After a whirlwind month filled with transatlantic travel, family visits, and a trip to New York City, it is time to reconnect with the kids, with nature, with myself and scuba diving down south seems to fit the bill. Since diving in the Sinai is tricky these days due to an unstable political situation, and the Great Barrier Reef is half way around the world, we settle on a three-day diving safari to Aqaba, Jordan, a three hour drive from home, that hosts some pretty terrific Red Sea diving.
Our uneventful drive south through the predawn darkness is subdued, each one of us wrapped in thought. Will I remember how to put on my gear? Will I have enough oxygen? How cold is the water? Who will be our dive instructor and what will he be like? How long will it take to cross the border? What did I forget to pack? How are we doing on time? The road seems endless as my mind meanders.
Arriving at the border and parking the car in the empty lot, I feel my stomach clench, and my heart beat faster. We have done this before, yet each time I cross the border into a neighboring country that was once at war with us, I sense that we are leaving the safety of home and are crossing into the unknown. Aside from a wary peace treaty and a border, we have much in common with our Jordanian neighbors to the East. We share scenery, climate, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea, to name just a few. When it snows in Jerusalem, it snows in Amman as well. However, in the day to day, Jordan is far removed from our consciousness in the day to day, and Jordanians remain a mystery. The cold peace we partake in has endured for decades, and while I don’t feel that Jordanians are “the enemy,” I am not entirely sure they are friends. Pulling my suitcase on wheels from the Israeli side to the Jordanian side, a mere ten meters away, we are greeted by a uniformed guard who smiles and wishes us, “salaam alyekum,” peace be on to you. The driver is waiting to help us through Jordanian passport control, and it looks like it is going to be a good day.
By 9:30, we are drinking instant coffee at the Sea Star dive club, located in Tala Bay, just south of the city and across the narrow bay from Eilat. We struggle into our black wetsuits, and are fitted out with first rate equipment, briefed and ready for our first dive by 10:30. The sky is deep azure, not a cloud in the sky, but the brisk winds feel cool, actually downright cold. Entering the water slowly, weighted down by my full tank, and 11 kg weight belt, my heart is hammering. Is it the exertion or the anticipation? I spit into my mask to prevent fogging, and rinse it before placing it over my head. The instructor, Taher, a compact, wiry man of about 40, gives us the thumbs down signal to descend, and within seconds, the splendor of the underwater world unfolds in front of us. I clasp my hands in front of my body (you don’t swim with your arms when diving ) and stretch out my yellow, flippered feet to start a slow, relaxing, flutter kick.
Diving is at once familiar and exciting. In my rational brain, I know that there is an entire universe just below the sparkling surface of the water. Yet, each time I descend with a tank on my back and become part of the world below, it is as refreshingly surprising as the first dive. We slowly circle the soft beige corals that undulate in the currents, watching the the tiny bright blue fish with spots of yellow, swim in and around, looking for tasty morsels. I watch as Taher approaches the coral, and it immediately contracts, moving into defense mode against unknown predators, as the fish swim quickly away.
We spot an enormous green sea turtle close by,at least a meter and a half long lumbering along with open mouth, waiting for a delectable feast that is unwittingly swimming its way. The turtle echoes something prehistoric, and reminds me of a picture from a dinosaur book I used to read my son long ago.
Our slow circuit continues as we make our way along the coral reef, allowing a close-up look at the coral abundance, shades of pink, blue, purple, beige, green, each one shaped differently from its neighbor. Like snowflakes, I think, all alike but each one unique. We eagerly seek out the more unusual varieties of fish spotting the gloriously colored clown fish proudly displaying its fluorescent blues and oranges and the patrician striped black and white fish, sporting a splash of yellow for contrast. We are careful to give wide birth to the lionfish, stonefish, and sea porcupines, so as not to arouse their poisonous venom. A large pink coral is home to at least fifteen full sized lionfish, peeking menacingly out of the crevices.
The slight danger merely heightens the experience, similar, I think to myself later in the day, to walking through the streets of Aqaba. Feeling like a tourist in a foreign country, there is that heightened sense of excitement, again. As Israelis, we usually need to take an airplane in order to arrive in “hutz la’aretz,” that place that engenders feeling of being far from home. Here I am, a mere three hour drive from home, yet the sensation of being abroad is palpable. The language is familiar, the smells recognizable, as we walk through the market in a very matter of fact sort of way, belying the feeling of being in this country, so close, yet so far away.
As we return to the sea the next day, and re-discover an entire universe below the surface, I am struck by how we live in parallel worlds most of our lives, focused on ourselves and little else. In my daily routine I rarely think about Jordan or Jordanians, nor about the universe waiting right under the surface of the sea. My family, my career, my health, and various and sundry details like how much milk is in the fridge, and did anybody fold the laundry occupy my thoughts. Travel, and slow travel in particular, allows that delicious peek into these parallel universes, blowing wide open the opportunity to both learn about others and perhaps more importantly, look at our own lives from a distance.
In contrast to that heightened sense of perspective, while diving, each of us is ensconced in a mask, breathing through a regulator, disconnected from the world. Underwater, my focus narrows to the screen of my mask, and the dial connected to my oxygen tank. The only way to communicate is by sign, and every few minutes the guide signs the OK sign, questioningly, as we pick up our hands in response, forming the O with thumb and forefinger. Aside from these periodic breaks, I am alone with my breath, hearing each inhale whoosh through the regulator, and each exhale, bubble out into the deep blue. I am present, deeply and fully present. My eyes scan the watery scenery as it unfolds, marveling at the greatness of God and his world, the colors, the shapes, the flora and fauna in all their glory. The slower I move, the more I can see, appreciate, and marvel. Under water, all sense of getting somewhere and accomplishing something disappear. I simply am. Certainly, this is slow travel at its best.