there was an area in the upper portion of the snorkel that we had to press in order to eject the water. Also, our instructor showed us how to breathe out in a way that could help us to remove water, in case it goes inside our nose. We went underwater just near the shore, to practise our breathing lessons. It was difficult not to get swept away by the sea at this point. Because we were only half in water, and half outside. That way, waves constantly tried to overpower and make us fall. So all 3 of us plus divers stood with our hands held, to stand strong against the sea waves. But soon, we were confident with our breathing exercises and too excited for the dive that we were good to go.

Each of us got a trained diver to guide us underwater, to make sure we didn’t drift away. We were only allowed to go 16 feet deep. Yet, we were so thrilled when the diver adjusted our buoyancy control in such a way that we could drown. That’s the best part about diving when compared to swimming, I felt. When we are swimming we need to constantly try to stay afloat. That is a struggle because that requires a lot of manpower. Whereas sinking or drowning was the norm in diving. Our apparatus helped us with that. Usually in movies,  they show that instructors take us a few miles into the sea in a small boat and then we have to jump. I guess they were doing it in greater depths, say more than 30 feet. But since we were only doing a 16 feet deep dive, we walked from the shore to the sea till we were drowned and then till we reached the 16 feet depths.

My mind suddenly went into a flashback. My paternal grandparents’ house in Alleppey, Kerala is very close to the sea. Once on a Sunday after an evening mass, we went to see our Grandma. Grandpa passed away when my father was still studying in college. So we kids never got to know him in person. As soon as we reached the house, we climbed onto the hands or shoulders of our elder cousins and tried to cajole them to take us to the beach. Soon they relented. But pupie(my father) wasn’t convinced. “Don’t go too far”, “always hold hands tight”, “just get your feet wet and come back”, “wait I will also come” were some of his common and recurring dialogues whenever we went to the sea. Even now it’s the same. I guess we will always be little kids for our parents no matter what. They will always feel worried and responsible for us.

But on that day something unexpected happened. For others, it was a big surprise. But in my little 5 or 6-year-old mind, it was a well-planned decision. ๐Ÿค“ We were all standing in the shore, holding hands, waiting for the next wave to come to touch our feet. The only thing(bizarre thing, of course) I had in my mind was ‘when the next wave comes, I’m going to let go and run to the sea’. I still don’t know ‘why’ or ‘what for’. Maybe my intelligent intention was to ‘take the sun to my home’ or something like that. God knows, I had a crazy mind even then! Anyway, when the next wave hit us, that is exactly what I did. I let go off my cousin’s hands and ran into the sea. What surprised the kid-me was the strength of the waves. They felt so huge, untamable. I could sense fear spread into my eyes and my heart when the waves overpowered me. My shocked face must have turned pale when I fell into the sea. My frail body felt numb when it hit the waters. I felt suffocated when saltwater filled my nostrils and mouth.  

People tell us that we remember our best memories before we die. Maybe because I was too small to have such memories, all I could remember then was the last time I felt similarly terrified. I was even younger, maybe 3, maybe 4 when that happened. I think I went to LKG at that time. It was a power cut time. I was drawing with some crayons in a sheet of paper. There was a lit candle near me. I bent a little forward to draw something, the nylon blue and white frock I was wearing caught fire. Nylon stuck to the skin in my body. I cried out in pain. My uncle rushed me to the nearby hospital. But there I saw men and women of different ages covered in bandages and severe burns. Some of them were in wheelchairs with broken bones. The kid-me was so shocked by seeing them that she stopped crying. That was probably the first eye-opening moment of my life as a kid, my first reality check.

When Pupie pulled me out of the water, I started coughing and vomiting water. Tears leaked from my eyes. I was too little to know what I might have lost, had I died. I was too little to understand death or life or the value of what I tried to throw away so easily. All I knew then was fear.

When my instructor adjusted my buoyancy controls to make me drown I felt a small resurfacing of that old fear. Of sinking, of fading away, of being forgotten. As we slowly started descending into the depths, my eyes started tearing up. But there was also another feeling, another emotion rising up in my chest. I don’t know if it was ‘strength’ or what people call ’empowerment’, but slowly an easiness filled my heart. “You don’t have to fear anything here. Drowning won’t kill you now. You won’t feel suffocated. You have all the apparatus to help you breathe.” My logical mind kept mumbling to the ‘darpok’ in me.

When I completely drowned, when we were in the depths, my instructor pointed to the little fishes in front of me. I smiled. A little amount of water filled into my mask, I had to eject them out. Of course, we shouldn’t smile or laugh underwater, water will fill our mouth. But then there is no point in crying underwater either. I remembered ‘the little mermaid’ fairytale I used to read as a kid.  ‘We don’t have tears where we come from’, she used to say. She learnt to cry when she walked out of the sea, when she learnt to walk on two feet, when she started to love someone. I also thought about Charlie Chaplin, maybe because he said the lines “I like to walk in the rain, so nobody can see my tears”. It’s the same feeling underwater, Chaplin. I also thought about a few people in my life: my family and some of my friends. They will call me crazy if I told them, I was thinking about them when I was diving in the sea. One thing I realised, even the meditative powers of the sea is not enough to calm my overthinking mind. Nonetheless, I tried to snap away from my sea of thoughts and to concentrate on the sea alone.

Scuba diving pic
“I’m okay. You are okay.”

So that is what I did for the rest of my dive. I looked at the fishes, their surroundings. I saw my two other friends diving with their instructors. In between our instructor/photographer came and made me pose for a few snaps. But the best moment for me was when we went really deep and my fellow diver/instructor asked me to look up. I saw the sunlight hitting on the water and the rays creating a beam of light inside the sea. Yellows and whites mingling with the molten blues. Rays and bubbles spreading to the calm water around me. It was magical. It mesmerised my mind. In my mind, suddenly, I was a fish and a mermaid. In my mind, I was not a visitor anymore. I felt I could live there forever. I  didn’t have to behave like an alien anymore. For some strange reason, I  felt like I belonged there. What if I never went back? What if I kept on living there?  What if I called sea my only home? I shook my head vigorously to drive those thoughts away. My instructor was concerned and asked me ‘๐Ÿ‘Œ’.

It is in moments like this that I wonder about the possibility of a God. Honestly, I don’t think much about God inside churches or during masses. There, most of the times, I just obey rituals or follow the crowd blindly. But when I go into nature: in the top of a peak, in the golden beach sunsets, in the middle of forests, underwater in the middle of a stream of sun rays; all I could think about was the possibility of a God. A master creator who planned, designed and created everything that my eyes feast upon. Probably one hell of an artist! An artist who created mountains and craters and volcanoes and such abundance of life even underwater. Maybe it’s just evolution and natural processes, maybe we just simply came into being. I like that, the theory of evolution and the big bang. The possibility of evolving and being selected as the fittest by our circumstances. Aren’t we all going through the same in our lives? But if there is the slightest possibility of a God, maybe a point source of light that triggered the creation process, I would love to believe in that. And how could we even think of death or giving up on life, before we have seen at least a  bit of all the masterpieces of that creator? I remembered a framed photograph of a beach hanging on the wall of my maternal grandparents’ home. It said: ” Take time to live because the world has so much to give.”

When my instructor asked if we could go up(๐Ÿ‘), all I wanted to say was down (๐Ÿ‘Ž). Let’s go deeper into the sea. But in the end, I reluctantly allowed him to help me float to the top. When I walked out of the sea, with the heavy gas tanks weighing me down, with some amazing thoughts to feed on and some disturbing sights to haunt me forever, all I promised myself was: “I’m not going to simply exist or conform or survive or endure… At least in some days like this, I’m going to LIVE. Because the world does have so much to give. “ All I got by the diving was a little peep into a mysterious, vast and spellbinding world that coexisted with mine. A little peep is never enough. We will definitely crave for more. When we tried to say goodbyes to each other, fellow divers and instructors, all I could make myself to say was: “I will come back for more, someday.” Fun fact, that was the only one time I ever dived(as on 11 Oct 2019). ๐Ÿ˜‚

In the next few days, I kept talking about my diving experience to my family, friends and even strangers I met on the train who told me they were travel-enthusiasts too. I had only good things to say about it. But one particular sight from my dive started haunting me ever since. It still does. Even when I posted a pic of my dive in Facebook with the caption ‘I’m okay. You are okay.’ inspired by the sign language and a psychology book of the same name, I didn’t really feel okay. I had seen something really unwanted in the pristine world of fishes. That sight kept haunting me wherever I went.

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To be continued…

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