28 August 2010
after snorkeling in Xcaret, Cancun, Mexico
I just did two things I never thought I’d do. One, I signed up for one of those touristy tours to a sort of theme park. I’m a bit of an independent traveler and I always thought those kinds of tours were just for senior citizen travelers or those who were afraid to get out and really meet the peeps of a place. Well, I AM a tourist here so I decided this tour was a good way to go, and it’s more of an ecological park, which (in my mind) justifies me going. So I took the tour, food included (delicious). And two, I went snorkeling (twice even—once in a river, once in the ocean) for the first time and loved it. I mean, really LOVED it. For someone who has always suffered from aquaphobia, especially deep water, this was big.
Yes, I was the six-year-old kid who was so excited for her first swimming lessons she had her long hair done special (in pigtails), but who upon arriving at the pool watched another class jump off the diving board into the deep end (12 whole feet!) and suddenly froze—so much so that she was eventually and humiliatingly placed in the swim class for babies and handicapped children (1½ feet deep) and never really made it past much deeper, especially without clinging to the edge. I freaked out, without realizing why.
Determined for years to beat this fear and finally learn how to swim, in high school gym class I flopped my way through swimming lessons without much success (having a screwed up spine meant I just ended up getting all twisted up in the water without going anywhere but into humiliationland), and in college I would go early in the morning to an empty pool, grab a beach ball, and kick my way from one side of the pool to the other, meditating and breathing as calmly as possible to control my anxiety as I passed over the deep end that absolutely terrified me because if I put my feet down I’d have to go down very far to touch the bottom. Finally, somehow, at the age of 28 when I was living in Asia, I figured out how to coordinate my movement, breath, arms and legs, and fear into swimming…swimming like a frog, but nonetheless swimming.
I felt liberated in a way.
Today, however, was even bigger than that.
I went snorkeling at Xcaret park just south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in a long series of underground rivers. Suited up with a life jacket on and snorkeling gear in hand, I was excited and simply kept going to prevent myself from thinking about things too long. I entered the crystalline water, put on the gear, and practiced putting my head in and out of the water making sure I wasn’t going to drown. Everything about this, after all, was foreign to me. I didn’t want to think too much about it and get freaked out, but I also wanted to be prepared enough to not die while doing it.
Done. Then I headed into the darkness (eek!) of the first tunnel. The gentle flow of the river nudged me along as I kicked and thought, “This ain’t so bad.” Then I put my head into the water.
It was like someone pulled open the curtains to two things. The first thing you notice is that the water shuts out all other sound so that all you hear is you and your own breath. In…out…in…out…. Like a heartbeat. Like waves. Mesmerizing. And the second thing you notice is that it’s like putting your head through a liquid mirror and peering into a whole other world.
If I hadn’t been clenching a rubber bite on the end of a plastic tube between my teeth, you would have seen my grinning from ear to ear like a goofy kid, snapping photo after photo with my new waterproof camera.
Well, except for one section. There, you would have seen me panic.
What lies beneath the surface of the earth is fascinating and strange and beautiful. I just usually don’t want to go down into it. Call it mild claustrophobia, but I would much rather climb up or be in the light of day or come as close to flying as I can. So the fact that I was swimming alone through dark watery tunnels (that occasionally opened up into gorgeous green light-filled oases, which were the MOST beautiful and welcome sights) meant that two of the things that scare me most—deep water in the moist dark—were the two things I was facing at every tunnel entrance. I admit I hesitated sometimes until I could see, or at least hear, other people behind me before I kept going. I didn’t want to be alone in the dark. But I pushed on, keeping calm, “squealing” with joy at streams of light dancing on the rock formations below and the miniature cave fish swimming around me. Just me, my breath, and the underground wonderland. Until…
I turned a corner at an open oasis only to find the entrance of a very dark tunnel and just enough light to see a giant and very, very deep crevice below me. I panicked and swam over to the shallow edge to pause.
The term “life jacket” is a good one, but for me it doesn’t have the same impact as the term in Spanish: chaleco salvavida, literally “jacket to save your life.” I’d never been happier to be wearing a fluorescent orange contraption (that was painfully cutting into my crotch and that I later discovered had bruised my tailbone). But this is the self-talk that followed:
“Holy CRAP, that’s really deep and dark!!!” (Panting)
“Kiri, you can do this. Just keep going.”
“But, did you see that crevice that’s sucked in all the light?!”
“Yep, saw it.”
“I saw it. But how is this part any different than any other section you’ve swum through until now?”
“It’s so freakin’ deep, that’s how!! I could swim over it, get sucked in or fall in and never be found or heard of again! I can’t see or hear anyone ahead of me or behind me. No one would ever know or find me and I would have spent my last moments with my last few breaths being sucked out of me as I drop into oblivion!!!”
“What are you wearing, Kiri? ¿Qué estás llevando, Kiri?”
“Un chaleco salvavid…ahh.” Tienes razón. You’re right. Okay.”
“Yep, keep it on and keep swimming just like you’ve been doing. Go toward the dark, even if it’s counterintuitive, stay with the flow of the river, and it will bring you into the light. Now go.”
So I went. I swam over that giant fissure (without looking much again, I have to say) that could have swallowed me up (I was sure of it), I kept breathing, and I made it into the light again. The salvavida saved my life. Maybe one day I can snorkel without it and maybe even dive, but for now I’m content. Like training wheels on a bicycle, maybe it’ll come off one day…but it still means I’m riding.
Near the end of my wonder-filled hour-long journey through this network of underground rivers, I again muffle-squealed in delight at the yellow-and-black striped fish that greeted me and at the bigger electric blue fish that darted between the others. Squealing in joy at the beauty that thrives beneath the surface. I didn’t want to get out, but when I did, I removed my mask and fins, unsnapped my life jacket, and broke into a giant smile, honoring myself and offering gratitude to God for many things: for the sound of my own breath and for being aware of it, for this planet and all its grandeur and mysteries, and for this awkward and bulky vest that had made possible that journey through the wonder and terror of facing fear and emerging stronger and even more in love with life.