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Water

Today, 16 of April 2007, I saw the ocean floor for the first time. More precisely: today, for the first time, I saw the ocean floor more than 20 meters from the shore. It turns out there really are fish there. Lots of them and at the depths I was at (about 90 smurfs or 4.5 Jacques Cousteaus below the surface) still remarkably colourful despite the bleaching effects of the seawater filtering out the warm tones of the sun. And yet it was anticlimactic in a way that I had anticlimactically predicted. Firsts aren't all they are made out to be. I have wanted to dive for a long time. It has not exactly been a burning passion, I don't have many of those, but it has been persistent, tempered by my old and deep fear of the water.

Seared in memory is the scene of my last swimming class when I was about 5 or 6. Possibly concerned about my spinelessness, my parents had enrolled me in swimming classes. I don't think they quite realized the ironic appropriateness of the medium (water) for the malady (my being an invertebrate). Oddly I have no recollection of protesting this but the day of the class became the focal point of my anxieties for the week. What kept my 6-year-old will marching on was the recess. Survival to half-time was rewarded with cookies and chocolate milk, a rarity in Iran at the time. I was by far the straggler in my group, stubborn in my fear. To the end I never once put my head under the water (except for the time when my tube accidentally deflated, a story which, if you heard me tell it at the time really made me seem brave but which in context -it was several classes in and even the obviously intellectually-challenged where doing synchro routines- was ridiculous).

So, last day, parents all there to watch their progeny conquer the second element. In retrospect there was much to be grateful for. Lacking wings and being flammable for example, which meant that I would be safe from ever being expected to face the remaining two. But whatever grace shined on me that day it fell on eyes blinded by fear. A race, all poised on the diving boards, bent over, hands at toes, signal, bodies arching into water, off go the fish. Then a kid near the edge, calmly steps down from the diving board and slowly lowers himself into the water (by which time everyone else has finished) and, as the awards are being given out, swims, head above water all the way to the other side, never to remember reaching the end.

I have only vague memories from when I eventually conquered that fear. I went on to become a life-guard. But elements of the fear are still there, specially when jumping in. A few years ago in Vermont with Alex I froze at the edge of a 2 foot (6 smurfs, ~0.3 Jacques Cousteaus) jump into a swimming hole, the same one that I had jumped in several times before that day. Alex could not understand. Neither could I.

Taking the wide step off the back of the dive boat that same fear comes back. I forced myself out every time knowing that hesitation could be fatal. In the water, on the surface things felt at home enough. But sinking down, for the first time in the ocean itself (the pool training was a very different game) there is a curious feeling, like returning to a place you used to live in a very long time ago, familiarly strange, strangely familiar. With some influence of the training DVD, the movie Rushmore and pop-culture familiarity with Jacques Cousteau, I half-expected an epiphany, the opening up of a vast new realm previously unknown and inaccessible to me. And it was. And it contained coral and fish. It was mesmerizing partly because I had no words to describe it with and partly because I knew that there was so much more that my untutored eyes could not see. I did not know the names for the things I was seeing and part of me never wants to know them. I wonder though if I can get better at seeing them without names.

More striking was the honest simplicity between me and the fish. Just looking at each other because we wanted to, because we were there (Technically much of what I saw were not actually fish per se. The things with five-way star-fish-like symmetry for example are apparently called echinoderms. I will call them fish). We weren't trying to help, seduce or research each other, haggle over the price of plankton, find out how the other understood this or that about the world by having them fill out a survey through a translator and cultural mediator. I certainly don't feel superior to the fish. And they certainly didn't treat me as waste of resource out for his own gain, good for little but a potential hand-out. There were no lies between us. It was an encounter of pure, unadulterated, wonder. There is the start of a kind of understanding between me and the fish (perhaps not mutual) which promises more than I feel I have achieved with many of people and places and things that I have tried to understand in the past several months.

Why is that? A lot of it has to with the fact there was no agenda with the fish. When I originally planned my trip for the year I also tried as best as I could to minimize the agenda. In the first couple of months here, without the pressure of time, I had the freedom to wander around and explore. Almost everything of lasting value that I have learned so far has come from that wandering. Now, faced with having to fulfill formal commitments begrudgingly made, things are very different.

The realization of this started making itself felt about two months ago, while I was working at the Children's Surgical Centre. A great experience in many ways but also one which, like all western style clinical experiences so taxes the soul of the average mortal that all higher forms of awareness and creativity are abandoned, leaving behind only the vague nauseating awareness that something important is being neglected. There is always a kind of re-entry shock for me after finishing an intense period of clinical rotations and trying to reintegrate back into civilized society. It is my soul waking up to the shock of several weeks to months of backlogged issues and complexes to deal with, trying to regain a sense of perspective, relearn how to look at the world with wide eyes again after having had to focus sharply on a small corner of the world for an extended period. Immediately after finishing my 5 week rotation at CSC I went to Australia for a month. The trip there involved 4 days and 3 cities. In those 4 days the implications of my situation began to emotionally sink in.

I had bartered with the devil and sold my soul. I had committed to a "research project." The powers thought that it would be a good use of my time to "research something, and publish it". They of course knew and still know almost nothing about Cambodia, but they were pretty sure something in it needed to be researched, and researched in a medical-journal-publishable manner, implying adherence to a limited set of methodologies that would receive approval from the ethics board.

I knew almost nothing about Cambodia, so I agreed thinking it would be only a minor inconvenience. I still know almost nothing about Cambodia but I do know this: it has no need for the type of research that people like me, with the resources that we are provided with, are able to do. In fact it is debatable whether it stands to benefit from any foreign-operated research in any of the many genres that are currently being conducted with varying amounts, and often not insignificant, resources. Cambodia needs its own academic and research infrastructure, and from what I have come across very little of the research being done here is contributing to that. And it's already pretty well known what people are sick or dying from, why maternal and child mortality are what they are, and also why not a whole lot of movement is being seen.

And there is another thing analogous to the problem of learning about the fish without knowing their names. As I have understood more about the place I have created more structures and stories to explain it to myself and my ability to see has become increasingly coloured by the secret desire to reinforce those models. I have in theory been aware of this all along, but now I actually feel it happening in the concrete.

[Originally written 2007-04-18 16:37:52 +1245 but misplaced. Found 2008-01-20]