Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Call me Gishboger: Tales from the High Sea

Call me Gisboger. A hardened sailor, I am not. I’m pretty much afraid of everything that lies just below the water’s surface. Coral, jellyfish, sting rays, plastic bags, half-decayed bodies like in the book Hatchet, etc. Here in the land of 17,000 islands, I find myself constantly begging forgiveness for not having any interest in scuba diving, despite the fact that the archipelago is known far and wide as one of the world’s best diving destinations. I like swimming. I’m not particularly afraid of drowning. I even like snorkeling and checking out the undersea treasures from a safe distance. Maybe I just watched too many National Geographic features on man-of-war jellies and those beautiful lionfish that can paralyze you with one prick of their spine. I usually tell people that scuba diving is just too expensive, but between you and me, the idea is about as appealing to me as jumping out of a plane or walking across hot coals.

When I started joining open-water swim practices for triathlon training, I added the sea urchin to my long list of things-to-stay-away-from-in-the-water. Urchins, known here as bulu babi, or fur of the pig, are spiky black things about the size of a volley ball. They are easily found in the shallows on coral or the submerged parts of docks and piers. My fellow Indonesian swimmers told me that if you get too close, they will shoot their black spikes into whatever flesh has the misfortune of being the closest to it, usually feet. It’s basically the porcupine of the sea.

This fear of being turned into a human pin cushion got me into a bit of trouble last week. I joined around 40 other swimmers to swim a short 300 meters between two islands. The current came from two directions and there was quite a bit of chop, but my swim partner and I swam successfully to the outer rim of our destination island. We both popped out of the water at the same time when we realized that we went from deep sea to shallow coral within a matter of two or three strokes. We both acknowledged the shallow water and then continued with our stroke to find a clear path to shore. Only as soon as I resumed my swim, I found myself face to face with a whole field of sea urchin. It took me less than a second to realize that only about two feet of water was separating the whole of my body from being impaled by those little jerks. It took me half a second more to go into a full-on panic. Because of the chop, the water levels changes dramatically with each wave, possibly changing my two feet of saving grace to two-inches of pure hell. 

I switched to a more surface-friendly breast stroke and quickly climbed onto a large, sea-urchin free slab of coral. The killing field was to my back, so if I kept my grip, I knew I would be fine. I needed to stay perched long enough to wait for the other swimmers to reach the island so that we could all swim back together. While sitting, I became acutely aware of the fact that my coral stronghold was less rock-like and more sandpaper mixed with razor blades-like. Wave after wave knocked me backwards, sideways, and completely off the coral, giving me a fresh new scratch each time I had to up right myself.

At this point, it may seem obvious to ask why I didn't just leap off said torture device into the welcome arms of the sea. The short answer is that I went temporarily insane with fear. This fact was confirmed when two of my swim partners had to come to my rescue, and I sobbed openly into their shoulders as they too fell victim to the razor-blade coral. My heroes reasoned me back into reality and the water away from both demon sea creatures and razors. 

We started for a boat that was waiting near by, but in the few strokes I took toward the boat, I regained my sanity and all the searing shame that came with it. I was angry at myself and the stupid ocean, so I took out my anger by pounding the waves back towards the island from which we originally came. I was determined to swim back. The current, however, was determined to compound my shame by keeping me locked in treadmill mode. My swim partner and I were at full-steam, punching into the water, but every time we looked up to check our progress, we were in exactly the same position. For twenty minutes, we were stuck in the middle of the two islands swimming no where fast. It was then that I remembered that my legs and hands were covered in open sores. More memories of National Geographic came flooding back, only this time 'Shark Week' was the feature presentation. Since I was not interested in testing out the keen sense of smell that sharks have, I gave the signal for surrender - I waved both arms frantically to the boat. 

The boat rescue was nothing short of a silver screen moment, if silver screen moments include ropes tossed to swimmers in peril followed up by the unceremonious hauling of said swimmers over the boat edge followed by uncontrolled slipping and flopping onto the boat floor.

I had given up. I sat in the boat and licked both my physical and emotional wounds. The sea showed me exactly what I was made of that day, and I wasn't too happy about it. But, I'll be back. Hear that, Moby, I mean Bulu Babi? I'll be back.