Friday, July 04, 2008

Day 5 Of 7 - Parting The Red Sea, Only This Time Not For As Good A Reason

Woke up with no damn idea where I was. A fall onto a concrete floor from a concrete bed will do that to you. Managed to open the padlocked-on-the-inside wooden door and saw this.

Still didn't have any idea where I was, so I looked to the right.

I experienced a vague recollection that the gravel had not been raked the night before, and that there had not been some dude sleeping behind the bush. Still mostly confused, I looked to the left.

Now I remembered. Water. Red Sea. Dahab. I'm in Egypt. I'm supposed to go get in that water today.
Lebowski's door was wide open. After ten minutes or so of my version of call to prayer, he woke up, and after ten minutes or so of certain commodity, he threw on his flip-flops. There was a tense moment as he looked from his shorts and flip-flops to my shorts and black Skechers and black socks, and then back to his shorts and flip-flops.
"You, uh... those aren't beach shoes," he finally settled on.
"Nope," I admitted.
"Did you... did you bring any?"
"Do you even own any?"
It was here that I launched into my beach curse story. I bear an ancient curse having to do with beaches. I am basically safe around pools and man-made lagoon-type structures, but any time I get near naturally-occurring water that I can't see the bottom of, I get cut. The most famous of these stories happened in Biloxi, where a couple of high school friends picked me up out of the water for a 'three strapping doughboys carrying Mae West' photo, and then threw me as far as they could. An un-cursed person would have landed in one of the billions of water in the Gulf of Mexico. I myself landed on a barnacle-encrusted concrete pylon. Seriously, the barnacle-encrusted pylon to water ratio in the Gulf of Mexico is insane, but I found one. So I limped back a hundred yards to the beach, right leg numb except for the tickling of used hypodermic needles in the water, and when we all made it out onto the sand, we saw that my right big toe had basically been split to the first joint. In shock, I could think of nothing funnier to do than run up the beach screaming, "SHARK!" And so it's gone with every encounter with a beach, before and since.
Lebowski hadn't moved for the entire story. Finally, he said, "So, you're telling me you don't own any beach shoes is what you're saying."
We headed out for breakfast, flopping and clomping, respectively.

In daylight, Dahab is an intriguing low-tech beautiful. Like I said, it's basically a main drag following the water, but in the dark I hadn't been able to see the brickwork. There are concrete buildings and thatched-roof huts, and every so often a broken-down storefront with three tourist police smiling at you. In this shot, you can barely see Saudi Arabia in the distance. You'll also notice they managed to get the trash near the trash can, and that's because there was one, a feat unequaled in the whole of Cairo.
Found breakfast in a seaside tent. This was one of the few places that had an actual table and chairs. I mention this so I can mention how they did it everywhere else. The Dahab standard is a 'conversation pit' kind of thing, where they make a big square out of four palm tree logs, throw pillows and blankets over them, and stick a small table in the middle barely big enough to put your legs under. If you lean back against the logs, that fits nine people and their requisite shishas. Like I said, low-tech, but neat. The thing about chairs is that cats go under them. It's like sitting on a boardwalk and dipping your feel in a tide of cats. Now and again, one would jump up in Lebowski's lap, and he would brush it off like it had the plague. I am a cat person, and so I wondered why he would do that until one jumped on my lap; this thing looked at me sweetly with the one eye it had, and showed me its brain through its other eye socket. I think it may have had the plague. I followed Lebowski's anti-zombie-cat stance for the rest of breakfast which, oddly, featured bacon.
And orange juice. Did I mention that?
Grabbed some aqua socks from a vendor. In keeping with my beach curse, I suspect I may have a flip-flop curse. I used to wear them when I was little, up until the time I got the bottom of a broken Coke bottle stuck between the heel of the flip-flop and my actual heel. Yeah ouch. Since then I have given any possible curse very little room to work, and so, aqua socks. I never go in the water without some, and you'll remember I wore a pair in the Salt Lake. However, a thing I discovered about aqua socks is that when you wear them outside of the water (which I had never done before), they're hot and cumbersome and generally stupid. I think I should have risked the curse and gone with the flip-flops.
We began our search for a reputable diving outfit. Until this very point in my life, I had thought little about diving. I like to swim, but I've never been that interested in throwing on heavy and expensive equipment in order to paddle around with some fishes. But Lebowski had just been diving in Iskanderun, and had been bitten by the diving bug. He convinced me with very little arm-twisting. His experience, though, prompted us to place emphasis on the reputable in our search for a reputable diving outfit:

LEBOWSKI: Hi, I'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: I am diver.
LEBOWSKI: Are you a certified instructor?
EGYPTIAN: I am diver.
LEBOWSKI: Um... I'm not so sure about--
EGYPTIAN: Let me ask you question. When you breath under water, you breathe like this?
EGYPTIAN hyperventilates.
EGYPTIAN: Or you breathe like this?
EGYPTIAN breathes long and slow.
LEBOWSKI: The... second one?

EGYPTIAN (clapping him on the back): You do fine. Come on.

Miraculously, Lebowski survived that diving adventure, and even more miraculously, wanted to go into the water again. We cruised up the beach, checking out various dive shops:

US: Hi, we'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: You not think about cost. What you want to pay?

US: Hi, we'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: Let me ask you question...


US: Hi, we'd--

Finally we arrived at Sinai Divers. Inside was a man who intelligently explained the dive process and assured us that they were a member of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or PADI. Lebowski looked at me. I looked at him. We had found our outfit. An hour later, Bob, who was one of the instructors-on-demand, arrived, and we began.
The SCUBA Diver certification, which is the first and lowest PADI certification, requires four separate dives, all of which themselves require movie-watching and written test-passing based on the movies. You learn things like how air occupies less space and becomes more dense the further down you dive, and what to do when your ears complain about that. You learn about SCUBA equipment, how to put it on, and how to troubleshoot it. And you learn basic emergency procedures, like what to do if your air goes away at ten meters. Oh yeah, did I mention everything was metric? Instead of pounds per square inch, the SPG (submersible pressure gauge) reported to me in atmospheres. Wacky.
We passed our tests (during which Lebowski may or may not have helped me cheat on the math part), and then Bob took us out for Contained Water Dive One. You're supposed to do confined water dives in a pool, but since all we had was the sea, we just didn't go out as far into it. A word about suiting up... and that word is 'uncomfortable.' The wetsuit is skintight, wet, and made of rubber. It's like... well, it's like a wet skintight rubber wetsuit, you can imagine what that feels like. And there's two of them, one with arms and legs, and another without that goes on top. Pinch city. And the equipment is, outside of the water, heavy. I'm guessing we lugged an extra 50 pounds (I have no idea how many kilograms that is) down the beach to the water. If you're an experienced diver, you can run through the checklist pretty quickly, but as we were new, Bob made us do it slowly, and every second you're standing in the hot Egyptian sun in two skintight rubber wetsuits with stupidly heavy gear on is a second you're dying. Bob was good-natured enough to smirk at our pain.
Safety checks done, we flopped our way into the water. Things immediately cooled off and became less heavy. But in trade, a new wrinkle; I could no longer move. I mean, sure, I could flap around, but nothing I did did anything else. Having never been in the water with weights and a BCG (Buoyancy Control Device [a damn inflatable vest]) on, I hadn't yet figured out what motions translated into what resulting moves, and so it was a lot like being a baby again. Just kick and wave and hope something happens.
You can't prepare for being able to breathe underwater. Bob warned us that we couldn't, and I knew this, but still, I was not prepared. We threw our regulators in (that's the chewy piece of the airhose that goes in your mouth), deflated our BCDs, and sank. And there I am, kneeling on the sand, surrounded by water, and damn breathing. Bob gave us a few minutes to get used to it. The videos all stress to keep breathing, because a) it's generally a good idea, and b) if you don't, your lungs can explode. I discovered a third cause for non-breathing; you forget to. It's amazing to be completely submerged and listen to the hiss of your equipment telling you you're not drowning. Of course, it wasn't all beer and pizza. For one, I was weighted wrong. Since you are wearing a damn inflatable vest when you dive, they strap a beltful of lead weights to you so you can sink when you want to. Every diver knows about how much weight to wear, and how to wear it. Unfortunately, the only way to learn this is to do it wrong several times until you get it right. Weighted like I was, when I was kneeling there underwater, I kept drifting forward onto my face. Doesn't seem like much of a hassle, but when you don't quite have the coordination to get back up again, it's a pain. Another thing was that my mask wouldn't seal. You'll notice that pilots are all clean-shaven, and that's because their oxygen masks have to seal, and a beard breaks the seal. Soldiers do the same thing so their protective gas masks seal. Well, I have a beard now, and the low end of the dive mask seals across the top of your lip. Problem. And believe it or not, the diver's solution to that is Vaseline. You just smear some across your moustache, and you're disgusting but good to go. We actually got started a little late because, oddly, none of us had any Vaseline on us, and the pharmacy was closed because the guy running it had been called away to pray. And once I got in the water, I discovered that either I have a destroyer-class moustache, or the Vaseline trick just doesn't work all that well.
In short, I definitely needed the time Bob gave us to get used to things.
During the Confined Water dives, you go through a list of several skills, proving that you'll be able to perform them if you ever have to. One of them is how to put your regulator back in if it ever falls out or gets kicked out of your mouth by another diver. You might think (as I did) that it's an easy thing to put something back in your mouth, but the mask seriously limits your peripheral vision. When that thing falls out, it's gone, and because of all the gear you're wearing, if you don't know where to look to find it, you're in trouble. How to clear your mask if water gets into it was of particular interest to me. In fact, by the time we got to that skill, I had already been doing it for fifteen minutes. Once enough water gets in it to get in your way, you look up, pull the mask off, and blow bubbles into it. That puts enough air in it to seal it back onto your face, and then you can see again. And having regular water get into your mask is bother enough... salt water from the Red Sea? Well, that's like bleach in your eyes, and if you get a snort of that stuff up your nose, game over. Lebowski and I both got a taste of that as we were using the snorkels to get to where we did the dive. Bob told us to make sure to blow the snorkels out before we breathed in for the first time, but I had a feeling he knew we had so much on our minds that we'd forget, and he certainly was watching and laughing when we both simultaneously took in a honking blast of sea water and had a face explosion. It must be amusing to be an instructor.
After we finished all the skills, we left the water, trundled out gear back to the dive shop, and watched more videos. Then we geared up again (the repetition, I suppose, was to get us accustomed to the gear), and did Open Water Dive One. Open Water dives are a sort of free-roaming reward for getting past all those skills. And it was amazing. It was trouble at first, though, even getting below the surface. See, when you breathe in, you become buoyant, and you can't sink when you do that. But what's the first thing you do when you're about to go underwater? You take a deep breath is what. So in addition to deflating your vest and having the right weights, you also have to control your descent with your breathing. And, strangely, it's not a constant thing; for the first ten feet I mean three METERS, it's really hard to sink, and then for the next six meters or so, it's easy. And after that it gets hard again. Something about the density of the water, I dunno. But after the first few tries, I got my naturally buoyant self under the surface, and like I said, amazing. Bob led and we followed. He consulted his dive computer often (it straps to your wrist, but don't you ever call it a 'watch' to a diver's face), which told him how long we'd been under, and checked with us just as often. You use hand signs under water, because of course you can't speak. An amusing thing is that the OK sign is what they use for OK, and the thumbs-up sign, instead of meaning OK, means 'I'm going to the surface.' So Lebowski and I both erroneously reported that we were ascending several times.
You're at peace is what you are. Once you get the feel of maintaining your level in the water by inflating/deflating your vest and using your lungs, you're completely free. Exactly the opposite of how you were out of the water, weighed down by all the equipment. Swimming comes easier than staying in a kneeling position, and it's mostly legs. Your arms are for checking your gauge. A typical exchange went like this: Bob turns to us and signs, "OK?" We both sign, "Ascending," followed quickly by, "OK! OK!" He smirks behind his mask, and then points to me. "What does your gauge say?" he signs, putting two fingers in his palm. I flop around looking for my gauge, which is at the end of a hose just like the regulator, and read it. 120 bar, it says. I make the football 'time out' sign, which means 100, and follow that with two fingers: 120. He points to Lebowski, and I crane to see him through the mask, even though he's right beside me, and I get to see how funny I looked flapping around looking for my gauge. Bob says, "OK," and begins to swim again. Another sequence I got familiar with was pointing to my ears and making the 'comme ci comme ├ža' sign, which means 'I can't clear my damn ears.' Apparently, my sinuses are rated to 40,000 ft, but not much good below sea level. Bob would sign for us to descend a little, and suddenly I'd get a white-hot spike in both eardrums. The videos say you're supposed to pinch your nose and blow into it to equalize the pressure (the same thing you do if you have problems in a descending aircraft), but for some reason, I couldn't get it to work. Eventually I figured out that I personally have to turn each ear to the surface and clear it individually, but until then, it sucked.
The water was very clear, and there were schools of fish about. They swim around you, but you can never quite touch one... they're skittish. We saw Nemo fish, and several lionfish (Bob interlaces his fingers and flaps them, which is the sign for lionfish, and points to an angry bundle of brown fins under a rock). To tell you the truth, on the first dive I was really too occupied with staying at one level and keeping the damn water out of my mask to look around, but I got a good sense of why people do this. At one point, I realized I didn't have to stay right-side-up (or, I suppose, top-side-up), and rolled over to face the surface for a while. As long as you have one hand on your regulator, you can do that forever. I haven't experienced anything in life yet that's quite like looking at the surface of the ocean from several meters under it. Very surreal.
The dive lasted a forever-long twenty minutes, and then we stepped back out into the air. Three SCUBA tanks and the accompanying gear is too heavy to carry, so they have a trolley for that purpose. Looks like an industrial-strength baby carriage. And we all three hauled that thing from from the dive end to the shop end of the beach each time we went out. I got whistled at once by a foreign hot chick on the way, which made it worth it. It was either me or Lebowski she whistled at. I like to think it was me.
We capped off the first day by buying Bob the beers we owed him. SCUBA tanks are filled with compressed gases, and are thusly potentially explosive. You don't want to drop one. So you're supposed to lay it down every time you walk away from it. Bob explained that every time he caught us away from our tank and it was standing up, we owed him a beer. I managed to make it through the day, but Lebowski was not as lucky. But he's rich and I'm not, and after a while we were all three of us drunk, and so it all worked out.
We retired to Sindbad, where we caught up with the Canadians and the Barcelonans and drank even more beer. I looked upon it as a survival trick at that point; whatever amoebas I had ingested that day could not possibly survive immersion in Sakara. We attempted to wow the girls with our first dive story, and they responded by telling us in attractively accented English that they were of the several-levels-up certification intimidatingly known as 'divemaster.' Darrin and Freeman chuckled behind their hands. During the evening, I had occasion to visit the bathroom and discovered that, because the water pressure is so low, you have to put toilet paper in the waste basket instead of flushing it. Not as horrible as it sounds, or at least I didn't think so at the time. I was pleased to see someone had modified the sign on the door:


Sometime after that, we stumbled back to our concrete cells and I don't even remember falling asleep. Day Two was tomorrow, and I had to be ready.


Anonymous sandtalker said...

Its funny to contemplate that the sea water in the desert is cold enough to need a wetsuit. It's the desert, which is a hot place. Are you sure they weren't giving you the "egyptian price" on the wetsuit rentals?

9:49 PM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

Going three-dimensional takes some getting used to. One thing most people don't seem think of (at least I get funny looks when I do it) is going head down/fins up when looking at something low on a wall or underneath a rock. Why crouch?

12:35 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Sand: it wasn't cold for the first three meters. After that, it was attention-getting.
Rhonda: Every time I tried to do that, air got into the low part of my BCD and dragged me screaming to the surface. We'll get to that on day 5.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

Try it in a drysuit then... the vent is on your shoulder. :-)

(That's part of the drysuit course, actually.)

6:37 PM  
Anonymous sandtalker said...

This is getting to be a LOOONNNGGG week...
See what happens when you go gallivanting around the world and ignore your work? You have no time to rest and entertain the rest of us.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Miraculously, Lebowski survived that diving adventure, and even more miraculously, wanted to go into the water again."

I just figured, you know, that they wouldn't want to, uh, have me die on their watch, man. They're in it for the money, you know? It's, it's like Lenin said, man....

--The Dude

10:01 PM  

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