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Facing a Fear

I’m afraid of water.

It started the summer I was five when my uncle “taught” me to swim by throwing me into the middle of Jones’ pond. My first nightmare was about crossing a stream and an elephant came out of the water and swallowed me.

I’m afraid of water. It’s part of who I am.

I forced myself to become a barely functional swimmer. I went snorkeling in the Galapagos – wearing a life jacket and staying near the boat. I saw six sharks. I also wore a life jacket to go swimming in “Piranha Lake” in the Amazon. They were little piranhas, our guide assured us, and not interested in people.

Water is scary.

So I blame my venture into scuba on the Romanian woman I met in Mexico last New Year’s Eve. I was explaining the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions to her. “You promise to do something that you know you should do,” I explained, “Like to exercise more or stop smoking.”

She was leaving for the coast in the morning to go scuba diving. “It’s amazing,” she said. “You should try it.”

“I’m afraid of water,” I admitted.

“Is that the kind of thing you would make a resolution about?” She asked. “Facing a fear?”

I thought about it as we fixed lentil soup for our New Year’s Eve dinner, and as we drank Tequila shots with the family of some guy we met on the street. “I will do it this year,” I finally resolved on the way back to our hostel. “Face my fear.”

“Your instructor will be right next to you for the whole dive,” the woman at the Xibalba Dive Shop assured me two days later. “Nothing can go wrong.”

It sounded safe enough. Certainly no worse than swimming with sharks or piranha.

We went to a cenote – a deep pool created by the meteor that made the dinosaurs extinct. On the way my Italian instructor, Daniela, explained the basics of diving.

“The first rule of diving is to always breath,” she began.

“But there’s no air down there,” I felt compelled to point out.

“We want to be like fish,” Daniela said, wriggling her hands in front of her to mimic a swimming fish. “But we don’t have fins so with our equipment we create a little bubble of atmosphere we carry with us.” She made it sound so simple.

Then she spoiled it by elaborating.

“The same air we breathe also controls buoyancy. If you add more air to the vest you go up, and if you let air out you go down. You will wear enough weight so you will sink, then we will put just enough air in your vest to keep you at the right depth in the water.”

So much for simple.

“If you need to come up you can just pump some air into the vest and you will pop right up to the surface,” she said with a cheery smile.

At the cenote Daniela hooked up tubes and cables and buckles, and showed me the air gauge, which she said was very important.

“You don’t want to run out of air under water!” she joked. I didn’t laugh.

The cenote dropped straight down from the rock ledge into about 12 feet of crystal clear water. It was a beautiful swimming hole — with a life vest and staying near the edge. Going down deeper than that seemed stupid. Any fool could see there was no air down there.

I put on the fins and the mask and dropped into the deep, clear water, hanging on to the edge. I awkwardly maneuvered my arms into the vest. Daniela snapped, buckled, tightened and fiddled, then handed me the mouthpiece, which was already connected to the air tank and vest. I checked twice to be sure which button would bring me back up to the surface. The eject button, like on a fighter plane.

“I will show you how to put the mouthpiece in under water,” Daniela said. “Because you might lose your mouthpiece and you need to put it back in so you can breathe, right?” I was relieved to know that losing the mouthpiece wouldn’t lead to my certain demise.

Daniela pushed away from the side of the pool.

I still clutched to slippery rock at the edge of the pool. It seemed entirely possible that all this gear would drag me right to the bottom. I checked the buckles on the vest. I could get out of it pretty quickly if I had to. I kept my thumb on the eject button, just in case. I didn’t feel at all like a fish.

It occurred to me that only that Romanian girl knew about my resolution. Nobody would know if I broke it. Except me, of course.

I held my breath in case I sank and pushed away from the edge. To my amazement all that equipment and I floated.

“If you lose your mouthpiece,” Daniela explained, “you put it back in and push this button and you can breathe again.” I pushed it. The button opened a valve so air shot through the mouthpiece pushing the hypothetical water out the front.

“Remember to breathe,” she said cheerfully as she let the air out of my vest and I sank under the surface of the water. And I broke the rule. I held my breath. This suddenly seemed like a really bad idea.

I couldn’t hold my breath forever. I had to breathe through the mouthpiece. My eyes were still above water. If I had to, I told myself, I could roll over on my back, spit the mouthpiece out, and breathe air. Keeping my eyes open above the surface, I took a careful breath. The contraption worked. I could breathe.

Daniela fiddled with my equipment, and then we went a little deeper. My eyes were now under water, but I was still breathing cautiously through the mouthpiece.

Daniela demonstrated taking her mouthpiece out, putting it back in her mouth, and pushing the button to clear out the water.

Then it was my turn. I took a deep breath, peeked up to be sure the surface was close and put my left thumb on the eject button. I held my breath to take the mouthpiece out. I put my hand to my mouthpiece and froze. I couldn’t do it.

“You’ve come too far to quit,” I told myself, breathing again. “You could never live with yourself if you chicken out now.” I took another deep breathe, held it and took the mouthpiece out. I put it right back in, and quickly pushed the little button on the front to clear it. I took a shallow cautious breath, fully prepared to go to the surface with the twitch of a thumb.

Air. No water. Incredible. I tried it again. Mouthpiece out, back in, clear, breathe. It worked again. Daniela gave me to OK sign. I shook my head. I tried again, a little slower, just to be sure. It worked again. And again. I could even let go of it, grab it again, and put it back in.

I finally returned her OK sign.

She pointed toward another part of the pool and I followed, wondering what came next.

We swam under a little island of mangrove trees, their roots dangling above us like feathery tentacles. Below me two blue crabs were locked in an intricate mating dance. I wished I knew the names of the fish, and realized for the first time that you really can’t talk under water. So I looked and wondered. Yellow fish, and shimmering red and vivid electric blue. Schools of them. Big ones and small ones, solid and striped ones. A Dr. Seuss world of swimming creatures.

It was effortless, drifting through the water with just an easy up and down of my fins. Maybe I was a fish, after all.

I suddenly realized that the lesson had ended and we were diving. I had forgotten to be afraid.

Eventually, Daniela pushed the button to put more air into my vest and we broke the surface. The afternoon sun was bright and hot. A warm breeze skittered over the cool water. Finally we could talk and I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I wanted to go back down.

“We were down for 58 minutes,” Daniella said. “That’s a long time for a first dive but you were perfectly calm.”

She was right. I had completely forgotten that I was on the cusp of death. I had even remembered to breathe.

I looked down through the deep clear water at the schools of fishes and other scuba students. There’s a distinct difference, I thought. We are not fish. It really is crazy to go hang around down there where there is no air. It is obviously dangerous. You could drown.

But I knew I would go back.

Colleen Pawling

Pawling lives in Washington DC but also likes to follow bears around in the Andes. Check out the website at www.andeanbear.org