Thursday, August 25, 2011

When I apologized to a coconut

Physical conditioning is an important part of our course here at the Pacific Orientation Course; while most rural areas of the world (including Papua New Guinea) require significant hiking, PNG adds an additional element—skilled swimming. The thought process goes something like this:
  1. PNG happens to be an island nation (over 600 islands total, I believe).
  2. Islands are surrounded by water.
  3. Boats are used to travel over water.
  4. Boats tip over.
  5. People riding in said boats end up in water.
  6. The arrow shows the buoy for the 100m swim
  7. If you don’t know how to swim, you will not only end up in the water, but also under it…
So, part of the course here in Madang is learning how to swim in the ocean. Every Wednesday we hike or drive down Nobnob mountain to Nagada bay, a calm inlet of the Pacific Ocean. Our fearless leaders put out three ropes parallel to shore: a 100 meter length for the advanced swimmers and two shorter ones for the children and the beginners. We then, gasping and struggling, proceed to swim laps clockwise around the bobbing, floating ropes.

The ultimate goal? 8 laps or 1600 meters, which equals one mile.

Now, I grew up in Minnesota, so swimming outside is not uncommon to me; after all, we are a state with more shoreline than Hawaii, California, and Florida combined. However, the last time I checked, Minnesota is landlocked. We have our cabins and boats and fishing and water-skiing and swimming…but they all occur on lakes. Even Lake Superior is a lake. So, when I appear at Nagada and I see the waves gently lapping the shore, I nod knowingly to myself. After all, “what’s the Pacific, except a big lake?”

Yeah right.

Here some of the newer swimmers are practicing
After we’ve been prepped with a lecture on all the potential threats found in this water that can sting, spear, poke, gouge, and generally maim you and admonished about seventy more times with drink more water! wear your water shoes! we finally wander toward the shoreline, which in itself is a novelty. There is no sand here—rather, the shore is comprised of bits of white coral and shells.

Finally, I begin wading out in the warm water toward the rope. This looks like a good spot. I duck under for the first time… and come up sputtering and shaking. It’s salty!! I stare at the water in amazement. Salty? It’s actually true?? I tentatively stretch out on my stomach, ready to start a front crawl… and a wave comes rippling forward, over my head, slaps my face, spoons salt down my throat like a nasty cough remedy. AHHHHH! It’s still salty! And it’s alive—I swear, that wave went for me! How dare it!

Slowly the realization dawned on me. This was no benign Mud Lake or Long Lake or Round Lake or any of those other bodies of water that are so numerous we have to resort to the most uncreative names.

This was an ocean. The Pacific Ocean.

And that fact means learning new things. For example, the salt absorbs through our skin, and so we become even thirstier than normal. The equator sun burns our skin faster, so most of us swim with t-shirts and perhaps hats. In order to be culturally appropriate, women wear long baggy shorts or even skirts (have you ever tried a froggy kick in a skirt?). When swimming one direction, those 100 meters takes what seems like 1500 strokes, while the other way I can glide along in only half that many. But I adapt, realizing out of desperation that if I time my rising and falling with the waves, I receive a great many less salt water drinks than if I don’t, and, very importantly, swimming crookedly will help me prevent collisions with fellow struggling swimmers.

Crash! “I’m so sorry! <sputter, sputter, spit> I thought I was over there!” we call out to each other, before the waves duck ourselves apart a few meters away.

I lay back and try to stroke a bit more. Whack! My head rings and I splash upright. “Oh no, I’m so sorry…”

The coconut doesn’t answer, bobbing its way toward shore.

Yep, this is definitely the ocean.