Friday, 16 December 2011

A Risk Worth Taking?

I turned at the sound of the horn, but don’t remember any screech of tires. I watched the event in the busy street happen in horrendous slow motion. A shapeless black object flew up into the air like some fat crow shot in mid-flight, before flapping mortally wounded back onto the car's windscreen.

The glass shattered, but the laminate held. The object bounced off, rolled down the car's bonnet and fell into its path. Horribly, the car, a taxi, was still moving. I watched it bounce sluggishly, heavily, as each set of wheels rolled over the unmoving bundle of black cloth. The bundle could only have been a woman, only women in Saudi Arabia wear the full black burqa, yet the only clues that the pile of black cloth might be human, were two bare feet and one arm.

I dropped the scuba tank I was carrying, and took three strides towards her - then stopped. She was already being enveloped by a wave of white robed men rushing over to the scene of the accident. They started arguing, then tried to move her. I knew this was dangerous for the victim, but I couldn't intervene. I’d been advised that, as a foreigner, it's a risk not worth taking.

I turned away as the broken woman was half-thrown onto the back seat of another taxi and driven off. I doubt she survived. I doubt that I could’ve helped. Yet the feeling of shame for not doing more, remains. I picked up my scuba tank which I'd just had filled with air from the shop nearby and tried to put the incident out of mind. Tomorrow I was diving.

But the memory of that event never leaves my mind. I sleep badly. The next morning I'm not as rested as I should be and not really mentally prepared for the dive. Standing on an isolated beach miles from anywhere, far out in the desert, I knew I shouldn't be diving alone. Shrugging on my tank, I step towards the lagoon.

A dark wave flows away from my feet as if repelled by my presence, constantly shifting in a precise arc of distance as I walk. This wave is sentient, formed by wary and watchful creatures that never allow me too close. It was as if they could sense my guilt. I walk slowly through this heaving mass of hermit crabs, watching them part to allow me grudging access to their private lagoon and closing ranks behind me with the precision of a highly-drilled army. In this desolate yet magical place, they transform the shoreline into a shimmering black beach, repulsively alive. Behind me lay the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert, before me the warm waters of the Red Sea.

Walking calf deep in the almost bath-hot water, I’m more careful. I'm wary of dangers like razor-sharp coral and deadly stonefish. A creature that likes to hide motionless, camouflaged, a part of the sea bed. But step on one and the poison barbs will pierce even tough protective footwear. So I start dancing - a kind of a mad, shuffling gait that disturbs the clear water - and that hopefully scares any of these deadly fish from my path. It’s a long waltz to the reef carrying a full tank on my back, mask and flipper in one hand, while scanning the rippled sand for danger.

Eventually I reach waist high water and start to relax just as the undisturbed sand in front of me erupts into motion. A disc-shaped object leaps out. I stagger in surprise as the stingray makes its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh as it flees. I watch it fly away, leaving in its wake a dusty contrail of fine sand as it disappears into the blue, my heart racing. I resume my clumsy dance, my protective shuffle; the edge of the reef is close.

As I get closer to the vertical reef drop-off, more exotic creatures appear. A multitude of fish, their vivid colours undimmed by the water's shallow depth, flash and turn, twisting and dancing in the glare of the early morning sunlight, hunting their breakfast.

A slithering motion catches my eye; a black and yellow sea snake drifts near, smug in its knowledge that it has one of the most deadly venoms on Earth as its chosen weapon of defense. I freeze, watching it carefully, judging its direction. I hate snakes; but I respect them more. Perhaps frightened by the sight of my pale white legs, it veers away towards the safety of deeper water.

A gentle swell breaks in a white line down along the coast marking the reef. I’ve reached the edge. I’m absolutely alone. I’ve driven to a remote part of the desert coast and broken a major rule; always take a friend, or at the very least, tell someone where you’ve gone and when you’ll be back. But I have no one to tell. I stand and stare into the blue depths just off the reef edge and, as I prepare to dive, my fears surface.

It’s early; there could be plenty of reef sharks just waiting below the surface, and all of them hungry. Perhaps I might fall into a passing school of irritable barracuda, their intelligently malicious eyes carefully watching. It’s the unknown that scares me. Each time I find myself on the edge, just before that plunge into the depths, I feel that fear. I have to push myself. So I stand on the precipice and consider my options. I should turn back. It’s the only sensible choice. I've no diving buddy, no rescue if trouble happens. It’s really a no-brainer. I must turn back. And, with that decision made, I ignore it and jump in. Fall, really. Sacrificially. The water is cold on my over-heated skin as I float exposed upon the oily calm of the surface. I put on fins and mask, empty my bouncy vest, turn, plunge my head into the water and dive.

The sounds of breakfast on the reef floods into my ears, crackling and popping with thousands of fish nibbling at the coral. I sink down to 10 meters and fin along the reef wall, watching a couple of reef sharks snake lazily away below me. I swim closer to the coral cliff for protection, and spot a wary conga eel deep within a crevasse. He pulls his head further inside the coral at my approach as nearby clown fish dance and shoals of stripped trigger fish pirouette.

Deeper I fall, watching the density of life fade away with increasing depth. Then, emerging out of the darkness, a surreal sight. A motionless row of five rubber truck tires, each tethered by a rope that leads down into the dark depths. They reach towards me like the dead fingers of the drowned, denied the surface. Peering down into the gloom, my eyes adjust and I see that they’re attached to the shadowy hulk of a sunken ship. I can’t resist their enticing invitation.

Aware I’m going to the limits of acceptable depth, I turn and look up at an alien sky. Through 45 meters of water, the sun’s power is reduced to a small coronal haze at the end of a long tunnel. Shafts of sunlight are reduced to the weakness of moonlight. The ship, lying on its side, is bathed in a gothic monochrome. The tires that once protected the ships side at dock, now float mournfully above my head. I fin along and down the vertical deck, peering through windows into black cabins. Inside, dark shadows morph into jumbled furniture, crockery, broken mirrors, the debris of life.

I’m drawn deeper into the hulk and beyond the time permitted by this depth. I’m becoming bolder and I want to go further. A small voice is shouting at me. Dimly I understand my elation is the first sign of narcosis.

My air is almost gone; it’s time to go, but I want to go even deeper, prolong my stay here in the cool darkness. I move deeper and the voice in my head screams. Reluctantly I turn and begin to fin towards the surface. I'm feeling lightheaded, but I force myself to go slowly, fighting a sudden growing sense of panic as I realize I've gone beyond any normal dive safety limits.

I breach the surface to find the calm sea replaced by a rough swell. My air has gone; I have to use my emergency snorkel to breath. The waves throw me against sharp coral outcrops, drag me away and throw me back again. I try to hold on, but the coral tears through my gloves and lacerates my hands. I can feel my strength ebbing away at each attempt to escape the surf. Then a shallow gully appears in the reef; I recognize it as an entrance to the sheltered lagoon. It’s my chance to escape and the current sweeps me inside. I know that in few seconds, if I don’t land myself, I'll be swept out to sea again.

I scrabble desperately to find any hand or foothold - and fail. The current begins to pull me back out to sea - when a hand grasps my arm and I’m hauled like a dead fish up onto the reef and out of danger. A lone Saudi fisherman is my savior. He stands there, shaking his head at me as I gasp for air. I thank him breathlessly. He shrugs his wiry shoulders and smiles, perhaps thinking about the idiocy of foreigners and their strange games, and returns to his nets.

When I get back to the beach, the crabs have gone, disappointed that I didn’t donate my body to their feast. The irony wasn’t unnoticed. The day before, I’d failed to help a stranger, yet later a stranger had helped me. Thankfully for me, he'd thought it was a risk worth taking.

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