Sunday, May 8, 2011

What I Learned Underwater in Hanouma Bay

"I am challenged to estimate the esthetic value of, say, a drawer stuck into a canvas. But nothing I've ever seen can teach me how this is to be done. I am alone with this thing, and it is  up to me evaluate it in the absence of available standards. The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage. Here I can discover whether I am prepared to sustain the collision with a novel experience. Am I escaping it by being overly analytical? Have I been eavesdropping on conversations? Trying to formulate certain meanings seen this art -- are they designed to demonstrate something about myself or are they authentic experience?" 

--Art critic, Leo Steinberg via his essay "Contemporary art and the Plight of its Public".

Not long ago I was blessed with the opportunity of snorkeling in Hanouma Bay, the Hawaiian cove formed in the mouth of an underwater volcano and home to thousands of fish, turtles, eels, and a massive coral reef. It was beautiful and the activity itself a great source of pleasure -- like going to a zoo without the sinking feeling that the animals are actually imprisoned. But, this major tourist site turned out to be an extremely profound experience.

I was in Hawaii as  part of a training trip. A training trip, for those who don't know, is when a swim team goes somewhere tropical to train for a week. To swimmers, it usually means a week of adventures and beaches in between hard work outs. To non swimmers, it usually doesn't make any sense.

Either way, I was the only guy who opted to go snorkeling in Hanouma Bay. Just me and a van load of chicks. So, naturally, I already felt alienated. Granted, I was comfortable with this group, I've known most of them for the better of three years and got a long well with the assistant coach brining us. But, there was still the feeling of being on the outside looking in that every guy gets when stuck with a group of girls. Their constant chatter of things so irrelevant and petty to male lives, it's almost like being in a foreign country.

When we arrived at Hanouma Bay it was hot and sunny. We got shoved into this little waiting area that looks out over the bay where you wait for your instructional video to start screening. You must do this in order to paddle around in the bay below. We then get ushered into -- like cattle covered in beachwear and sun screen -- a tiny movie theatre and forced to watch the campiest and most stereotypically Hawaiian instructional video out there.

View from waiting area.
Between the opening montage of hula dancers, Iz, Hawaiian music, volcanoes exploding, and the Sesame Street gone Hawaiian jingle about not stepping on the coral, I started feeling assaulted with a pre-packaged, processed, and FDA approved Hawaiian snorkeling experience. And then, looking at all the sun burnt tourists I was huddled with, I got the awful feeling that I was just another part of the millions of people that paddle, pee and, probably, poop in this bay while taking in these beautiful fish and extremely rare forms of life. This did not make me happy.

But, as we all mooed and shuffled our way out of the theatre I put these thoughts on the shelf. I was determined. This experience will be mine, whatever it may end up being.

Once we successfully traversed the steep slope and set up shop on the beach (hey, sorry girls, but can someone rub lotion on my back?) we proceeded to wade into the bright blue Pacific. We paddled around, already equipped with our own snorkels, goggles, and fins and pointed at various fish as they darted beneath us, completely indifferent to our enamored presence. We were in their world and they knew it.

There's a lot going on under those waters.
I, being of large and lanky stature, started to feel bad about my fins. When snorkeling, one will be paddling around and suddenly come to a massive reef. To swim around would be impossible, one must go over. But the water is already shallow and this reef that has just thrust itself upon you only gives you six inches to swim over it. My fins were dragging everywhere and I felt awful about it after that beautiful jingle.

So, I went back and took my fins off.

I spotted my crew of female swimmers -- they're not hard to spot -- and paddled back out, much more comfortable and confident in traversing the reefs. But, I soon lost them, unable to keep up with their kicking abilities.

At first I was worried. The video informs us to always have a buddy, but I was a DI swimmer and only a hundred yards from a beach full of tourists and lifeguards. What's the worse that could happen?

So, I went solo.

Then, as I started paddling around, I started to feel more and more vulnerable.

Ever since I watched Jaws at an age much too young to comprehend -- and appreciate -- it, I've had a very deep fear of water that I can't see the bottom of -- especially if it's over my head. And, after watching a DateLine episode when I was -- again -- far too young, I've also been afraid of rip currents and being too far from shore. Naturally, in a world where it's just myself and my thoughts, these demons started working their way into my consciousness.

It wasn't long after climbing over coral for a while that I found myself in a ravine. Completely lost, alone, and vulnerable, I sunk down into this ravine, about six or seven feet underwater, and looked around.

I was surrounded by beautiful fish. Colored and shining in the sun. They chewed on the coral reef -- you could even hear them munching. But unlike the annoying guy you on the subway eating his Ritz Crackers obnoxiously loud, their eating noises were endearing.

Here I was, alone and in a world that I was not evolved to be in, utterly vulnerable and going against all of my deep seated phobias. At any moment these fish could gang up and attack me, killing me off in seconds. The spiky coral reefs could shoot their spikes out at me, or emit some kind of poison that only these prehistoric fish have adapted to and end me right here. For once in my life, I was not in control, completely vulnerable, and at the will of Mother Nature, Fate, and God.

Then, one fish -- big, shiny, and striped, about a foot away from me -- turned from his meal of coral and looked directly at me. For five seconds that seemed like thirty minutes, there was a moment where it acknowledged my entirety. He acknowledged my vulnerability, my loneliness, every single insecurity and ridiculous thought my imagination could muster. It was as if he said, "I know you're here, Matt. I know you're scared. And that's perfectly fine."

Then he turned back to his coral and continued munching.

This was as much as I could take.

I pushed off the bottom and booked it for land, longing for something familiar, something human, something terrestrial. I spent the rest of the day surrounded by sun bathing women. I went in a couple more times, but nothing as intense.

I was clearly shaken. What happened down there? What had I experienced? These questions had stuck with me for the rest of the trip and remained unanswered. They just collected dust in the back of my mind, waiting for an answer to bring them off the shelf.

When I read Leo Steinberg's essay, I was immediately struck with this memory once I hit the passage above. At no point in my life had I been prepared for the moment that I experienced six feet underwater in the middle of a coral reef. I had no idea how to handle that situation, how to be so far out of my comfort zone and so vulnerable and human. It was as if being in a place so foreign made me realize what I am. This was a collision with a novel experience that happens very rarely, especially in such an undesigned and unplanned forum. It's in these experiences that we realize more about who we are than in any other.

I had never been so human.

I urge you, wholeheartedly, to embrace these experiences. I'm not saying to seek being thrusted out of your comfort zone, but when the occasion arises -- to embrace it, accept it, and deal with it honestly. I was scared shitless that day in Hanouma Bay, but I'm glad I was able to be put into such a position. I believe art's best, and most important, function is to put us in these situations.

To challenge us.

It's how we react to these challenges that shows us more about who we are than about the art that we've been experiencing. Art (including film) -- at its highest -- charms us, disarms us, and then challenges us. It's in these challenges that we find who we are.


Rose Cummings said...

"Their constant chatter of things so irrelevant and petty to male lives, it's almost like being in a foreign country." Very funny.
This only happens in front of guys. Usually chicks are in deep philosophical discussions that could and should change the world. We do the inane chatter thing to throw men off. It's part of the chick code.

Matt Rickett said...

Really? Would the female race be so kind as to reveal these deep, philosophical, Earth shattering, insights with the rest of the world? Or are you just gonna hog them all?