The Agony and the Ecstasy


“How on earth did I get here?” my mind wails even as the dead weights strapped to my waist drag me deeper into the ocean. I'm sinking like a rock, the water around me impaling my eardrums like a silent drilling machine. Despite every cell in my body exhorting my nose to breathe, I can only gasp for air through my mouth. Before my eyes, crinkled tight with fear and tension, I only perceive a blue haze. Then my heart stops. A stealth bomber, dark and menacing, has just glided past my nose.

Before I realize it's only a manta ray, it has disappeared behind a ridge, flapping its cape-like fins with the grace of an Olympic gymnast. I feel a tug behind me. It's the instructor, still holding me by the weight-belt. I’d forgotten all about him. Understandable during a near-death experience, I suppose. I remember my wife though, waiting for me at the jetty. She’d declined to join me underwater. We’re in Malaysia, at the Pulao Payar Marine Park, an hour by boat from Langkawi. “Press your nostrils and blow if the ears hurt,” I’ve been instructed back on the boat. The ears hurt alright but I don’t want to try that. What if I overdo it and my eardrums explode outwards?

There are cliffs and crevices all around me now and not one barren rock in sight. Instead they’re ruddy with life and swathed in colors so resplendent, I struggle to find names for them. Just then, I spy little Nemo foraging behind a cucumber-like formation. Fear gushes out of my heart, wonderment taking its place. Kicking with my flippers I eagerly propel myself towards him. In a blink the orange-white clownfish scurries away. Even before I start despairing, a dazzling green parrotfish, its face speckled yellow, catches my eye. I torpedo towards it, scattering a school of neon damselfish in the process. I try touching one, not bothering if the instructor thinks I’m foolish: it’s my first-ever scuba dive! The way it accelerates out of my reach, it could be a mind-reader. I’m breathing harder now, nervously wondering how much oxygen might be left in my cylinders.

The instructor shows me an angelfish next, sporting a fluorescent yellow tail. In turn I point towards a shellfish draped in haute couture. It’s a veritable menagerie of surreal life-forms. Perhaps I’ve gate-crashed a costume party on an alien planet. I’m missing wifey again, wishing she were exploring this garden of soft corals with me. On second thoughts, it’s a xenophobic, if not downright hostile world, where humans are only briefly tolerated. The crushing pressure on my chest reminds me I’ve already overstayed my welcome. “Pull me up,” I finally signal to my guardian angel after having soaked in memories to last me a lifetime.

“Why should a place so astonishingly beautiful be so inhospitable for humans?” I complain during lunch back at the jetty.

“Just as well, perhaps,” wifey replies. “We’d have destroyed it long ago otherwise.”

Touché!

S Shete

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