October 2014

Kolymbari, Crete

In which I dive and meditate on pee.

I have decided to dive. I want to wander in another way instead of down streets. Streets are everywhere. I choose a dive shop in Kolymbari because it is close to me (15 km, like the closest market to the remote village I’m staying in) and Chania is farther and full of tourists. When I do a Google search for Kolymbari the only options are one olive oil tour and one dive shop. I find the dive shop walking around on my first day and schedule to dive the next day.

I wake up nervous because the last time I dove was over a year ago and it was in the freshwater cave system in the Yucatan, Mexico. The cenotes are chambers that resemble limestone cathedrals, with hyperrealistic visibility and an almost complete absence of any life forms. The cenotes were the water source and supposedly sacred burial and ritual grounds for the Mayans. The current-less water demands from its explorers utter stillness and perfect neutral buoyancy, while not kicking or breaking off delicate crystal and stalagmite formations with clumsy fins or tanks. It feels like swimming in a skeleton, or how I’d imagine it is to be religious. Earlier this year I tried to dive in the cold brown waters of Monterey with a friend, but after five minutes of clinging to the same kelp stalk and joining the nonplussed sea life as we were ripped back and forth by the current in the world’s most violent tennis match, we made eye contact and no hand signal was needed for us both to surface and call it in.

Today the divers are only me and a professional rugby player my age from Holland. His name is Ashley, and I find it funny that by conventional American standards our names are mis-gendered (I’m Alex). My guide is Stathis, who is not much older than me, who’s bright and animated with short hair, a beard and a muscular back. Ashley’s guide is Georges, who owns the shop. Georges looks like Robert Redford in his 50’s and chain smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, even as he drives the boat. He’s got just the right amount of saltiness, and as they say and although I’m not sure how you can, you can tell he’s seen some shit. We will all go together but we will each stick by our designated dive masters.

On the boat ride over I find out that Stathis is ex-paramilitary, and Georges was a Navy Seal. Stathis is in his first year of being divemaster, but Georges has done over 50,000 dives. He and his friends are the ones diving the Antikythera shipwreck at 55 meters (180 feet) in specially-designed exosuits. The site, which I’ve hungrily read about in my fascination with underwater archaeology and sunken cities, is not far from here, on another island. The men joke that I’m the safest girl in Greece right now.

They tell us we’re going to dive an underwater city, an archaeological site whose remnants are over 6,000 years old. My jaw drops and I think they may have chosen it partially because I immediately asked about Antikythera. The site is named after the close-by beach, Menies, but the city was built on a remote peninsula, and named Diktinna after the Cretan god of war. Diktinna, though male, bears similarity to the goddess Artemis of the Greek pantheon. When the city collapsed, parts of the temple fell into the ocean and remain there for divers to see at angles and proximities unachievable on land. Scattered among the columns, Georges explains with mainly hand gestures, are mines and rockets leftover from World War II. Don’t worry, he gesticulates, they won’t explode if you touch them. He mimes an explosion, “boom!” and then shakes his head.

When we arrive and drop the anchor, I see what I think are shaggy dogs scurry across Menies beach in the distance, but quickly realize that they’re wild goats. We dive, and the water is crystal clear. The sky is partly cloudy and the sun strobes across the white sandy bottom. I immediately want to dance on it, glide across it in a gravity-less tango impression, the world’s biggest ballroom floor. The ruins are disguised by sea life, turned into a manmade reef, but they are obviously ruins. Stathis touches mines, points out fractured columns, although they’re impossible to miss. I make up stories and narratives in my head as I swim and occasionally push myself off the massive ruins with a single finger. How fitting that these mines and rockets, modern skeletons of combat and industry should lay buried among the ancient temple of a war god. I think about the future, about diving to see the felled bodies of predator drones, the splayed and broken wings of these metallic insects scattered throughout the Red Sea. Bug splats, indeed.

Stathis picks up pottery, entire clay bowls covered in barnacles. He hands them to me. He points out a decorative spiral carved onto one of the column fragments. I trace it with my finger. Ashley and Georges go up, because Ashley is out of air. We stay and I come up after an hour with nearly a third of a tank left.

I am quiet for a while as we drive to the next site. I want to remember the stories and I have a headache. It’s rougher here, and when we go down I sink fast. I look at my gage but don’t feel like converting meters to feet to figure how deep we are so I just follow. We swim for a while and the reef is more alive here. There are different types of fish, more colors. I see grouper and scorpion fish. The rock itself looks like pieces of clay that have been squeezed hard by giant hands, with the dips and cavities impressed by Cretan god fingers. There are lots of holes and crevices to peer into, and on the non-reef side are fields of short, soft purple kelp.

Eventually we split off in our pairs, and I realize that my head is starting to pound. The back of my neck is stiff and constricted in the hooded suit I’m wearing. We come across a school of small silver fish, which I’ve seen before, but I notice myself hanging transfixed in the traffic of their sparkling city, obsessed with the way I’ve forgotten whether I’m floating in the sea or the air. Even the fish can’t tell me as I entertain for a moment the idea that they’re flying too. The water is blue enough to confuse.

I start to lose track of myself and my place in the blue, noting how tired I’m becoming. I can see everything and nothing at the same time, only different shades of the same color spanning forever. I am falling behind Stathis, and my limbs start to hurt. I consider panicking but it would take too much effort. Suddenly I can only think about whether I should pee in my wetsuit right then, because I remember I’ve had to pee for hours now. I become very concerned with whether Stathis will be able to tell if I pee in my wetsuit. Is the water so clear that you can tell what is and what isn’t ocean-liquid? Can you even see pee in the ocean? What if the compressed air has left me dehydrated and you can definitely tell I’m peeing because of the color? But colors are distorted underwater, right? What if this wetsuit is too thick and I just end up with pee up to my neck, swimming forever in my own urine? I know what it’s like to clean pee-soaked wetsuits (working as crew on a South African cage diving boat, I learned a common reaction to being surrounded by Great White sharks is to pee, and I also know some people choose to stay warm this way on cold dives) and it is both very obvious and very unpleasant. If I pee will he be able to see it in my eyes that I’m peeing? I really like the lady in the dive shop. I think about her cleaning my wetsuit and also I think about a ruptured bladder and wonder if that’s a thing. Maybe I can clean my own wetsuit. I’m sure they’ll understand.

I obsess about pee.

Suddenly I realize I am very nauseous and my headache has spread down my neck. I want to take a nap and I think this is probably not a good sign. I don’t know how long it’s been but I know that I don’t want to vomit into my regulator, because although it’s possible to do so, I also know I’ll probably panic and spit out the regulator and choke on water. After a few attempts I grab Stathis’ leg and invent a signal for headache, which is touching my head and rolling my eyes around. We slowly climb shallower and I want to go up faster, because the more distant the bottom grows the more nauseous I become. We finally surface near, but not next to the boat, where Ashley and Georges have come up just before us. Stathis says I can hold onto him and throw up, no problem. I don’t, but he guides me onto the boat and I sit with one of the most splitting headaches of my life. I try to make a joke about the worst hangover ever.

“It’s the nitrogen. You’ll be ok in half an hour,” says Stathis. I sputter exhaustedly about this never being a problem before as I try and catch my breath with my head in my hands. “Hey, it happens all the time at 24 meters. You don’t even realize you’re down there until you start feeling like shit.”

“24 meters?” I ask. “That’s like…” I can’t do the math right now.

“80 feet,” calls Georges from the captain’s seat. His cigarette smoke is blowing back onto me as I try and stare only at the horizon. It’s incredibly rough here. I haven’t been that deep since I was a teenager, and now I remember the tired, drunk feeling of nitrogen narcosis, the feeling that the ocean floor would be a perfect place for a nap and that you should check your gage, but you really don’t feel like it and that’s an acceptable reason not to do so.

I return to shore with a spattering of red in my eyes, newly ruptured blood vessels. Georges brings me a strong coffee and I sit with him and the dive shop lady, who turns out to be named Dina and who is his wife, on the porch of their shop, petting their German Shepherd. She gives me a ride to the ATM and says I should come hang out with her tomorrow since she gets bored there. She can’t dive because her ears won’t clear, and Georges won’t teach her because he doesn’t want her to damage them.

I go next door for lunch, order far too much food and when I ask for the check I get halvah and what looks and feels like a carafe of vodka. My eyes probably give the impression I need it. It’s warming and makes me care less about the fact that the house I’m staying at doesn’t seem to have hot water.


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