illuminate history

Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)

Raptures of the Shallows

Andiamo al dunque” means “get to the point!” in Italian. The word-for-word translation is more incisive: “andiamo” means “let’s go,” “al” means “to the,” “dunque” means “therefore”: “let’s go to the ‘therefore.'” Literal translations reveal thought-provoking facets of many everyday expressions. “Vale la pena” (“It’s worth it”) means—literally—”It’s worth the pain.” “Non vedo il tempo” means “I can’t wait;” but the literal translation is, “I can’t see the time.” In other words, “I can’t see myself being able to wait so long!”

“OK,” you grumble, “Let’s go to the ‘therefore’ already!”

Pensionato” means “retired” in Italian. “Pensioned” implies “finished.”  Some people dread retirement. What to do with all that spare time? How to give up the important role that defines who you are? I never knew what I wanted to be in the first place; then had to invent a description for my twenty-four-year career. “Retirement,” for me, was another ill-defined avenue to a new array of alternatives. However, when this new phase began in 1999, I did have two specific goals.

One: learn to play the cello. This quickly morphed into writing a book based on the trove of letters my locomotive engineer great-grandfather saved from 1857 to 1900—a project which seems to have become my new career as author and self-publicist.

Two: learn Italian. Why? I always loved opera. With a little high school and college French, I can scan “supertitles,” then hear most of the words being sung in Faust, for example. A semester of German allows me to catch a word here and there in Fidelio. “Augenblick” is my favorite. It means “moment;” the literal translation is “blink of an eye.” I wanted to play the same game in Traviata and Bohème.

Snorkel more was on my list, too. Snorkeling is much more exotic than it sounds; it has nothing to do with snuffling pigs.

They told me about wonderful snorkeling in the Red Sea on my first business trip to Israel in 1985. It wasn’t until 1998 that I finally found a colleague who would go to Eilat with me for the day. The plant was at Ber Sheva, in the middle of the Negev Desert. Drive south a couple of hours, turn right at the beach, find the low complex of buildings that marks the diving reef. We rented masks, snorkels, and fins, left our towels on the sand, walked into the water, swam a few yards, and the reef dropped away beneath us.

Jim had done this before; he showed me how to hold my breath, do a sort of jack-knife to use the weight of legs and fins to dive down a few feet to see the ledges of the reef and colorful fish up close. It was like swimming in the small aquarium that my mother nurtured for many years—except there was so much more of everything: coral formations, plants, varieties of small fish. I zigzagged up and down for nearly an hour, until I was so chilled that my insides shivered uncontrollably. “If you’re serious about this,” Jim advised, “get a wetsuit.”

A few months later I went snorkeling for the second time in Fiji!  I went with Gary—soon to be my husband—to watch his son paddle in the World Outrigger Championships. We stayed near Suva, on Toberua, a small island encompassing about four acres at high tide, sixteen at low tide. Since then, we’ve acquired our own gear to explore underwater at Catalina, Galapagos, Antigua, Cartagena, Curaçao, Cabo, Maui, Kawai, and the magical shallow waters of Abacos, Northern Bahamas.

Al dunque, al dunque!” you shout! “What on earth does snorkeling have to do with Italian?” Both involve perception from new perspectives. Italian makes me think of different ways to say things, even in English. Snorkeling is a different way of being in the world.

You are conscious of each breath underwater. If your mask is clear, what you see underwater is magnified. You hear very little: mostly your own breathing, once in a while a parrotfish scraping algae off rocks and dead coral. Underwater movement requires legs and arms. Stop, look around; many of your new companions blend perfectly with their surroundings.

Speaking a foreign language requires similar heightened awareness. Slow down to figure out what signs say. To ask for directions, plan what you want to say and how to say it—then process the response carefully!

To escape Portland’s gloomy chill this winter, we undertook a round-trip cruise from Sydney, Australia to places from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific: three snorkel stops en route—plus five nights at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef afterward. We packed our bulky, heavy gear. We needed “smart casual” and “formal” attire on the ship. And how could we not take in a performance at Sydney’s iconic Opera House? After stuffing our suitcases with abandon, we were chagrinned—but not surprised—when the check-in agent said mine was three pounds overweight. Gary’s was one pound over. Feeling clumsy and embarrassed, we managed to shift stuff around to meet the 50-pound limit.

Tendered ashore at Lifou, New Caledonia, eleven days later, we walked two hundred yards west, donned our gear, and waded in. The placid water was bathtub temperature. We saw coral and fishes—at least two dozen different types—in water less than five feet deep. Vale la pena!

Divers are entranced by the “raptures of the deep;” I succumb to raptures of the shallows.

Small clusters of ice-blue, jagged, branches coral seemed to be illuminated from underneath. Round, coffee-table-size boulder coral were embossed with vivid purple velvet circles. Embedded in some of these fibrous mounds were glowing sapphire lips of giant clams, moving almost imperceptibly. Scattered across the sand were smaller coral polyps: sharp sulphur-yellow and brilliant pink, verging on fuchsia.

Dark fish hovered in dark crevices; lighter fish darted over the sandy bottom. Yellow fish with orange stripes and smaller yellow fish with tiny blue dots from dorsal fin to tail swam near the yellow coral. Tiny neon blue fish swam like sparkling jewels wherever they pleased.

Bigger fish, with striking black and tan markings on their bodies had, as Gary said, stripes like blue bandanas across their heads.  We learned from a book in the ship’s library that these are Picassofish. See what I mean about words and meanings that transcend domains?

What looked like a thin piece of rope, a half-inch in diameter, maybe ten inches long, horizontally striped in bands of light and slightly darker tan lay on the sandy bottom. As it rose from the bottom, I saw the fine-featured, sharp-snouted head of a sea-horse; tiny fins—almost transparent—fluttered just behind its head. Closely related, it was not a sea-horse, but an ornate pipefish,. Appearance and habitat description in the library book matched perfectly.

Gary decided to explore the beach scene after we propelled ourselves back to shore for a drink of water. I went back in the ocean; I could have stayed there for days. Although slathered with sun-screen, the backs of my legs were hot, stinging, bright-red when I emerged. Vale la pena—literally!

The bone-yard of dead coral extended fifty yards offshore at Dravuni, Fiji. Awkward in swim fins, I trudged backward in less-than-knee-deep water to reach submergible depth. Then I saw a stunning school of tiny, sparkling turquoise fish swimming among white branched-coral. The description from the library book matched: “Juveniles tied to individual coral heads: blue-green chromis.” Coral shelves like tree-ear fungus in our north-western cedar forests jutted from the sides of underwater ravines. Butterfly fish fluttered around great mounds of glowing golden boulder coral. I swam west in search of a sandy bottom; Gary waded out and lead me to shore.

Vale la pena!

The beach at Île des Pins, New Caledonia, looked and felt like super, super-fine granulated sugar; the water temperature was delightful. A few intrepid silver anchovies headed toward the beach on suicide missions: lunch for seagulls.

Heron Island…non vedo il tempo!

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One comment on “Raptures of the Shallows

  1. Pat Meyer
    March 18, 2012

    Diana, this is brilliant! I think you’ve found your next writing genre in Adventure Travel!

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2012 by in Writing and tagged .
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