Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been living on a tiny island inhabited by animist sea gypsies, that is surrounded by some of the most pristine waters in the world, that not only are inhabited by pirates, yes, pirates, but also boast the greatest variety of soft corals, and teem with tropical fish that shock you with their fluorescent colors and their incredible shapes, where there are no cars and there is no police, and a woman can feel safe living in a bungalow, in the jungle, by herself, with no lock on the door, just as I did, and where the natives live off the land and sing to their children by candle light at night? Well, I am not going to tell you where it is, nor its name, for it is one of the few places left on earth that hasn’t yet been devoured by the machine of tourism, “yet” being the operative word. You’ll either have to do some extensive research, or hap upon it by chance like I did. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the island as X and its inhabitants as the CXL.
I came here at the recommendation of some friends who discovered it a few years ago. I had been waiting to get out of Bangkok for more than three weeks, monitoring the news in Nepal daily, sometimes hourly, awaiting the return of a friend of a friend who was due in from Kathmandu but couldn’t seem to make it out amid the curfews and street clashes. It became evident that, what with the US embassy preparing for evacuation and the cautionary advice of a friend who once spent a few months in prison there, it was advisable to abort my mission to go to that enchanting, mountainous country and head to an island, while I waited for my Japanese friend to return to Tokyo so that I might pay her a visit.
I took a three-hour ferry ride from the mainland to X in a daze. I felt as though I was descending into a sort of reverie, as if everything were a new sensation, but I was at ease and disconnected completely from what had passed for reality back in Bangkok. Nature. I can spend weeks in a city, running from museums to theaters, theaters to music halls, and so on, gathering data and feeling inspired to return to my studio and work, but nothing recharges the soul like the conversations between fish.
I took the last bungalow high up in the hills, tucked in the jungle and with an enviable view on the eastern sky, interrupted only by the silhouettes of a few islands. The first morning I awoke on X, I quite literally jumped out of bed, with the word WOW already echoing from my lungs, and stood gaping at the rising sun sloshing colors I had never seen before all over the sky. I spent the next few days in a cocoon, reading in my hammock on my balcony, sneaking long, adulatory glances at the sky, and particularly at the tiny island just close enough to shore to call to me.
On the third day, I rose from my hammock, went down to the small beach below, dove straight in the water and swam all the way to that island, never looking back, if only half just to say to myself that I’m not afraid. When I stood in the shallow waters at the foot of that small island, I realized I was standing in a tropical aquarium. Brightly colored fish made circles around my legs, flashes of violet and electric blue bolting from beneath the surface. I looked up and back to my bungalow and felt my heart sink into my knees. From the bungalow, the island doesn’t look so far, but once you get to the island, the bungalow looks oh so, so far. I was panicking, the worst thing you can do to yourself when you’re half a kilometer from shore.
Over the next few days I began communicating with human beings again, namely my German neighbors, Axel and Hans, who disappeared from the island during the day, and who I soon gathered were avid diving and snorkeling aficionados. One morning, Axel took me snorkeling, back to that famed little island across the way and something happened that switched a gear inside me. The closer we got to the island the more spectacular the life on display. We relayed our way through large coral masses into the reef that runs along the shores of X. My breathing started to slow, my muscles relaxed, and a feeling of total awe flooded me as I gave myself over to a brand-new world. I was wandering through a vast and varied forest of coral, pulsating with so much color it appeared as if light was shining from within. I saw puffer fish, huge electric blue starfish, polka dotted sea slugs, moorish idols, giant morays, angelfish, powder-blue surgeonfish, neon purple anemone regularly spitting out clown fish that swim to you while smiling curiously, and countless sea urchins with their long, elegant needles glistening black, and that beady neon eye, that seems always to be scanning. The plant life was exquisite, and I instantly fell in love with these purple pot-like sponge formations that rise from the ocean floor like strange raku vases. Everything felt like a psychedelic trip as we moved further along the breadth of the reef until…Until we hit the cliff of the reef. Until we were on the edge of the deep blue.
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It is said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. There was something so obvious in that statement as I hovered midwater peering down into the unknown, watching the rays of light dance hypnotically from deep within the abyss as if there were diamonds down there, or perhaps the secrets of our DNA lay shrouded in a treasure chest thousands of meters closer to the core of the earth. There was something so haunting about the silence, about the minor current that ever so slightly pulled me closer to that point of no reference and into the big blue. I was completely mesmerized, yet still aware of the battle going on inside me between my fear of the unknown and my desire to touch it. I began to understand the concept of nitrogen narcosis, which Jacques Cousteau referred to as “the rapture of the deep”, even merely from a psychological standpoint. There is this mysterious yearning to let yourself fall deeper and deeper, even without the intoxication of nitrogen, as if home is calling, as if there is some kind of genetic encoding that reminds us we once lived in water, both in the evolutionary and in the prenatal sense. The ocean seemed to be taunting me with secrets it might reveal if I let myself go, asking me to exchange my life for the knowledge no living human can hold. I was captivated, but there was also a distinct tinge of terror in my Elysium. I kept looking back to the coral reef, panicking if I couldn’t see Axel, or imagining myself diving into the depths never to return; not to mention all the talk of sharks swimming circles in my head.
Competitive apnea divers who attach weights to themselves and plummet along a line to nearly 200 meters with nothing but one breath in their lungs, talk of the ecstasy they feel down there, where it’s black and cold. And returning to the surface with the light appearing little by little in tunnel fashion resembles near death experiences. If we think of death as the next level of understanding in human consciousness, if we assume that the soul doesn’t die, but rather liberates itself from the weight of its body in order to soar to its greatest capacities, then diving is the next best thing. You completely loose your sense of weight, and therefore, you forget about your body. Therein lies the danger, in particular at depths greater than 30 meters, where the level of nitrogen in the body can cause severe intoxication and sometimes provokes people to imagine they can breath under water and other such silly notions.
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It wasn’t long before Axel introduced me to Antoine, a Frenchman who has been living on X for 5 years and runs a dive shop during the dry season. I was easily convinced to go for my open waters diving license despite my lingering anxieties about the ocean, or perhaps it was precisely in order to confront those fears that I did it. After being reassured enough times that the sharks only eat plankton and small fish, I set out on my first diving experience, and I can assure you, if I had the money, I would be a diving junky by now.
Diving isn’t something you just decide to do, like, “hey, okay, I’m gonna take this oxygen tank down into the ocean and have a gander…see you.” There are some extremely important guidelines to follow to avoid injuries or death. First of all, it helps to know what is happening to your body when you are breathing compressed air under water. At sea level, the air exerts 1 bar of atmospheric pressure on the body, at 10 meters, it exerts 2 bar, at 30 meters, 3 bar and so on. As you descend, the air in you tank becomes denser with the increased pressure. If you are at 10 meters, each time you take a breath, the air in your tank is administered at 2 bars of pressure and your lungs fill to capacity at that depth. If you were to hold you breath and ascend to the surface, or even a few meters, the air would expand with the decrease of pressure in your lungs, which are already at full capacity, and can cause lung overexpansion injuries, which can lead to oxygen seeping into your blood stream, which can cause paralysis or death. So, rule number 1: never hold your breath underwater.
Then, there are tables, which need to be consulted to ensure that you don’t cause decompression illness, otherwise known as the bends. As you descend to greater depths and pressure, your body absorbs nitrogen from the breathing air at an increased rate. If you stay within the limits of 30 (99 ft.) meters, your body has the ability to de-gas the compressed nitrogen at a safe rate once you return to the surface. If you go to 30 meters or do a repetitive dive without the required interval to de-gas properly, you have to do a decompression dive, which requires that you never ascend more than 18 meters per minute and that you stop at certain prescribed depths to allow your body to eliminate the nitrogen while it is pressurized and can escape more rapidly. If you do not follow this rule, your body cannot eliminate the nitrogen fast enough and it will seep into the blood stream, wreaking havoc, and maybe causing death.
In all, Antoine took me diving 6 times. I appeared to be at ease, and consumed a surprisingly small amount of air while under water, which permitted me to do longer and deeper dives than allowed by the guidelines of the course. When I met Axel, he was foaming at the mouth about a dive spot Antoine took him to called XXY. It’s a large cone-shaped rock, the apex of which appears at approximately 18 meters beneath the surface, located about an hour by longtail off the coast of X. He spotted a whale shark there measuring 5 meters (17 ft.) and a trio of manta rays all of which he could not help boasting about, and it stuck with me because I kept pestering Antoine to take me there, even though we would dive deeper than the 18 meter limit on my license.
It’s the end of the season on X, the rains are coming and there is almost no tourism in the area. It’s the prefect time for diving, the visibility is excellent, and it is possible to see really big fish at this time of year that don’t ordinarily turn up during the dry season. X shuts down on the 15th of May, with the last ferry leaving and all but one restaurant closing. I knew Antoine was tired from all the toil of the business season and ready to close up shop, and his girlfriend wore a permanent scowl that seemed to keep him in a steady, fowl mood. But I know Antoine is in love with the ocean, and that the prospect of seeing something extraordinary down below is largely what makes him tick. So I prodded and pushed and begged and charmed him the best way I knew how until I got my wish.
We took a longtail, since his diving boat captain decided the week before he’d had enough of work and took off for the mainland, with the boat, the tanks, the emergency oxygen and the GPS, without consulting or warning anyone. Our CXL captain, Ton, told Antoine he knew where it was, and since the CXL fish there often enough, he believed him. Two hours later, we were lost, looking for a tiny blue buoy that fishermen like to remove at whim, in the middle of the ocean. We stopped at a few fishing boats to ask the way and they all just gestured perplexedly. At one point I figured Antoine and his girlfriend would give up standing in the high sun, on the very edge of the bow, scanning the waters and calling to Ton to make a turn, only to find a plastic bottle floating in the sea. But they didn’t give up, and amazingly, Antoine managed to line up the silhouettes of a few islands on the horizon and gauge the approximate line we should follow, and after 3 hours of searching, we found that blue buoy, which was about the size of my head.
All the spots I had been diving so far were always located close to an island, and if we didn’t dive all the way to the ocean floor, it was well within view. Here, we were 8 nautical miles off the coast of X and the only thing you could see when you looked in the water were those eerie rays of light emanating from some secret place below. We descended a good 15 meters (50 ft.) along a line and all I could see was the great blue abyss. I have always felt that blue is a soothing color, and in fact, it is often suggested in meditation techniques to imagine your body bathed in a blue light to achieve a relaxed state. I cannot begin to assume the words to express the feeling of being completely wrapped in blue, or perhaps I should say rapt in blue. It’s like another dimension where you sleep while you’re awake. Unless you are looking directly at the small spot formed by the reflection of the sun, you can’t see the surface; you can only see the slow gradation from deep purple below, to turquoise above. At about 18 meters, we let go of the rope and floated slowly deeper and deeper until we reached the depth of 28 meters (92 ft.) and then we began to circle the rock, and still, no bottom in sight. Just then Antoine pointed up and I saw a manta ray rip across the ocean’s skies, flapping its grandiose wings with all the grace and elegance and speed one would expect from such a majestic creature. It was gone so fast I hardly believed it had truly made an appearance.
Seconds later, we spotted two large leopard sharks (2 m./7 ft.) nestled beneath a small ledge. As we approached they rose up like spacecrafts and began a chase, which I later learned was their mating ritual. We pursued them, while Antoine filmed for a few minutes and then slowed our pace so as to prevent overexertion. At one point, they made an abrupt turn and one swam directly toward me, coming as close as 1 meter. I was face to face with a shark that was bigger than me, and all I could think was, “Hi.” I was too spellbound to be afraid.
Apart from those two incredible sightings, I saw a giant grouper, also about 2 meters long, playing in a school of longtail batfish, countless giant morays, the highly poisonous miles’ lionfish and rockfish, spectacular coral and plant life, and thousands of fish teaming up to do a strange and unpredictable dance. We did two dives on the site and with little time in between, so we had to do a decompression dive and stop to de-gas at 5 meters for 13 minutes. I felt completely stoned for days and couldn’t follow conversations, more because I wanted so much to hit stop, rewind, and play over and over the memory of that ray tearing through the big blue, than because of the effects of doing a decompression dive.
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The dive shops closed, I decided to stay on until the last ferry to witness the CXL full moon festival celebrated at the beginning and end of monsoon each year. It basically consists of three days of drinking and dancing and drumming, with families staying up all night in the school courtyard, eating and laughing the whole night through, old and young alike. I danced with a woman who was easily in her eighties, thin as a stick, who kept passing me her beer and screaming like a cowboy at a rodeo. On the second day they launch a boat out to sea made especially for the festival, symbolically sending the bad spirits on their way, and cleansing the island. This is an old tradition for the clan of sea gypsies whose fishing men still allow the entire population to subsist comfortably the whole year through. I found it no less ironic that the festival also happens to coincide with the time when all the visitors disappear and they can return to their quiet life as it was 9 years ago when not a single bungalow had ever been erected in the name of tourism.
The CXL are essentially a protected, indigenous, and nomadic population who are self-sufficient fisherman and don’t really seem to care much about all the dollars wearing flip-flops that could be had. I tried to interfere as little as possible, but I could not resist the offer to join the circle of elders drumming and singing in the village schoolyard, especially since the shaman was present. He looked a man of about 90 years, but from what I was told, he is only in his late fifties to early sixties. His eyes were like opals and his face was ancient; a chilling and wise regard I could scarcely take my eyes off. At one point, he rose and went to walk away but fell on me instead. I don’t know how I should regard this incident, lucky or not (touched by the shaman!), but my reflex was to grab his arm and prevent him from tumbling to the ground. He glared at me with an emotion I found difficult to place and staggered away. Just then, a woman came to me and said, “Never help a drunken CXL, especially a man of his stature, for he will loose face in front of his friends because a woman helped him. In fact, you’ll be much better off if you don’t pay any attention whatsoever to any drunken CXL.”
It was the last night of the festival and bodies were strewn all over the beach. The men had been living up to the reputation of fishermen and drinking to excess, staying, or trying to stay up all night as is traditional. Every once in a while a figure would rise from its soused slumber and resume its antics, going directly for a bottle of local moonshine, and collapse again, sometimes face directly in the sand, and not move for hours. I began to wonder if some of them were dead.
And now, it’s May 14. I must pack my bags and return to Bangkok for the next leg of my journey to Japan. I can’t imagine the shock of not waking up to all of this beauty. There has been something so magical and almost perfect about my experiences here, and even on a rainy day, X is stunning. One morning I took a longtail to a neighboring island with Axel and spent the day eating fruits and chocolate on a completely deserted beach, listening to the deafening symphony of 600 square kilometers of pure, dense, jungle, and snorkeling around the reef. We were, in effect, on a deserted island, and there wasn’t another human being in sight until Anand came back to fetch us at sundown.
The animals on X are forward, happy and often talkative. They seem to have a rapport with people I have never been witness too. The cats come right up to you and greet you with a few meows in askance of a little rub, the monkeys try to outwit you in your own home, and the dogs smile contentedly just to sit near you. There came a time when almost all of the tourists had left, and I began making my treks home alone at night, to the last bungalow on the hill; no more neighbors, just me and the jungle. One day I saw a monitor lizard, about 1 meter in length, saunter across the beach down below. The next day it was living in the tree next to my balcony, and I’m guessing, eating rats in the night from the distinct, muffled screaming and swallowing sounds I heard. This morning there was a monkey on my doorstep, and the rats usually make no bones about letting themselves in through the hole in my bathroom wall to take a few bites out of my soap, and crap on my clothes. (Thanks, by the way) Tropical storms can get pretty scary, with heavy winds and rain, and powerful thunder and lightning, and no land to contain the bellowing sound of an angry sky. More than once, I packed my bag with all my camera gear and passport in case I needed to make a run for it from my precariously leaning, and termite-infested abode.
One night I got scared as I made my way home, just as I entered the dark pathway leading up to the hill where I’ve been living. A small animal jumped onto the pathway and ran over my feet. Then I saw a larger animal came out of the bushes and blocked my path. It was one of the dogs from the dive shop I had taken a liking to. She walked me back to my bungalow, stayed the whole night with me, and ever since, either she or one of her family members accompanies me all the way home, stays the night, and then walks me to breakfast. And no, I wasn’t feeding them, they just knew.
There are not many places left on earth where you can see wildlife in its natural habitat, the ocean being a major exception to that rule, and likewise, it is equally rare to visit people who are still living according to the traditions of their tribe, and X offers both.