For years, I have dreamed of snorkeling in the ocean. There is something so magical about the idea of being able to enter a world that isn't your own and see all of the marine life in its natural habitat. It's all very fascinating to me.
A few years ago in a desperate attempt to bring myself closer to the ocean, I taught myself how to snorkel. I read up on it and spent countless hours in the pool teaching myself the techniques. It became something that was like second nature to me, and I could do it without thinking about it or feeling uncomfortable. I had never, however, had the opportunity to actually go snorkeling in the ocean.
Fast forward to early last week. We needed more kelp for experiments, but the waves lately had been intense and far too rough for anyone to be able to get anything. However, we were getting to the point of desperation and when someone mentioned snorkeling and offered to take me, I was absolutely on board.
Supposedly we were going to a beach that was protected from waves and would be relatively gentle for what we were needing to do. Everyone's only concern for me was that my wetsuit was a little too light for snorkeling since it was supposed to just be for intertidal work, but I was determined to try anyway even if I had to get out early because of the cold.
Being cold was the least of my problems.
I'm relatively petite and have a very light frame, so having anything fit me can be difficult. Rodrigo, someone who works in the lab here and I work with the most, had showed me the night before a cinturon that had heavy weights attached to it and said that I had to wear it when snorkeling. Rodrigo is no more than two or three inches taller than me and has the yellow-green eyes and reddish tint in his hair that would make you assume he was European when in reality he's lived in Chile his whole life. He has the biggest heart and is willing to help you with just about anything and I love him to death, but I was extremely confused when he tried to explain to me what on earth this metal belt was for. His English far surpasses my Spanish, but sometimes we have a little trouble communicating and this was one of those times. He seemed to be telling me that it was supposed to help with "floatability," but it already appeared as though it would not fit my frame very well nor would it actually do its intended use. I dismissed the belt and figured it would be fine. We would figure it out tomorrow.
The next day, we arrived at the location where we would snorkel. It was cold and foggy, and things didn't look very welcoming at all. I should have known something was a bit off for the day when I tried the snorkel on. I noticed immediately that the snorkel was ill-fitting but figured that it would probably be ok. The goggles were small enough that they fit me and I had shortened the snorkel itself as much as I could, so I just told myself it had been awhile since I had snorkeled and maybe this would be correct. I had also noticed that the waves were a little stronger than I had expected, but I assumed we would be ok since they didn't appear to be too bad.
We would have to go straight from the beach and directly into the water to get to the kelp, and they insisted that we go backwards into the water with our fins on. All the warning bells began to fire as I distinctly remembered reading that you were supposed to shuffle sideways into the water so you could both see where you were going but also still be able to get in with giant fins on. But, I followed directions and figured it would be fine.
Immediately, I knew we were in for it. I heard them yell to turn around and I saw a larger wave than what I would have expected heading towards us. I knew there was little time to react, so I dodged out of the way of the rocks and tried to stay in one place. The water was far more powerful than I realized, sweeping me off my feet and catapulting me back onto the beach. I had lost my breath and tried to quickly gain it back before wheeling around to get back out to sea before another wave hit. I rushed into the sea as fast as I could maneuver myself sideways and then swam as fervently as I could towards the others.
And then it hit me. I couldn't breathe.
I knew what it felt like to breathe while snorkeling, and this wasn't it. I felt intensely constricted, and my snorkel was just useless as the waves rushed over me. Even when they weren't, I knew something was wrong. I assumed maybe I had lost my breath from the adrenaline and that all I had to do was catch it again. I had to make it to Rodrigo.
After reaching him, I told him through exhausted inhalations that I couldn't breathe. I tried breathing in slowly into my stomach like I knew, but I felt so constricted, like my chest cavity just refused to expand. I was holding onto him for dear life, attempting to regain my breath, fix my snorkel, anything, but nothing was working and the waves continued to thrash over me, making the situation worse. "I can't breathe, I can't breathe," I tried to relay to them. I had only a few words and had to use them wisely. I think they may have believed that I was scared; quite the contrary, I knew exactly what was going on and was trying to troubleshoot the problem. A million things were racing in my mind all at once and I was very quickly processing and accessing the situation. I desperately wanted to be able to snorkel, and I knew it wasn't supposed to feel like this. I tried to push myself upward to allow for less pressure on my chest cavity and to allow for more air to come into it, but nothing seemed to work. "Are you ok? Do you want to go back?" I couldn't go back, not now. No, I had to do this. I was more afraid of not getting to snorkel at this point more than I was afraid of anything else. Sure, the water conditions were crummy, but it wasn't necessarily a dangerous situation. I just needed to be able to breathe.
Eventually after struggling unsuccessfully to breathe, I knew I had to return or it could become dangerous. "Do you need to go back?" As much as it pained me, I had to tell them I needed to go to shore to catch my breath but that I wanted to come back. I turned to snorkel back towards the beach, just like I knew, and for a good three seconds, everything was fine. I could see the floor about seven or eight feet down, and while the visibility was horrible, the color was lovely. I felt ok. Suddenly however, the waves crashed in again, and even after getting rid of the water in my snorkel, it continued to leak water, and I just couldn't hold out any longer. I am so thankful for Rodrigo, because he knew I needed help and scooped me up and pulled me back to shore. I felt awful, though, and continued to say "Lo siento, lo siento" (I'm sorry, I'm sorry) as he gently told me it was ok. I felt helpless and awful. He handed me off to the other snorkeler, Tuto, who helped me back to shore (not before another wave got me) and made sure I was ok. Once I made it to shore, I realized why I couldn't breathe besides the snorkel. The heavy belt, resting uncomfortably on my hip bones, was much too tight. I tried to explain to Tuto that if I didn't have the belt I could probably go back, but he said, and probably rightfully so, that the waves were just too rough today for someone so new. "It's hard for everyone their first time. We'll do it on a calmer day." I felt horrible and helpless as I watched them work in the cold water, doing the job I should have been helping them with. I repeatedly apologized and thanked them for helping me, and they both were very kind and told me there would probably be another day that would be gentle enough to try again. I looked Rodrigo dead in the eye and told him there was no way this one day would scare me away from snorkeling. I would do it again, and I will. Throughout the day he and others continued to check in on me and make sure that I was ok.
That is one of the things that I love about Chile. For the most part, people here are warm, open, and welcoming. They have been kind, offered me help, shared their food with me, and done various other lovely things. They will come and check in on you, ask you how you are doing, try to involve you in things. As a major, major introvert, I have a very difficult time adjusting to new people and it takes everything I have in me to socially engage with people I am not familiar with, but they make it so much less daunting.
People in Chile are very open and passionate (compared to Americans, anyway!). A common greeting gesture is a gentle kiss on the cheek. It is a little different based on the person, but for the most part you touch cheeks with the other person one time and at least make a kissing gesture but don't necessarily actually kiss them (again, depends on the person, some do actually kiss you). The way that they do it varies, with some people just doing the touching of the cheek and kiss gesture, others will pull you in closer with one arm and kiss, others will put their hand on one of your cheeks and kiss you on the other. As an American but also as someone who doesn't like touch (not even hugs), this was one of those things that I had to get over very quickly. The idea of the cheek kiss at first terrified me, but suddenly, I found myself growing into them and becoming comfortable, even sometimes enjoying the gesture. Going abroad means venturing out of your comfort zone. Something as simple as a kiss on the cheek in greeting might be common for everyone else but an awkward, painful thing for you, but you learn to adapt and allow yourself to open up to another way of life.
Being abroad forces you to open up, to allow yourself to be a little more vulnerable towards other people. You might be uncomfortable, a little embarrassed, or downright nervous, but you open yourself up to people in ways that you never knew you could and allow them to expose you to something you may never have experienced previously. I am not the most open of people and tend to be very private and reserved, but I have learned to allow myself to be more open towards people and to allow them to get a little closer. The other day an incident happened with some people in my lab where someone made fun of someone else for not understanding "easy" English words. I was truly upset about it and wanted address the issue with the person that the incident happened to. However, I would have to dive deeper emotionally than I was comfortable with; I would have to look him in the eye and be open with him. The thought of this really scared me, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Shaking with nerves, I pulled my swivel chair in the office closer to him, looked him in the eyes, and spoke to him through the fear. I told him that I was upset and sorry for the situation but that I was so very proud of how far along he had come with his English and that I never wanted him to feel like his efforts weren't appreciated. He seemed somewhat surprised by the gesture, but his face softened in a way I'd never seen and his whole affect and energy changed into something gentler, something of deep appreciation. I knew I had done the right thing, and even though it scared me, I did it.
Trying to speak in another language that is not your own also makes you more vulnerable and forces you to move out of your comfort zone. You have to just jump right in and try to speak. You might say something wrong, you might accidentally call yourself a man (done that on a few occasions), you might misunderstand someone, but the point is that you are trying. People truly appreciate your efforts to speak to them in their language, even if you are wrong. If you don't try, sure, you'd never be wrong, but you'd never have the chance to make that connection and to show people that you are willing to be open and accepting of another way of life. People appreciate that more deeply than you realize they do. For all the times that you say the wrong thing, there are moments when you do say the right thing, and those moments are worth everything. There is something to be said about that deep, intimate human connection, that moment when you speak to someone in a language that is not your own and see a genuine response and a sense of understanding in their eyes. In that moment, you and the other person you are communicating with are the same; boundaries are broken, a connection is made. Being able to say something to someone and have them truly understand you and react without any pauses to try to interpret what you've said, just a smooth transaction from one person to the next is so, so very exciting. Having someone tell you that they see progress with learning another language is also thrilling. One of my favorite things to hear is the phrase, "Your Spanish is really improving." I was so nervous to speak when I first arrived and was slow, but now I jump right in and try. Sure, maybe I say a few more wrong things now, but that is only because I'm actually speaking the language, not just holding off until I figure out which phrase is correct. I'm honestly really proud of myself and so excited with how far along I've come. Learning another language is not an easy feat, but it is one that is so rewarding.
This trip has required so much of me and has stretched me more than I ever thought I could go, but I know that when I arrive home I will be a different, better person, and I'm so thankful for the opportunity and for all of the moments of learning.