Friday, December 19, 2008

Fish Fear

Candidasa, Bali, Indonesia

I ain’t afraid of nothin’, except for fish, dogs and entropy.

I don’t jump out of my seat when I watch horror movies. Generally, I identify with the protagonists so little that I can’t wait for them to feel the bite of the chainsaw’s teeth. If a horror movie is on TV, I spend most of my time either laughing at the idiocy of the thing, or shaking my head in disgust. Consequently, I don’t watch horror movies.

If I want to give myself a good scare, I have to choose between fish, dogs and entropy. Entropy is omnipresent and inescapable; I am always terrified of it, so it offers no novelty. Dogs smell bad, and so do fish when they’re above water, so the only way to give myself a good fright without offending my olfactory sense is to go underwater and expose myself to the terrifying menace of fish in their natural habitat.

But I’m not sure why I would do it. I’ve gone bungee jumping and skydiving before, which gives you a good, clean fear. Intellectually, you know you’ll be safe, and you get an exhilarating rush of adrenaline while you’re falling. Going underwater to hang out with fish provides no exhilaration — only sick, damp, claustrophobic fear and the nauseating certainty that over an infinite timeline, something down there would eat you or sting you to death.

So why the hell would I do it? That’s what I was asking while I was sitting in my mask and flippers, looking down at the rectangle of water between the outrigger and the canoe.

Candidasa’s beach has washed away, so all of the locals know for certain that if you’re here, you must want to go snorkeling. It’s one of the things that is done by every tourist that comes through here, and somehow the certainty of the locals transferred over to me and I knew that I, too, would go snorkeling.

My fears change over time. I used to be much more afraid of dogs than I am now. Events in my life — such as my brother getting a dog that is so happy and so stupid that you could beat him with a two-by-four and be certain that his only reaction would be to lick your hand — have lessened my fear of dogs. The constant presence of entropy has made my terror much less insistent over the years. I have no idea what happened with fish, but I am now more scared of them than I have been since I was a little kid.

When I was in Australia about six years ago, I screwed up my courage and went snorkeling and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I have no idea how I did it. I think I was embarrassed that everyone else who was around, from old women to little girls, had the courage to do it, so I did it too — and I even enjoyed it a little.

The Great Barrier Reef is a vast, repulsive phantasmagoria of sea life. Every aquatic horror imaginable exhibits itself there, and I swam among them with a minimum of panic. I swam through clouds of fish, over reefs teeming with disgusting life, and seldom ever did I spin around in a panic to see what was swimming up behind me. In a moment of enthusiasm, I even chased after an enormous grouper fish, to get a closer look at its enormous face, like a nightmarish distortion of a human’s. It was only when I came face-to-cloaca with a jellyfish that was quivering horrendously at arm’s length from me that I panicked and swam for shore, vowing never to return.

I’m even more of a coward now. I wouldn’t even get in the water until Erin jumped in, had a look around and told me it was safe and deep enough that I wouldn’t touch anything with my feet. Once I was in the water, I immediately started to hyperventilate through my snorkel. A wave washed some water into that plastic umbilical between me and the habitable world, and I started to swim back to the boat.

I really wanted to get out of the water. There weren’t that many fish down there, and the number of creepy-crawlies was minimal, but still, it was awful. There was nothing down there that I wanted to look at. Nothing down there could do anything for me; I don’t even like eating fish, and the coral was just waiting for a wave to wash me into a shallow part, so it could cut my tender belly open. Sure, it was pretty, but what is beauty when compared to having your bones picked clean by prawns after something even more horrible ends your life in one of a million unthinkable ways?

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel like I could go immediately back to the boat. Our boatman spoke terrible English, and I could never make him understand what I was doing out of the water. We had about a 40% success rate when we tried communicating with him, and a 60% chance of having a misunderstanding — he absolutely always thought he understood what we were saying, but more often than not he would proceed to do the opposite of what we were actually asking him to do. If I got out of the water and told him why, it would certainly be embarrassing, and it might result in him thinking he understood that I wanted him to sail away and abandon Erin a kilometer offshore with nothing but her snorkel and the terrors of the ocean to keep her company.

Besides, I’d paid for the trip; I’d better at least make a token effort to enjoy the awful things that other people loved about the ocean. And Erin was having fun, looking at all of that stuff that is the antithesis of everything comforting and human in the world. It would be pretty disappointing for her if I made her experience all of that horror alone, so I forced myself to stay for awhile and look cautiously and incuriously around.

It felt like ages, but I think my willpower lasted for somewhere under half an hour. Three separate times I was unmanned by some part of the scenery and started thrashing my way back to the boat, but each time I forced myself to calm down and get my money’s worth of awfulness out of the experience. Finally, knowing I was on the verge of vomiting in fear, Erin told me that her fins were making her feet sore, so we should go back to the boat. I could have kissed her, but for the snorkels and the saltwater and all the terrible fish.

We escaped alive and sailed back and then rode our motos to a beautiful beach, where we played in the waves. In my mind, there are no fish at beaches, so swimming there is fun. Please don’t anyone try to convince me otherwise; I have a hard enough time enjoying beaches, what with all of the entropy of the waves crashing on the shore.

1 comment:

  1. I helped with the dog thing, guess it's up to Nate to get a fish or better yet an artificial coral reef enclosed in a 20M tank.