13 December 2015

Darth Vader’s Swim with Turtles

In these times of Star Wars frenzy, I have to make a revelation: no, I am not your father – you’re thankfully quite a number to read this so I’d have a tad too many children, although I’m a guy so technically I do have millions of little Sebastians available… but I digress as I barely started my post and the thought is slightly creepy too. So: I may not be your father, but I am… Darth Vader. Yep, that’s right, Darth Vader himself. Well if not himself, at least my heavy, slow breathing in a snorkelling tuba would clearly give me away or indicate some family connection, you have to give me that.

Captured with a GoPro

I felt at peace though, swimming in the straits between Gili Air and Lombok island in Indonesia – but my breathing initially clearly wasn’t. I was still breathing more rapidly than necessary. I knew I could finally relax but I had to consciously focus on slowing my breathing down.

Slowly inhaling air through my mouth – my nose was stuck in the snorkelling mask I was wearing – I started mentally counting up to the number six. I then held my breath for two seconds, before slowly expiring for another eight long seconds. The deep sound of air flowing through the tuba resonated in my ears, I sounded more and more like Darth Vader (or maybe like a whale, that would probably be a more accurate comparison), but thankfully my panting didn't disturb anyone nor the creature right below me.

I had suddenly remembered this breathing technique from a cute little squarish book full of simple quotes and relaxation methods. Too much of a rational mind, I had never been very keen about the topic of meditation, mindful introspection and other semi-Eastern voodoo-style stuff; Sam Harris's Waking Up, a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion had however started to open up my mind a little, before I got my hands on that anthology of quotes and other simple, occasionally simplistic (but does it really matter if they work?), suggestions.

Oh and if you didn’t have enough of Darth Vader references, check out those Darth-Vader-looking Japanese-made tuk-tuks from my trip in Thailand or those hilarious photos of Darth Vader in everyday life situations, going shopping or brushing his teeth.

The beloved sea creature was calmly feeding itself, grazing algae and sea grass. I had been looking for turtles for a few days now. It's only when I finally saw one from close up that I realised how their shell camouflaged itself so easily with the brown-yellowish colour of the almost completely dead coral and of the sea grass it was feeding itself from.

Okay, let me admit how lame I was in finding those turtles: they were more than one metre (three feet) in diameter... so yes, I really wasn't very good at detecting their subtle, lethargic movements. Most times they were submerged a mere metre below the surface, their rugged-edge carapace dangling and hitting rocks as the sea was ebbing and flowing. I couldn’t really mock them for being entirely focused on eating, not worrying about waves carrying them away: I was myself so intent on going into the sea that I blindly walked on the dead coral, fins on my feet, falling down like a clumsy clown and hurting myself against the sharp rocks every time a slightly bigger-than-expected wave would come crashing in.

I did eventually figure out a technique: walking backwards into the sea (no, it wasn’t quite moonwalking à la Michael Jackson but “almost”) and, just as importantly, taking the time to identify the areas where the coral had been blown up to let boats come alongside the shore. So if you ever travel to the eastern side of Gili Air, get in about a hundred metres north of Satu Tiga cottages where a few boats are anchored, let yourself drift with the currents, and get out at the little white flag that signals the blown-up channel right before the beach walls. Swim right at the frontier between the coral and the deeper sea where all the tropical fish of all colours and sizes – yes, including things that look like mini-sharks, yikes – love to swim around.

Temptation to swim with the turtle holding onto its hard carapace was high – I never watched The Little Mermaid (“it’s for girls”) so the closest analogy would be Aladdin and his flying carpet (no, I didn’t say the turtle was a carpet, argh!). So did I do it? I’m not sure I want to make you more jealous – or risk being demonised because turtles should be left undisturbed. Let’s just say I “accidentally” brushed against its large, paddle-like flippers. I followed the turtle as it swam away: it was quite a feeling to be able to swim at the same pace as the sea mammal, with no one and nothing else around except that beautiful uniform blue colour of the deep sea in the background. My heart leapt in small bursts of joy as one turtle led me to another, and yet another, and when their large beady eyes seemed to stare at me for a few seconds. Those days were good days for Sebastian.

At the surface of the sea, boats were whizzing around. Children were playing football on the beach – I would dismally lose later on but, to be fair and because I have to find a scapegoat, a player on my team attempted useless headers, literally planting his head into the sand without even touching the ball, what the heck – well, it’s not tomorrow that Indonesia will be on the world map of football (sorry). Tourists were tanning under the sun, sipping some watermelon or pineapple juice. The turtle couldn’t care less about all those mundane activities. It couldn’t be bothered by my presence either.

Once replete with its meal of dirt-coloured sea grass, the turtle broke the surface one last time to breathe one big gulp of air – and immediately dove vertically straight towards the floor of the deep blue sea. Sometimes I wish I could also disappear in some other-worldly pleasant-blue reality, away from feelings of responsibility, away from silly issues. Perhaps I should instead remind myself of that Buddhist analogy as regards to inner tranquillity: down there, far below the waves and the twirl of everyday life, it is always peaceful and quiet...