Water and Me
Susan P. Blevins
Although I was born on an island, I never learned to swim as long as I lived there. England is a large island, but unfortunately it is surrounded by perennially cold water and chilly temperatures, not to mention lumpy pebble beaches. The only time I remember being in the North Sea, and enjoying it, was when it was pouring with rain, and there was a delicious feeling of temperature contrast, warm and cold, sweet and salty, and very sensual.
At age twenty I moved to Italy and discovered the Mediterranean, and that completely changed my relationship to water. I eventually learned to swim when I was almost thirty, wearing inflatable arm bands that the kids used. This caused much laughter from people on the beach, but I didnít mind. I was on a mission to learn to swim as quickly as possible. I started off with both bands fully inflated, and then went down to only one, and then none. I reckoned I had passed my first swimming exam when I swam around the entire island of Isola Bella, off the coast of Taormina, Sicily, with no armbands. Admittedly, it is a small island, but nevertheless, on the seaward side of it the water was very choppy and I did not feel altogether confident.
But that was as nothing compared to the challenge that faced me just a few years later. I flew to Israel to join a group of hardened Israelis on an endurance training for one week in the Sinai desert. A friend of a friend was leading the group, but I knew no one at the start and had no idea what lay ahead of me.
Every night, we slept in sleeping bags under the stars, which in the crystalline desert atmosphere were the brightest I have ever seen in my whole life, rose at 4.30 a.m., ate a huge breakfast at 5 a.m., and then began our hike with the first rays of the rising sun. This was our routine, climbing one or two mountains each day, and in between, following trails through narrow canyons looking at small animals and desert flowers. The sky was always a piercing blue, the mountains purple, and the desert golden, and I really felt that this was indeed The Holy Land.
After a week of toughening up our leg muscles and our endurance, on the final day we faced our biggest test. We began by first rappelling down a 160 foot dry waterfall from the high desert shelf into a dark lake below. I was extremely nervous, and shall never forget the feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach as I looked over the edge at the lake far below, then took my first step off the precipice, trusting my own arms, the rope, and the team holding it. A step into the void, so symbolic of a leap of faith, and once I was over the lip and on the way down, letting out the rope at my own pace, I was thrilled beyond belief to observe the tiny plants and ferns growing in the crevices of the rock face just inches from my eager eyes. It was such a thrilling experience that I wanted to go back up top and start the descent again. But that was not to be.
I reached the end of the rope and discovered that it was too short, leaving me dangling about thirty feet above the level of the lake. That was the whole point of course, because it involved yet another letting go and trusting that all would be well. I was fully clothed and wearing boots, but I had to let go, booted and clothed as I was, and landed in the icy water, the air sucked out of my lungs as I went under the surface. I had set off down the rope from the hot desert floor with the sun blazing down, but the lake was in a deep gash in the mountain and never saw the sun, hence its freezing temperature. I valiantly swam the length of the lake, though perhaps floundered would be a more accurate word, reached the end and pulled myself out of the water, shivering violently from the cold and my fear.
To my horror I discovered that we had to descend on yet another rope, but this time the rope was hanging in the midst of a very lively waterfall. So off I went again, down through the freezing shower, jumping into the next lake, smaller than the first, though still freezing, swimming the length of it, and wondering why I had ever signed up for this.
But the worst was yet to come. There was another cliff, and a long way down, another lake, only this time there was no rope. I was supposed to leap off the edge, and land at least seventy feet below, in the final lake, this one rather warmer because at a lower altitude and out in the sun. Iím ashamed to say I flunked this final test. Instead, I climbed down the rock face like a cautious crab, trembling the whole while, listening to my new friends, who had already jumped into the lake, urging me on, reassuring me that they would save me if anything went wrong, feeling cowardly and ashamed. I jumped in the last twenty feet, just relieved it was all over.
We hiked out of the canyon to the small bus that had been hired to come and collect us, and the driver had brought coolers of icy beer. I can say without any hesitation that the beer I drank after so many nail-baiting challenges, was the best beer of my life.
This undertaking taught me so much. It taught me to trust my fellow team members, and it taught me to trust myself. I overcame a huge inner hurdle when I stepped into the void, and faced the fear of water that I still harbored in my depths. At the end of that day I no longer feared the water, and when I was back in Italy a few weeks later, I faced the last demon by jumping off a high cliff into the sea below. So although I flunked in Israel, from then on I have had a love affair with water which lasts to this day, and even more important, I learned that I am tougher, and more courageous than I think I am, and that a decision once taken is far less terrifying than the contemplation of it, which is a lesson that has served me well for the rest of my life.