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As I plummeted toward shark infested water, made murky from human feces and trash, all I could muster was a cringe, brought on by the embarrassing destruction above.
Prior to this disastrous excursion I was having a pretty good day. I awoke before the sun rose and wiped the bugs off my body as I made my way into the bathroom, or the mandi as the Indonesians call it. I scooped a minimal amount of precious fresh water from the bucket on the ground and washed my burnt face. Through a broken shard of glass dangling from the dank wall I saw the red polka dots left on my neck by vicious leeches were finally fading. Dodging a crab, I stepped back into my bungalow where my crazy roommates’ witch doctor music was filling the air.
“Don't let that water touch you Mia!” She yelled. “That bathroom water will give you rashes.” She pulled up her sleeve angrily to show me her rash, that appeared to be a single mosquito bite.
I nodded, slipping out the door with my gear in tow. I walked barefooted on the ancient coral reef that now makes up Hoga island, letting the cuts on top of my feet have a bit of fresh air. After the peaceful trek to civilization, I watched a giant monitor lizard rumble around in the bushes while I ate my cold rice and drank my hot smokey water.
Having consumed the most important meal of the day and attended the morning lecture—regarding mangroves, mollusks, and every little thing in the water that can kill me—I rushed to the dive center, eager to see it all for myself.
Assembling scuba gear is a careful ritual, and one wrong step could mean catastrophe. So after assembling my kit with familiar ease, I double checked all my pieces to find a steady leak in my oxygen tank. The fuzzy headed Australian dive master next to me told me it wouldn't be a problem if I didn't breathe too much, and with that I ran to exchange tanks.
Lugging my heavy gear (including a weight belt) I got to the water just in time to help push the boat away from shore. My bare feet were seen and a chorus of Australians yelled at me to get on the boat before I stepped on a sea urchin.
The rickety motor boat being held together by duct tape slowly brought us out to sea. I calculated what time it was back home while a dive master was rambling about the buddy system and pointing out where the “pointy stick ” was located on that particular boat. Everyday I was told where the “pointy stick ” was, but they never cared to mention its specific purpose.
Finally, after all the tedious preparation and a small fit performed by my crazy roommate (that included her demanding a helicopter come save her and take her back to America so she could resume speed dating within her cult) I got into the water. I descended deep into the Banda Sea and swam along the edge of the brilliant reef. With a bit of struggle I was able to lay a transect line on the ocean floor, then I swam above it recording every species of coral and mollusk I could identify. When I reached the end of my line, my notepad and breathing regulator fumbled in my hands and my pencil sank far deeper than I was equipped to go. I used this tragedy as an excuse to simply enjoy all the amazing creatures and colors around me.
Swimming just above the coral surface, I noted a large brightly colored stingray covered in vibrant turquoise spots directly beneath my chest. I froze, luckily my body remembered to breathe for me. The first rule of scuba diving reads, “Never hold your breath, or your lungs will surely explode.” Paralyzed by fear, the world was silent and I heard the voice of my beloved hero Steve Robert Irwin, the crocodile hunter, calling me to join him in Koala heaven. I accepted his invitation, proud to have a death parallel to the greatest human to ever venture this earth. But then the stingray swam away leaving my heart unzapped, so I continued living. Back on the boat I asked the dainty marine biologist what the stingrays with the blue spots were called and she responded with a slight giggle “Those are blue spotted stingrays.”
We returned to the island for lunch, had another lecture, and went to the lab to experiment on fish with Dr. Benson. The experiment described in layman’s terms was putting little fish in hot water and writing down their reaction. Of course the vegans didn’t want any part in this so they hung around outside where they were heckled by homely individuals surrounded by smoke, teasing them about their inability to understand British humor. Then it was time to travel to Sampela.
Connect: As you can imagine I experienced something unexpected every hour of everyday. That's just what happens when you do new things, in foreign countries, with complete strangers. But I never expected to experience such a painfully high level of culture shock.
The day was going well, the previous rain had ceased, and I was excited to learn about the interesting Sea Gypsies first hand.
We arrived at Sampela right on schedule. (Sampela, for those who don't know, is an old stilted village formed by sea nomads.) I stepped onto the rickety wooden path, and I had felt far more stable on the boat. The thin walkways were missing boards and I could see the dirty water far below me. I was on a jungle gym from hell. Scrap wood formed bridges between stilted houses. Children looked at us with thrill in their eyes and the adults with disdain. I carefully walked on the main path and a wrinkled old woman with frayed white hair looked at me, her eyes were completely white and milky. Remembering what I was taught about their culture, I politely looked away but I am unsure if she could see me doing so.
I followed our conspicuous group around the town, we made our way to the biggest path in the center of the village. A tall blonde kid wearing his backpack on his chest led the group, then he slowly stopped to take a panoramic picture. Everyone behind him paused and the weight of thirty Americans demolished the ancient highway. Boards snapped, ropes tore, and bodies flew. Some people quickly ran up the falling pieces to sturdier path where the blond kid who caused the chaos stood unharmed. As you know, I wasn't so lucky, but as you may have gathered, I survived. I fell toward death and disease, but like the athlete I am, I landed on a jagged rock protruding from the water. Only one foot met stable ground causing me to perch while my dangling leg was crushed between a fallen board and the rocks’ edge. I managed to leap onto a swaying porch where a fellow survivor sickened by my wound puked up a maggoty substance. To my right I was faced with an angry Indonesian woman shaking her fists, and screaming at me. I don't speak Indonesian but I assume she was upset about the destruction of her village and her temporary isolation. With her tiny foot she kicked me in the rib, sending me rolling into the pile of puke, that I quickly noted was mostly rice.
We all managed to escape the wrath of the rightfully enraged villagers, who were screaming “FAT AMERICA’’ and hurling fish carcasses at us.
When we all shamefully piled into the boat I looked at the blonde kid and told him that his picture better be the best panoramic of all time. If you're ever feeling overly prideful of your American descent, go to Indonesia and make a fool of yourself, it's humbling. Of course if you break a village, pay for the repairs.