Papeete, 15 July
Su is a keen diver, but I didn’t know until after we had decided to marry each other. I also did not know many other things about her – We hold the view that we have plenty of time to find out.
About a month before our marriage, she took me to a diving equipment shop where I bought my first mask and snorkel, a pair of rubber shoes and fins. She was having her buoyancy control device or BCD and diving computer checked in preparation for the Koh Samui trip. I did not touch these newly acquired toys until I packed for the trip.
Soon I learned that diving is serious business, for Su at least. I was rather tense and worried every time I picked up those things and was particularly so the moment Su took me to the beaches in Koh Samui. I swallowed my fair share of sea water and had a clamp on my right leg, and worse, my teeth and jaw were numbed for the next ten days. The worst part was that I did not feel that I could master the sport at all. Danger loomed rather large.
Back in Hong Kong, and in between the trips I have been talking about, I had a chance to talk to some good friends who are known to be keen divers. These are people who would leave their families for days and weeks to go to distant places for no other activity than diving, which they claim to be highly therapeutic and good for the mind. One or two of them volunteered free counsel and they all suggested that maybe I should go into diving classes direct, for “snorkeling could be more difficult (and hence more dangerous) than scuba diving”. Their reasoning appears to be as follows: snorkeling requires breathing training and practices which become harder with age, whereas in scuba diving, the diver is fed air from a tank all the time so that he would never be out of air as such.
For a while, I was relieved. The next step therefore is to find a doctor who is a diver to sign my application form, which should not be difficult. In fact, a few names came to the mind. Specifically, a young doctor, who was on the same pilgrimage to Greece, had volunteered to sign my form, except that I forgot to take the form to the trip. I had a scheduled appointment with the consultant at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the morning of the day I was to embark on this third leg of my honeymoon. I brought up the form during the consultation. He looked at it carefully, and said he would need more time to study the form and that he could not possibly have it done within the day, notwithstanding that I have been a regular of the Specialist Clinic for nearly 20 years.
Before I left, he said that diving could be hazardous, adding that some of his colleagues had not returned on diving trips. He even suggested that I could be a bit too old for the sport. In the afternoon, I called up the doctor friend who was a keen diver. He said he could not sign the form until and unless he had me physically checked. I could understand, for he is now in a rather responsible position in a hospital. Finally, I tracked down this young doctor and had the form signed an hour before I was heading for the airport.
Let me digress to explain why I have gone out of my way to get the form signed. Su has underlined a few times that diving has been a part of her life for over ten years, that she has known many people who started late, including an old lady who was 76 who started learning scuba diving at 72. More immediately and rather relevantly, since we would be out at sea on these Tahitian islands for over ten days, it would be a terrible waste if we did not make use of the opportunity to do some diving together. This cruise is therefore as much a honeymoon as a diving trip.
As soon as we had checked ourselves in on m/s Paul Gauguin, and on Su’s advice, we signed up a number of excursions, including a few diving classes for beginners, which would put me on good stead should I decide to go on other diving classes.
Su was very supportive all the way and she even took me to the classroom on the day before she went off on her diving. There were about a dozen students for the beginner class and Martin was the instructor. He lectured for about 45 minutes before taking us to the pool deck where we were taught to put weights on before going into the pool. I realized then that it was for real, and I could feel my adrenaline all over the body. I was able to do the first routines, such as putting on the face mask and the regulator. (For the uninitiated, the regulator is the implement connected to the tank from which the diver gets air when he needs it any time.) I could even retrieve the regulator after I had it removed for a short while. Then came the crucial part: we were asked to clear our masks which we had filled with water. The process involved sucking in air through the mouth and blowing it out through the nose, which should in turn displace the water in the mask. It was not easy. I felt breathless and got my head out of water, which was bad form. I became very tense and asked to go to the bath room. I went and returned to the pool and repeated the drill. I thought I cleared it, but Martin said no. More importantly, he had observed that I had been taking in water through the mouth because I was too tense and breathing too hard such that water was coming in between the regulator and my lips. Martin asked me to try one more time. When I surfaced prematurely, he said apologetically that it would be best if I learn the skill in formal training sessions rather than in a crash course such as the one he was hosting. He then volunteered to cancel all my other bookings. I went back to my cabin shivering on the one hand and feeling somewhat relieved on the other at the premature curtailment of my diving career.
I related to Su what happened. She was still very supportive and suggested that I could go back to snorkeling. She even said that she wouldn’t want me to see me dive if I was unprepared. After a stiff Black Label, we went to cancel Su’s other bookings and replace them with a number of snorkeling excursions that we would go together. It was good that I had the stiff drink before I went, my stomach would have ached otherwise.
My mind went back to Koh Samui, and my jaw suddenly felt numb again. I reminded myself that it was the mind working on overdrive; and I began to go over what Martin said to me.
The first snorkeling excursion involved going to a shallow lagoon to dance with the sting rays. The place was Bora Bora. The water was cold even though the sun was scotching. I put on the full gear, minus the fins and was able to see through the mask and underwater the sting rays. I was able to touch their slimy bodies and feel their spiny skins, but I was still unable to breathe smoothly without taking in a good deal of water. Clear and sparkling as it appeared under the sun, the water was no less salty than any sea water.
The next stop was a visit to a coral garden. The water was a lot deeper here and the current a lot stronger. Su advised me to stay on board when she noticed that I was reluctant to go into water.
In the afternoon, we went on a jet boat to do similar things, except that the guide took us to calmer parts of the lagoon. Suddenly, and without warning, and for the first time, I was breathing naturally and smoothly. Eureka!
I felt so calm and I began to say the Hail Mary a couple of times. I must have stayed in the water with my head down for over five minutes; and unknown to me, Su had been following me to make sure that I did not get myself into trouble. When I got on my feet again, I asked Su whether I had got it. She said yes. I felt like Eliza Doolittle being able to speak in the manner Henry Higgins asked her to. It was a breakthrough – an achievement that I had never expected. At dinner, Su and I thanked God for what happened.
I would talk to you later.