Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Life Aquatic: It's bad...Like Water...Being Underneath It....

I wasn't born with one of those nifty brain filters that prevents you from spouting out total nonsense. As a result, I am known among my close friends and family for sputtering out fragments and run-ons that just make no sense at all. One time during a long car ride, maybe to California, my sister and I were relaxing in the backseat make-shift campsite we had become accustomed to putting together for these road trips. At some hideous, heart-stopping, stomach curdling moment....OUR BARE FEET TOUCHED. It still makes me shudder to remember it. I yanked my feet back and screamed "DON'T TOUCH MY FEET!!" She looked at me in shock which prompted me to explain in near hysterical tones, "Bare feet touching is bad! It's like water!!"  And which point she erupted into laughter and forced me to explain how water is bad, let alone anything at all like bare feet touching. Well, I was still horrified (quite the little drama queen, I know...) So in total frustration I said "It's like water....being underneath it!!" Apparently this didn't clarify anything for her, because she just erupted into laughter again, and promptly decided that this would be a catch phrase for the Baugh sisters forever more.

What she didn't know is how terrified I had become of being underneath water. Something about having people sit on my shoulders with my head under water....being trapped underneath docks....waking up from a nap underneath the surface of the deep end of the pool....all this had led to a phobia of having my head under water. Go figure.

Fast forward to my mid-teens and you'll find a young lady who wanted nothing to do with fear. I don't actually remember what it was that changed in me, but I remember deciding I didn't want to be afraid. One by one, I started tackling my fears. I made myself go on the zipper at the carnival to deal with my fear of heights. Eventually I made my way all the way to Las Vegas to ride the Big Shot on the top of the Stratosphere (a mere 1,000 feet in the air). When I was 15, we took a family trip to see my mom's family in Southern California. While there, my dad decided to pick up surfing again. He took me out into the surf at Newport Beach. I'm not totally sure he knew about my phobia at this point...but he sure did afterwards. In my mind, which surely has a skewed perspective, the massive storm surf tried to eat me alive, decided I wasn't the right snack, and spit me back out on the beach a snotty, sputtering, sand covered mess. I'm sure in reality the waves were a couple of feet...but these details are minor. What matters is that I wasn't about ready to let that ocean be the boss of me!

Later that day, Dad bought a surfboard and we drove down to San Onofre. He took me out into the surf where I screamed and yelled and cursed, but tried and tried and tried. Eventually, I managed to catch my first wave and ride it into shore. Imagine my disappointment when pictures proved later that my "wave" was, in fact, about 1 foot of foam....  But I was hooked. Maybe I could barely swim, and perhaps I had total chest-stopping panic every time I wiped out and went under water (which was often), but I was addicted nonetheless.

Eventually I worked up to snorkeling - which I realize might seem backwards, but with surfing my face was only submerged for a few seconds at a time. Snorkeling requires your face to, you know, be IN the water. It's the whole point of it. During a trip I took to Belize I went out snorkeling in some very calm, very clear, very shallow water. Even though this was almost as safe as snorkeling in a swimming pool, I felt panicked enough to stop about every 20 feet, lift of my mask, find land, breath, lather, rinse, repeat. Boy were my friends ever irritated with me. But four terrifying hours later, I felt I had accomplished another step in my mission to overcome my biggest fear.

A lot of time passed before I pushed myself forward again. Ten years, to be exact. Last year some friends of mine convinced me to go on a rafting trip. I researched a lot, and decided it wouldn't exactly be cheating death, so I decided to go. At first I felt that same fist gripping my stomach. I breathed deeply and plunged ahead. About halfway down the river I realized I was having a blast and I very likely wasn't going to die on this Class II rapid. I even made my way to the bow of the raft to feel the ice cold water splash my face every time we smashed down a rapid. One of the Yay Rafting! traditions is to jump into the river off a rock that is maybe 8-10 feet high. They told me if I was going to jump, I needed to land right on the border of the current and the eddie, and then swim like hell back to the beach. It took me a few minutes to actually jump, but finally I did it. I found myself mid-air, totally shocked that I'd actually jumped, and then even more shocked by the ice cold glacial run-off that bit my face as I went under. Once again, however, I'd looked water right in the face and lived.

Presently, I live surrounded by water quite literally. When it comes to outdoor recreation on Rota there are two choices: you can hike or you can swim/snorkel/dive. I knew when I moved here that I would have to face my deepest fears. Not because there is someone making me, but because I have too much pride to come to one of the greatest dive spots on the planet only to end up saying "I couldn't, I was scared." So, once again I've been taking baby steps. First, I snorkeled inside the reef. Then one day I managed to go outside the reef with my friend Noe. Snorkeling inside the reef was no big deal - there are no currents or riptides that could drag me helplessly out to sea....But outside the reef...I admit I panicked a little when I lost sight of Noe's flippers. I did have to stop every so often to double check that I wasn't already half way to the Philippines.

This last week has been a big week for me. My friend Scott took me out on his boat. I am not sure why, but I realized about thirty minutes in to snorkeling that I wasn't scared. I found myself actually wishing to see some big fish - a shark, a tuna, anything to remind me I was in the ocean and not in an aquarium. On my way back to the boat, I did see a little shark. It was so deep that I wasn't even sure it was a shark at all. A couple of days later we went out again. This time I lost sight of Scott several times, but once again surprised myself with my total lack of fear. My internal narration when something like "Hey. I'm not afraid. Nope, still not afraid. Weird." And then "You've come a long way in ten years! (mental pat on own back)"

I watched in awe as Scott dove down 20 feet or more, hovered with his spear gun looking for fish, then resurfaced only to do it again and again. "How do you just hold your breath like that?" I thought. I know Scott spends most of his off time free diving, but watching the process both fascinated and terrified me. Truth be told, I am jealous. I want to do that - but it is still so scary. After a little bit, I lost sight of Scott again, and because I was getting stung by hundreds of miniature jelly fish (which at first I thought were a special class of underwater bees), I decided to head back to the boat. I was about 25 feet from the boat when I saw the shark. This time there was no question about it. It was a shark, and it was big enough to eat my legs and it was swimming right towards me. Something to the effect of "Oh my God it's a shark and it's hungry and it wants to eat my legs ohmygodohmygodohmygod" went through my brain. I took exactly two arm strokes before I realized that I would never be able to swim faster than this creature. Because you can't exactly take deep cleansing breaths while snorkeling, I just had to mentally calm myself. I know that shark people and divers are probably laughing out loud at this story because the shark I saw was a little reef shark and not some giant man-eater. But heart pounded in my chest in total contrast to the slow, smooth breast strokes that lead me back to the boat. Exhausted, I gave up snorkeling for the day, but I am still proud of myself, and still thrilled that I had a chance to see a shark that close. I know this is only the beginning.

The next I woke up exhausted, but I had promised Noe I would ride up to the swimming hole with him. Swimming hole is a totally different experience than the wide open ocean. The hole itself is small, and maybe only ten feet deep at the deepest point, if that. It is totally surrounded by reef, and usually very calm. It's like a small swimming pool/aquarium. I was having a lot of fun just snorkeling around, looking at the fish, generally just frolicking. For some reason I got it in my head that I needed to start practicing free diving. I have seen people dive down with snorkels on but I didn't understand how it worked. So, I just took a deep breath and dove under. The first time I think I managed to dive about three feet, but I saw a shell I really wanted on the bottom of the hole. That's when it happened. My brain clicked into gear and I decided that was the moment I've been waiting for since I was about ten years old. I would get that shell before I left the swimming hole. Breath after breath I would try with everything I had to swim down to the bottom. Pretty soon, I had it! I managed to dive all the way down to the bottom, stay there, and grab my shell. I was so excited I decided I needed a few more. Five or six shells later, I looked up to see Noe. I know I must have had a ridiculous grin on my face because he wanted to know what treasure I had found. I'm not sure anyone besides my family will ever understand that the treasure I found that day was that being underneath water really isn't that bad at all. In fact, it's actually quite spectacular.
**From top: photo1 taken at Rota Grotto, CNMI by Scott Moen; Photo2 taken by YayRafting member; Photo3 taken at Rota Grotto, CNMI by Scott Moen; Photo4 taken at Pona Point, Rota CNMI by Tara Martin; Photo5 taken at Swimming Hole, Rota CNMI by Camas Baugh; Photo6 taken at Rota Grotto, CNMI by Scott Moen. All Photos Copyrighted.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsunami Warning Ot Ten.

I was pulled grudgingly from my sleep about 130 a.m. this morning by the pestering ring of my cell phone. In the states, I had frequent calls in the middle of the night - so often, in fact, that I just never answered them. Here, though, my phone rarely rings at all, let alone in the middle of the night. So, tempted as I was to "ignore," I went ahead and picked up. I was disoriented enough that I didnt right away recognize my dad's voice.
"In a few hours, you're going to be hit by a Tsunami," he said.
"No, no no, that doesn't make any sense."
"There was an earthquake, and it's bad," he insisted.
"The one in Japan? I know, that one has passed."
"No, there was an earthquake in Chile and you're going to get hit by a Tsunami. I just didn't want you to be out riding your bike or something."
"Dad, you must be mistaken. Chile is in South America."
"Yes, I know, but the entire Pacific Ocean is on watch."
"HOLD on..."
Exasperated, I stumbled out to my computer and turned on CNN. Sure enough, all hell was breaking loose in South America. And, just as dad said, a widespread Tsunami warning had been issued.
"Oh, no" I finally responded.
"No, it's okay, you can go back to bed," Dad says. "I just didnt want you out riding your bike without checking the news first."
"OH SURE, DAD. I'll totally just GO BACK TO BED."
"You have time, don't worry."
So, I had to recheck the data. Sure enough, he was right.
What he meant by "in a few hours" was  "11 hours from now." In my world, "in a few hours you'll be hit by a Tsunami" means RUNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!! But luckily, I had plenty of time to pack, eat, and go back to sleep.

For the second time in six months I set about packing a bag and contemplating the seriousness of the word "evacuation." I don't know if you've ever had the word "evacuation" thrown at you in the middle of the night, but for this Northwest girl, it's a pretty big deal. You see, in the PNW, we don't have catastrophes. Or the ones we do have are pretty expected like flooding or ice storms. I certainly have never been told to "pack a bag and get to high ground" before this particular journey, that's for sure.

The strangest thoughts were going my mind. First, I grabbed all my notebooks of writing. Looking around my apartment, I know that I can live without or replace nearly everything - but the writing...the writing can't be left behind. Next to land in the suitcase was Mr. Peabody, my teddy bear. Now, I know what you're thinking - a teddy bear?? But, honestly, I've had this bear since I was nine years old. He goes with me everywhere - acting as a pillow and a little piece of home. After the irreplaceables, I decided to get some necessities. The question was, though, what do you need in the event of a Tsunami? Having never lived through a major catastrophe, I was thinking either this island would be destroyed or it wouldn't be hit at all. So, I grabbed the same things I would grab if I were leaving in a hurry for a weekend trip - a few clothes, a pair of shoes, my toothbrush, my cell phone and charger, and my passport.

After my bags were packed and set by the door, I watched the news for a few minutes and decided to go back to bed after all. Surprisingly, I didn't have any trouble getting back to sleep, but I awoke with that panic that you only get when you have forgotten something important - like a wedding or a death or christmas. Then I remembered - "oh yeah, tsunami." So, I turned on the computer again only to be reassured that I did, in fact, have several hours before impending doom. I made coffee and waited as riveted as the rest of the world to the fate of Hawai'i. As a major event didn't come to pass, I began to toggle between panic and calm. I was thinking "either it's REALLY good or REALLY bad that Hawai'i didn't get hit. With little else to do I began to rethink my packing. Maybe a carry-on suitcase and a back pack was over kill...maybe just a backpack and my writing. Can I do without Mr. Peabody? Do I really need sneakers too? I condensed my evac pack down to a shoulder bag and a back pack, and then I went back to my post at the computer. As I sat glued to the live feed of CNN and the chats boxes opening up from worried friends and family, I began to think "what if we really DO get hit by this thing.... maybe I should secure more of my belongings..."

Now, I live on the third floor of a concrete building. In all likelihood a major tsunami wouldn't bring the building down. If anything, it would probably just flood. So, with all of the pictures of flood victims pouring through my mind, I thought "maybe I should just put all my clothes in my suitcases. That way, if the building does get damaged, at least all my clothes will be in one spot." So, I scampered around my apartment grabbing clothes and putting them in my suitcases. I even decided Mr. Peabody could hang back. Then I realized if I was saving my clothes, maybe I should save my paperwork too. I grabbed the most random books possible and my file folder of bills, etc, and put them in plastic bags and shoved them into the suitcases too. It wasn't easy lobbing those heavy things on top of my closet...but I managed. With nothing left worth saving, I returned to my couch to sit and wait.

Looking around at my apartment, I realized how little I have that really matters. The items of most concern to me are photos, writings, and of course, Mr. Peabody. I also realized what a helpless feeling this is. Sitting and waiting for impending doom is a pretty ridiculous activity. I mean, I'm on an island in the middle of nowhere without a car or a plan. What exactly am I supposed to do? So, I waited and waited waited. Perhaps I should have been a little more excited by the email from my principal saying "evac cancelled," but truth be told, I panicked even more. "How is that even possible??" I thought. With nothing more to do, I just kept waiting - waiting for NOAA, the new foundation of my sanity, to tell me not to worry, that everything is going to be okay. Finally, NOAA came through for me.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for the people of Samoa or Chile or Haiti. This little drama occurred almost entirely in my head. I really don't know what I would do if my world ever came crashing down around me. I guess as long as I have my writing and Mr. Peabody and a family that loves me, I'll always be okay.