Part writer. Part mermaid. Sitara is always on the lookout for portals to other worlds where all the fun stuff like magic and dragons exist. This is her account of an island life.
Guest post by Sitara Hussain.
Ever since I can remember, living on an island has been a distant dream. Something to fantasise about until reality dragged me back to whatever task I had at hand, be it homework, household chores or my desk job. Until the tables turned one fine day and I found myself on Havelock Island to train and work as a dive-master.
I was so excited about the idea of staying on an island that I didn’t stop to worry about what that actually meant. I knew to expect no cellular service and very limited contact with the outside world. I resigned myself to eating fish 7 times a week. And I was expecting to meet a multitude of new people, memorise and forget their names in a fortnight. But what I didn’t realise was that living the dream meant that I no longer enjoyed the luxury of a warm bath. A lack of privacy, because sound travels on a small, quiet island. And an endless stream of creepy-crawlies who became my roommates. Being a sheltered city-slicker, it took me a while to get used to having to share a bathroom with the multiple residents at the divers’ accommodation. And then, there was always the chance of an encounter with a snake. I was uncomfortable and I loved every bit of it.
I spent my days training, diving and studying, spending some wonderful hours learning how to survive underwater. I found out how to be weightless and loved the feeling of being suspended mid-depth. I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of fish species and my mind reeled trying to identify them. As part of my job, I found myself having to talk constantly – small talk to keep our dive shop’s customers entertained, boat briefings, dive site briefings and post dive debriefings. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m not the kind of person who talks too much. But where I struggled the most was trying to frame complete sentences in Hindi so I could converse with the Karen boat boys. The only Hindi I knew was what I learnt in school and from Bollywood films. And those sources definitely did not provide me with an adequate vocabulary to answer all the questions they would ask. How they laughed at me! But over the few months that I spent working with them, they did learn to decipher my broken sentences. This more open, sociable me was a revelation. For the first time in my life, I was spending more time around people instead to finding a corner to read my books.
The best part about working as a Dive-master was that I got to relive the exhilaration I felt the first time I went for a dive. I assisted the instructors as they taught beginners to dive. Some of them were excited to get a glimpse underwater. Many of them were understandably nervous. But there was always one person in the group who was simply terrified. More often than not, I’d be assigned to give my full attention to that one person while the instructor handled the rest of the group. It began with training in shallow water, to get the customers comfortable with the equipment and procedures. After that was completed, we’d all head out together to deeper water to begin the dive. The hardest part was convincing a frightened person to suspend all sense of self-preservation and put their heads underwater. Almost immediately, their heads would shoot back up and they would ask to cancel their dive. With a little more persuasion, they would try again. Eye contact was key. Somehow, these strangers would put all their trust in their divemaster or instructor and allow themselves to be guided underwater. At first, they would grip my hand with all their strength. But as we descend and the pressure underwater increases, the pressure of their grip would decrease. I once had a customer who let go completely and glided around all by herself. The fear in her eyes was replaced by pure joy and wonder as she lost herself in the moment. It was such a magical moment for the both of us, an experience I lived through with various people in their own different ways.
I consider the 5 months living, training and working in Havelock to be the best decision I’ve ever made. Not only did I learn a new skill, I learnt so much about people and about myself. I made friends with folks from all walks of life, and from all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with. I’ve always loved the ocean, and now I know it just a little better. Marine life was always a magical world beyond reach, but now, it feels closer to me than ever. Which is why I urge anyone who shows the slightest interest in Scuba diving, to take the plunge. Because, with every fibre of my being, I believe that once you strap on a tank, carry some weights and sink below the surface of the water, it changes you in the best possible way.