Everything is black. My suit wasn't weighted properly and I am having trouble with my descent. I can't see my dive buddies or the dive master. I am surrounded by murky waters and a bit of saltwater has gotten in my goggles. My breath quickens; I gulp the air. I can't catch my breath. I feel panic in a way I've never felt panic and I shoot up to the surface.
A hand touches my shoulder. “Why did you come up like that?” It is one of the dive masters.
“I... I lost you....I couldn't breathe” I say, my body shaking.
“They're waiting for us, so take a breath. Here we go,” he says as he starts to descend.
I glance around me. I am bobbing in the South China Sea, just outside Nha Trang, Vietnam. Once the home of a US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, Nha Trang is a popular beach getaway for both Vietnamese and foreign tourists. Normally, the region is known for its clear waters and excellent diving. I was having an atypical experience.
Grabbing his hand, I re-enter the dark waters. As we swim, my eyes adjust and I start to discern shapes in front of me. We've rejoined the dive group. We float through the water. I pass coral shaped like deformed brains from a medical oddities museum. Fish swim by, their scales a melody of stripes and spots. I barely notice. I concentrate on my breathing. Relaxed, shallow breaths. My fellow divers cruise along, pointing at the reef formations, smiling at each new discovery. For me, I can only focus on each and every breath.
This experience surprises me. The prior year I had spent a week scuba diving in Australia. As my first diving experience, it was exhilarating. Being in the ocean made me feel at home. It was like connecting to some ancestral experience like when a newborn baby is put in water and instinctively starts to swim. On this dive in Vietnam, the water felt foreign. Perhaps it was my lack of experience or the sub-par dive equipment or just the poor diving conditions that day, but I felt pure fear.
Fear is a common travel companion. It lurks in the back of the mind, encompassing the mundane anxieties of missing a train as well as the white-knuckled terror of a pitch black bus ride on an ill-maintained mountain highway. On my journey through Vietnam, I'd had flashes of fear. My first motorbike ride, dodging traffic to cross the street in Hanoi, wading through waist-deep flood waters after a monsoon. But here, 10 meters below the surface, my mind seemed to disappear, and some primitive emotional response took over. Fear was no longer in the back of my mind, it had inhabited every part of my body.
I rejoice as we re-surface. As I wade through the water to the boat, I swallow a mouthful of sea-water. My tongue tingles from the taste of the salt. I stumble unto the boat, tripping over one of my fellow divers. The cracked wooden planks of the boat's deck are concrete beneath my feet. Yet, I'm still shaking. I sit next to a Norwegian teenager from the dive.
“Sure is chilly,” I say, hoping to explain away my shaking hands.
“I got scared on a dive once too,” he says to me. “It was in a cold sea in Europe. I wasn't expecting the water to be so dark, so hard to see. I panicked.”
Mr. Dive Master interrupts our conversation to give us his feedback. “You,” he says, pointing his finger an inch from my face, “You must work on breathing. You ate up way too much oxygen. Not good. Better luck on the next dive.”
I'd forgotten that we had two dives that day. I wanted to make up some excuse, wanted there to be some way to avoid re-entering those waters. The only thing to suffer would be my ego.
The boat casts its anchor. Afternoon has brought the sun. Its rays dance across the water, highlighting each ripple and wave with light. The texture of the sea calls to me. The fear settles into the familiar grooves in the back of my mind. I still my body. I dive.