Day 310 – 5 Jan, 2016
The tiny island of Ko Tao loomed large in my itinerary. I wasn’t going to Ko Tao for the sunsets (which were impossibly amazing) or the beaches (which were crowded, yet calm and serene). I was going to scuba dive. Commonly known as the cheapest place in the world to earn an Open Water certification, thousands of travelers show up every year to earn their place in the underwater community. I wasn’t scared. I was excited. Confident. Determined. Earning this certification would shape the rest of my travels in Asia. I imagined traveling to sought-after dive sites that were remote and revered, that only someone with plenty of time and patience would visit, and upon arrival I would be surrounded by other divers and we could share stories about shipwrecks and a newly-discovered species of sea urchin and the like.
Immediately I was faced with a big decision. I’m not so good at decision-making, but I spent the better part of an afternoon researching my options. Would I commit to a PADI certification or SSI? PADI is the most popular, most famous, and most expensive. I didn’t know much about SSI, but from my research I gathered that to an amateur diver, like myself, there wasn’t much difference aside from the training style. The differences become more apparent as a professional, but at this stage, that made little difference. And the dive school I really liked only offered SSI. I went to 4 places, inquiring about class size, cost, and availability. I chose Roctopus. I really liked the girl I spoke to during my inquiry, classes would be limited to 4 students, and the price was within a manageable parameter. They didn’t have class availability until the following day so, left to my own devices, I grabbed a table at the beach to watch the sunset, of course!
The first day consisted of a classroom session only. We had to watch 2 instructional videos and were given homework to read 2 chapters in a textbook and fill in blanks on a worksheet. I have always been a good student so this was a piece of cake. I obediently took my book to dinner and sat in a quiet corner where I couldn’t be disturbed while I read and studied.
The second day was to include another classroom session and some practical lessons in the pool, followed by the third day during which we would be given a written exam and have our first two dives in the ocean. The fourth and final day we would have two more ocean dives before we would be considered as graduates and permitted to dive up to 18 meters on our own. My group included 4 women, aged 25-38 (me), and our instructor, Anna. Anna, from England, was a former field hockey player, but was forced into early retirement when she was seriously injured. She had learned to dive in Egypt and loved it so she had made Ko Tao her home for the previous year, where she could pursue her passion. The morning classroom session was uneventful as we reviewed the remaining material that we would need to study for our final exam. Another group was just wrapping up their pool work and they chatted animatedly amongst themselves. They each seemed to be managing loads of equipment effortlessly as if they had already done this 100 times.
When it was our turn to get suited up, we were each issued a wetsuit, weight belt, buoyancy vest, oxygen tank, regulator, a backup regulator, a snorkel, a mask, fins, and another device to calculate our depth, remaining oxygen, and time. It seemed like a lot to remember, but Anna was thorough and slowly explained how to use everything and how it all works together. When it was time to jump in the pool, we were ready. We started with a scissor step straight into the deep end, holding our mask and regulator in place so they wouldn’t become dislodged. Mine came off, of course, and I immediately noticed how awkward I felt. My buoyancy vest was not at the right level so that it was causing me to tip forward unless I kicked my legs aggressively to keep upright. I tried to play it cool, though, obviously.
We moved into the shallow end and with no time to waste, we began ticking skills off the list – buoyancy control, mask clearing, regulator retrieval. I had an internal panic when I realized that we would have to take our masks off underwater, calmly, and replace them, calmly. After which, we would be expected to clear the water out of our masks by pressing on the top and blowing out our noses until it was clear. Of course, Anna made it look so easy. One by one, each girl in my class attempted this skill. It wasn’t pretty, with inhalation of water and desperate climbs to the surface, although with practice, each of them was eventually able to remove their masks and replace it. I, on the other hand, was frozen. I would gear myself up, but when it came time to actually do it, I couldn’t.
I have asthma. I should have told Anna this before I even began, but it’s only exercise-induced asthma and I didn’t want it to be a reason that I couldn’t move forward. I kept it to myself. So partly, I think I knew that clearing my mask of water would be challenging at best, impossible at worst. But no matter the reason, the question of whether I could or couldn’t remove my mask was no longer important. It was the thought of removing the mask that gained steam. I couldn’t get past it. And just like that, my underwater fantasies were over.
It never occurred to me that this would happen. I wasn’t the least bit apprehensive when I arrived in Ko Tao or when I paid for the lessons or even when I put the regulator in for the first time. I was embarrassed and felt like a total failure. But when push came to shove, I didn’t feel comfortable in the water and I had to remind myself that there was absolutely no Round the World Rulebook saying that I had to do something that I didn’t want to do. This is my journey and I get to do things my way, on land.
I had booked two more nights in Ko Tao in anticipation of completing the certification so I found myself with plenty of time to spare for a fish pedicure and some spectacular viewpoints. During those two days, I saw boatloads of divers depart from the beach for far flung dive sites and I was disappointed in myself. I wanted to be among them. It took some time for me to accept that I had made the right decision and that there would be other opportunities for adventure for which I was much better suited. On land.