It was time to learn to dive. Ahmed, a quiet stretch of coastline in the Northeast, looked promising. Laid-back, relatively undeveloped, with excellent snorkeling right off the coast, Ahmed is a collective name for a string of beach villages that cling to the arid slopes of the nearby mountains. After making inquiries at some of the dive operators in town, we settled on EuroDive, a clean, well-run place with good equipment and management. Our instructor, Bambang, was Indonesian. We were the only students. Getting a PADI dive certificate takes three days if everything goes well. We were not sure about diving – weren’t there plenty of risks? How do you replace your mask when it falls off underwater? What if something goes wrong or one of us panics underwater? After watching a video and answering some questions about dive theory, we proceeded to the pool. Bambang showed us how to assemble the equipment and put everything on. The gear was heavy! We felt like overloaded ducks with the stiff wetsuits, flippers and heavy tanks. Once in the water, though, we didn’t feel the weight anymore. After a few nervous breaths, we deflated our vests and sank below the surface, breathing through our respirators. Wonderful! And easy, too, as long as you keep breathing. We practiced clearing our respirators and masks, tried buddy breathing, and worked on buoyancy, the most difficult skill to develop as a beginner.
After a full day of dive school, we walked down the road to the village to relax. All of the tourists in town were invited to the wedding of a student, who studied at the local tourism school. Under an awning in front of his parents’ house, mats and tables had been placed. The yeasty, fermented smell of palm wine filled the air. The younger guests had already consumed plenty, and were singing traditional songs and chants. On the walls of the yard were banners advertising coke and “tehbotol”, a local brand of iced tea. Had some of the party been financed by placing these adds?
Our first dive was the next day. We drove to Tulamben, a shipwreck site, about 20 minutes up the coast. Balinese ladies and children were waiting in the parking lot when we arrived. I expected that they would try to sell us something. When we parked and got out, one woman went immediately to the back of the van and asked how many people were diving. Bambang and the other dive masters directly gave her our equipment. Balancing a tank on her head and one on her shoulder, she gathered up a box of gear in her arms and headed down to the beach. A small girl, no more than ten years old, followed with another tank on her head. Bambang later told us that the dive operators had an agreement with the local residents, paying them per diver to carry equipment down to the beach.
We suited up and waddled over the stony beach into the water. Bambang, spying one of the bananas we had taken for a snack, put it into his vest pocket with a wink. Underwater, we were surrounded by a school of curious fish. Bambang took out the banana and the fish rushed over, jostling each other. They gobbled up the whole thing, peel and all, in a matter of seconds! Unlike snorkeling, when diving the fish don’t swim away. Some are curious, and they will swim right up to your mask and peer inside. We moved to the site of the wreck in deeper water. The coral that had grown since the boat went down 40 years ago was incredible. Large tubular sponges reached out, full of browns and yellows. Giant coral fans grew from the tilting decks and exposed metal beams. Schools of fish swam nonchalantly through the wreckage. Bambang glided along like a giant sea creature, barely making an effort, his arms hanging loosely crossed. It was a silent world of wonder and amazement. As this was our first dive, there was only time to make a short tour before going back to the beach for a rest. Here the hawkers were on the make. One held up a wooden kite in the form of a ship, with multicolored sails and even a propeller. He tossed it into the wind, where, propeller spinning and in full sail, it twisted and danced on the end of its line.
That night we visited our favorite place to eat, a small restaurant next to the guesthouse. “Min”, the chef and manager, was proud of his cooking skills. An Australian friend had shown him how to cook and serve western food, including gnocchi. Intrigued, we decided to try it. After that, we struck up a friendship, chatting in Indonesian after dinner. Although his food was good, Min’s restaurant was often empty. We tried to drum up business for him whenever we were in town. One night he told us about how difficult it was to make a living. After trying all kinds of “odd jobs” to feed his family, from selling sate and roast corn on the street to building houses, he managed, with the help of his Australian friend, to put down a year’s rent on the restaurant. Getting microcredit without paying usurious interest is very difficult to obtain in Indonesia. At least his wife was happy at the restaurant, because they could eat every day. She was pregnant again, so soon there would be one more mouth to feed! Should he consider going to Australia to work? Min sighed. They were living hand-to-mouth. As soon as he managed to set a little money aside, something would inevitably come up, like an accident or a visit to the doctor, and the money would be gone.
Our next day’s diving was from the beach in Ahmed. Bambang gave us an underwater compass and asked us each to follow a heading, turn around and return. Later we swam along a rock wall, enjoying the coral and fish. Diving turned out to be easy and fun. Our final exam passed, we drove down the road to celebrate, upgrading to a better hotel. The owner had hailed us a few days before to promote his new place, set back from the road with a magnificent view of the bay and Mt. Agung in the distance. After watching the sunset from the balcony, we walked to a local restaurant. Just as we finished eating a live band struck up at the pub next door. We hit it off with the band, calling out requests and chatting between sets. Later, as we walked home, the rising full moon cast a stark, silvery light over the hills and bay. With our bay windows wide open, we could hear the sound of shivering palm trees and surf as we drifted off to sleep.