Kneeling on the ocean floor, my instructor gave me the signal. My stomach felt knotted and heavy. I lifted my hands to my mask, but couldn’t make them take any further action. I reached for the board and pen my instructor kept tied to his belt.
Nervous, I wrote.
He spread his arms apart and moved his hands gently up and down. It’s okay.
He put his hands near his chest and motioned for me to breath in and out. I took several slow breaths.
Just do it, said the voice inside my head.
I put my hands back on my mask. Then I lifted the top of the mask forward. I felt the suction tighten around my face before sharply releasing. Water rushed across my eyes.
This was what was meant to happen. I was undergoing a practical exam for my PADI open water scuba license. I had practiced this in the pool several times the day before. My instructor there remarked how calm I was. You’re a natural, he told me.
But in the salt water, sitting in the sand, much deeper than the day before… it didn’t feel natural.
The water filled the nose of the mask. I started to freak out. While my previous movements had been timid and careful, now I just wanted this to be done. In one sudden, graceless movement I pulled the mask from my head.
I was supposed to do that.
I was not supposed to do any of the things that happened next.
I dropped the mask. And while I knew I could have my eyes open in the salt water, had done it many times before, I entered full panic mode and squeezed them shut instead. I made frantic lunges into the self-imposed darkness and unconsciously attempted a breath in through my nose. As the water entered my lungs I moved into full-on freak out. The regulator was in my mouth but I forgot how to use it. And then I moved so frantically that I knocked the regulator away anyway. I opened my eyes. In the blur ahead I could see my instructor sitting in front of me. I’m sure he was making movements to calm me down but my eyes could not focus on him and instead darted up to the sky. My chest felt horribly tight. In a state of desperation, I pushed myself off the sand and swam as fast as I could towards the surface.
You are not meant to do that, for the record. In fact, these tests are meant to prove that you can stay calm in an emergency so that you don’t risk decompression sickness with too quick an ascent. Clearly I had failed the test.
My instructor appeared as a dark, blurry presence beside me. He inflated my buoyancy control device and together we accelerated upwards. I kept swimming.
When we finally burst through the surface I took a big, panicked, raspy breath, then coughed out the water that my panic had let in.
Our boat was not far away. The driver leaned over the edge. “What happened?” he called out.
“I freaked out,” I told him.
We were not far from shore. I could see the grey sand of the beach and the town of Lovina behind it. The mountains rose in shades of pale green – we were at the end of the dry season on Bali, and the rice fields in this area of the island were patchy and brown. I lifted the shaky hand that once held my mask and told my instructor what he already knew – I lost it. He disappeared under the water to find it, and I floated in the ocean by myself for some time.
What am I doing here? I asked myself.
I have amazing friends. But they are scattered around the globe, and I’m an introvert anyway. When Tom proposed and we embarked on our wedding planning adventure I knew there were some traditional things we would probably forgo. A bachelorette party was one of them.
But I still wanted to do something special to celebrate my impending marriage. So when I found out I’d be laying over in Bali on my way to and from Bandung, I decided to extend it. I called it my solo bachelorette party. When I told Tom about the idea he called it ‘the most Mariana thing’ he had ever heard. It was perfect for me.
I decided I wanted to learn how to scuba dive. It’s something I had always wanted to do. And for some reason, even though I’d never done it before, I decided I wanted to get my PADI open water certification while I was at it. That was silly, I thought to myself that night as I lie in bed with a sharp, painful headache.
On my first day in the ocean I had been breathing improperly the entire dive – and I knew it. I’d breathe in through my mouth but out through my nose, which is not what the book or the instructor told me to do. It seemed to be working fine as I swam, but now my sinuses were not happy. Not to mention I failed one of the most important tests of the practical. I’d have to repeat it again tomorrow. I tossed myself into a light, anxious sleep – my mind actively debating whether this headache was actually the result of angry sinuses or whether it was a symptom of the bends that I may have brought on myself by my fast ascent earlier in the day. You’re dying, the constant, melodramatic voice in my head informed me as my roommate, the gecko, called out into the night in loud agreeance.
I love the ocean, but this is not the first time I have gotten myself in trouble due to overconfidence. In Mexico a few years back I had thrown myself into churning waves only to claw my way out… but not without a lot of struggle and a severe pounding. Typically my impressively high anxiety keeps me in check, but I have this weird element to my personality, a strange sense of ‘fuck it’ that prevails from time to time and goes against every other high-strung emotion that makes me. Sometimes I like this side of me. It has led to some amazing experiences that would have never have happened otherwise – like booking my plane ticket to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago alone, or getting naked in public at the onsens in Japan, or climbing a volcano and then riding down it’s steep side on a metal-lined piece of wood in Nicaragua, or agreeing to move to Australia to be with Tom. But now, I was thinking, it may have benefited me to use a bit of my natural borne anxiety when I made this decision. Who commits themselves to a 3 day scuba course without ever having scuba dived before?
I was staying in a beautiful boutique hotel on the side of a mountain. Somehow I had managed to find the listing online during a 60% off sale. I couldn’t believe my luck when I arrived on the first night and was greeted with a sweeping ocean view and a fresh made smoothie. For just over 30 AUD a night I had myself a four poster bed and a beautiful, private Balinese-style outdoor bathroom.
The morning after that failed test I devoured my noodle breakfast and booked myself a full day of spa treatments for the following day. It was incentive, I told myself, to finish what I started and complete the dive I needed to in order to get my certification. Despite my subconscious telling me otherwise, I had survived the night, and awoken headache-free. I had no excuse not to get in the van.
For the last dive we would be going out to an island. It was a long drive to the boat and another good 40 minutes to the dive site. Other tourists – two other divers and 3 snorkelers – would be coming with us, as well as several guides. I was the only woman there on my own, and the guides spoiled me rotten. They reserved a whole bench for me on the bus, made sure I was hydrated with cool bottles of water, were constantly checking in to make sure I was happy and comfortable. Back at the hotel the first night the waiters had set my table for two. “We thought you were coming with your husband,” they told me. “No, just me,” I said with a smile. I tried to explain to them the concept of my solo bachelorette trip, but it seemed lost on them. “I’ll bring my husband next time,” I said as I ordered another Bintang.
We entered the water backwards from the side of the boat, and my instructor and I pulled away from the group to head towards a beach with a sandy bottom where we could retry the mask test. I was even more nervous this time.
Under the surface of the water sound is amplified. There was a temple on the island and there were many boats bringing locals dressed in white to pray that day. While the boats were too far away to see, I could hear their motors as I sat on the sandy bottom. It was strange and disorienting to hear the engines but look around to see only a calm, crystal surface above.
I breathed deeply, and pulled off the mask.
I am not going to lie, this story does not end gracefully. But it does end happily. I managed to pass the test – albeit with some panic and a mask caught in hair. And then we were off, just my instructor and I, to explore.
We saw baby sand sharks under rocks, eels in tiny caves, and multitudes of bright, colorful fish. My camera doesn’t seem to capture red tones under water, so while it was indeed a blue world, the colors were much more vibrant than they appear in the pictures. This was what they call a wall dive – the reef had formed on the outside of the island and appeared colorful and dense on a cliff that extended endlessly down into darkness. On the opposite side there was just a vast, never-ending blue. It was thrilling and terrifying and magical all at once. At one point my instructor made the sign for shark and pointed down. I looked to see a clear, shark-shaped shadow just before it disappeared into the darkness.
Coming to the surface I felt ecstatic. I had completed the course, fulfilled the hours I needed and passed the exams I required to be PADI open water certified. I was also exhausted.
I would have liked to have seen more of Bali, to spend my last day exploring the island. But this was always meant to be a self-indulgent trip, and I instead spent my final day enjoying the spa treatments I had booked for myself before I was certain that I could actually accomplish what I came here to do. It was blissful, made all the sweeter by the little white card now tucked into my wallet – proof that the past few days were real and not just some surreal blue dream/nightmare.
No pain, no glory – I learned that on the Camino. Learning to scuba dive was really hard for me, but coming out the other side with a new skill, a new way to experience the world was worth it. I get that it’s not for everyone, but this was the perfect way to celebrate my relationship with Tom. Entering into my marriage, it’s never been more important to keep learning, to keep experiencing new things. I owe that to him, to myself, and to us.
I stayed at Puri Mangga Sea View Resort and Spa and could not recommend it enough. I arranged my transport to and from the airport through them. I did my diving course and certification with Arrows Padi Dive Centre and felt that the staff was really professional and safety conscious. I will absolutely dive with them in the future.