The Great Leap

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Puerta Vallarta,  Mexico, 1989.  “Hey mister! You wanna Scuba?” Almost asleep on the beach, I look up to see our friend Mitch, negotiating a Scuba adventure.  “What’s your name, mister?”  asks the deeply tanned dive guy.  “Mitch”, replies Mitch.  “Feeeesh?”, the diver repeats with a half smile.  We all burst out laughing and sign on for the next day.  For our friends Barb and Mitch, this is no big deal. Mitch was a master diver and Barb was married to a master diver.  Both experienced.  Me?  I knew how to swim. So the next day, I don a mask, fins and tank and jump into the Pacific Ocean with the knowledge that only a 27 year old has – the unwavering knowledge of immortality.  And, apparently I was right because I lived to eat the scallops we gathered and sit on some beach where we drank buckets of Corona with the diver and two boat guys and sang “Gloria”  accompanied by Rick on a beat up, out of tune guitar.  Perfect.

On return to the great Pacific Northwest, we officially certified.  But, the Pacific Ocean in Washington state is VERY different from the Pacific Ocean of Mexico.  That, and a couple adorable children that required all of our attention and every penny we earned.  Clearly, our Scuba careers were doomed.

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Sorry. Gotta put a cute picture of us when we were busy with these two!

Fast forward – Thailand, 2017.  Sitting in the school canteen, I casually ask my friend Richard, “What did you do over the weekend?”  His reply changed the course of the next several months.  “Oh, I went to Pattaya and did my Scuba certification” he said, referring to a city about 2 hours from Bangkok. I perked  up.  “Really?”  I quickly gathered the necessary information from him, emailed Rick, and we were signed up for the class that night – for the following weekend.

Pattaya is – well – different.  We arrived on a Friday evening to an area called Jomtien.  It’s mostly populated by Expats here on the generous Thai retirement Visa.  (Must be at least 50 and show evidence of a substantial savings account.  Renewable yearly for a fee.)  Apparently, this was a popular R&R location during the Vietnam War.  What has lasted from that era is the innumerable number of “comfort” men and women available for hire. So we gawked and wondered about the individual stories that brought all of these people together.  Without exaggeration, it is mostly older Western men with young Thai men or women.  I hoped that everyone involved in these arrangements had clear and open expectations.  

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Pattaya. After 33 years, we each fully understand our “arrangement.”

The next morning we met our instructor, Noc.  Small and sturdy, she walked us through our written exams (during which I panicked on the math and she patiently calmed me down); our pool work (where she admitted she wasn’t sure I’d make it at first – after the math ordeal – but, was pleased I could swim); and our open water checkout dives (where I became dehydrated and learned that if you throw up under water, it’s no problem).  We were certified!

If you’ve never had to breath underwater, it’s important to know a lot of stuff about – well – diving.  Our first few dives were basically all about staying alive.  My heart would race with anxiety each time I made that giant step off the boat and into the blue unknown.  Constantly checking my air supply, hand on my regulator to make certain it didn’t slip out of my mouth and simply trying to control my buoyancy occupied every brain cell.  Lucky if I noticed a tiny fish, I was jubilant upon completion of each dive.  I had again survived!  I still wasn’t sure I liked this Scuba thing.  It took the first 10 dives to begin to feel even remotely comfortable.

Recently, Rick and I did our 15th dive, and our 5th with Yann, our French divemaster, while on Palawan –  an incredibly beautiful island in the Philippines.   It’s the low season, so it’s  just the three of us.  After two dives in spectacular coral and spotting 5 reef sharks, and a meter long turtle – he says we are ready for a drift dive.  We set in and off we go – floating in suspended animation and allowing the current to scoop us along.  Amazing. Plus, more sharks, and an eagle ray.  I almost forget about breathing.

Back on our small Banca (a Philippine boat that has outriggers on both sides that give it a decidedly “spider” look), we eat our sandwiches and talk.  Yann tells us that he just “discovered” our last dive site a few weeks before.  Unfortunately, another site that he used to go to has been recently decimated by dynamite fishing. If you are unfamiliar with this illegal practice, fishermen detonate explosives underwater as a means to catch fish.  Killed or stunned by the shockwaves, the fish float to the top where they are gathered up in nets.  Unfortunately, everything in the radius of the explosion is killed.  Including the coral.  We have seen these large areas of dead coral – grey as ash with no noticeable marine life.   I ask Yann if he’s ever heard the explosions.  He nods gravely, “many times”, he says. “But it is worst when you feel the shock waves while diving.”  He taps his chest.  “You can feel it here.”   We silently take in his double meaning.

So far, we have seen sea turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, reef sharks, moray eels, lionfish and the incredible manta ray.   I saw a dugong (very shy creature – much like a manatee)  off the bow of a boat in Indonesia.  We swam with Dory and Nemo and all their little friends. We have seen indescribable coral reefs in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Every dive is a new adventure into an untamed wilderness of incredible beauty.  And maybe because of the knowledge that only a 54 year old can have – that I am, indeed, mortal – it’s all the more wonderful and sweet.

And for this, I have two old friends to thank.   Barb and Mitch.  I never would have made that first great  leap in Mexico without them.  Thanks for high adventure, stupid choices, crazy laughter and unforgettable memories.  And, thank you for reminding me to say “yes” as often as possible.  I have never regretted it.

 

 

 

 

War & Peace

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Saigon

My earliest memory of the Vietnam war remains starkly vivid. I was at my best friend Murphy’s house eating luke warm Campbell’s Tomato Soup for lunch.  We spent the morning playing Mystery Date and arguing whether the Prom date or the Beach date was better.  Typical day in the late 60’s for a couple of young kids. As we sat eating, Murphy’s mom looked out the window and suddenly starting screaming. She slumped onto the floor shaking and crying.  I was completely confused and ran to Murphy’s older sister who was now also crying.  “Why are you crying?  What’s wrong?”  She silently pointed out the window.  Two young Marine officers in formal uniform were walking up the driveway.  Bill, Murphy’s older brother, was dead.

Almost 50 years later, I’m thinking of Bill as I step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.

donut-headEleven million people.  Seven million scooters. Skyscrapers mixed with traditional vendors selling bahn mi sandwiches wearing iconic Vietnamese nón lá or leaf hats.  Rich and poor.  New and old. A city that is prospering from an evolving form of Communism which allows for some private business along side government operated entities. While only an hour flight from Bangkok, it feels quite different.  More English.  Less hierarchy.  More assertive and straight forward.  More serious.   Scratch just a little and you will find a complex people who have lived a history of sacrifice and resiliency.  

Take Tiger.  A tour operator for the last 16 years, he is our guide as we cycle 25 miles on rural roads outside of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels (tunnels used and expanded by the  Northern-allied Viet Cong) toward the Cambodian border. He explains to us that while the Americans called it the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese called it the American Invasion, and the South Vietnamese called it the Civil War.  His family was a “black” family – sympathetic to the South. His mother had been a Catholic nun, but left the nunnery to become a lawyer. When Saigon fell in 1975, theIr family home had been raided and they were forced to flee into central Vietnam.  All of his extended family decided to leave Vietnam and became “boat people”. The lucky ones ended up in the US and Canada – the rest died en route.  For a fleeting moment, his eyes harden as he tells the story.

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Tim with Vietnamese family

We park our bikes in front of a random war memorial – pad locked shut and overgrown with weeds.  We cross the street for a sugarcane drink called nước mía.   Sitting down to rest and visit,  a bunch of kids crowd around to stare and smile at us.  Our friend Tim who is especially out-going, starts “talking” with the kids and taking goofy pictures. Tiger talks and laughs and points out the family members running the business.  Mom and Dad  are cooking.  Children are playing while Grandma is casually keeping an eye on things.  We are the event on this lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon. Returning to our bikes, Tiger points to the memorial and says “Many Viet Cong were killed in this spot. The families that still live here, they lost their fathers and mothers.”  I glance back at the family we just met.  

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Michelin Forest

We cycle into a huge Rubber Tree  forest.  Tiger motions for us to park and shows us how rubber is drained from the trees much like Maple syrup.  We learn that the rubber trade with China has tailed off because of the recent land dispute over islands in the Vietnam Sea – or South China Sea depending on who you talk to.  As he peddles ahead, he calls back, “Ask your American soldier friends if they remember the Michelin Forest”.  In the quiet darkness of the forest, it’s hard to imagine a battle here.  

We stop at the Viet Cong War cemetery.  Like all war cemeteries it’s laid out with perfect symmetry and identical headstones.  Unlike others I have been to,  it not only includes men, but woman and children.  Tiger talks about other groups he has led.  American Veterans that come back to Vietnam with a personal history.  Before each tour, he finds out the story of each man.  He says, “sometimes you must be quiet and let them remember.  I always tell them that the woman and children were part of the Viet Cong Army.  That in the game of war that the leaders created, they were the pawns that had to choose to kill or be killed.  They need to know this.”

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Cu Chi Tunnel entry.

We arrive at the tunnels.  Tiger reminds us that this is a memorial for the Viet Cong.  We are going to see history from the perspective of the North. Our tunnel guide’s grandfather had been a VC soldier.  He and his family had lived in these tunnels. It was the only safe place to be in the midst of a war, where agent orange had defoliated the landscape in an attempt to uncover the hideouts. But these were scrappy people.  Men, women and children participated in the war.  The tunnels, no wider than 2 feet in some spots, are a network that spans for miles.  Offices, hospitals and living quarters were hidden under the earth and protected by bombs and boobie traps on the surface. Our guide maneuvered through the network of tunnels  like an agile cat.  Our Western bodies struggled to simply fit.  But down we went.  Hands and knees.   Cleaned up for tourists, we didn’t have to endure mud, snakes, rats, human waste or tear gas.  The story here of survival is raw and real.  Old tires made into shoes.  Traps made from bamboo.  Landmines made from undetonated US bombshells. These people were survivors.  They were able to endure the impossible.  

We crawl out of the tunnels – three points of a triangle.  The North, the South, the West.  We laugh and talk, enjoying the walk back to our bikes along a lush and green jungle path.  The moment is lovely and pure.  The memory of war woven into the history of each of our lives.  Forgiveness and healing.  The moment is peace.