By Naomi Baum
Winter is the ideal time of year to put on your fins and mask and head down south for a dive. Since traveling in the Sinai is tricky these days due to an unstable political situation, and the Great Barrier Reef is halfway around the world, we settled on a three-day diving safari in Aqaba, Jordan, which hosts some pretty terrific Red Sea diving.
Arriving at the border-crossing just a couple of kilometers north of Eilat, we parked our car in the empty lot and made our way to the passport-control building. As we approached, I could feel my stomach clench and my heart beat faster. We have done this before, yet each time I cross the border into a neighboring country that was once at war with us, I sense that we are leaving the safety of home and are crossing into the unknown.
In addition to a warily observed peace treaty and a border, we have much in common with our Jordanian neighbors to the east. We share scenery, climate, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea, to name just a few. When it snows in Jerusalem, it snows in Amman as well. However, Jordan is far removed from the Israeli consciousness in day-to-day matters, and Jordanians remain a mystery. The cold peace we partake in has endured for decades, and while Jordanians don’t feel like “the enemy,” I am not entirely sure they are friends.
By 9:30, we are drinking instant coffee at the dive club, located in Tala Bay, just south of the city and across the narrow bay from Eilat. We struggle into our black wetsuits and are outfitted with first-rate equipment, briefed, and ready for our first dive. The sky is deep azure, with not a cloud to be seen, but the brisk winds feel cool—downright cold, actually.
As I slowly enter the water, weighted down by my full tank and 11-kg weight belt, my heart is hammering. Is it the exertion or the anticipation? I spit into my mask to prevent fogging, then rinse it before placing it over my head. The instructor, Taher, a compact, wiry man of about 40, gives us the thumbs-down signal to descend, and within seconds, the splendor of the underwater world unfolds in front of us. I clasp my hands in front of my body (you don’t swim with your arms when diving) and stretch out my yellow-flippered feet to start a slow, relaxing flutter kick.
Diving is at once familiar and exciting. In my rational brain, I know that there is an entire universe just below the sparkling surface of the water. Yet each time I descend with a tank on my back and become part of the world below, it is as refreshingly surprising as the first dive. We slowly circle the soft beige corals that undulate in the currents, watching the tiny bright blue fish with spots of yellow swim around looking for tasty morsels. We spot an enormous green sea turtle close by, at least a meter and a half long, lumbering along open-mouthed, waiting for a delectable feast that is unwittingly swimming its way.
Our slow circuit continues along the reef, allowing a close-up look at the coral abundance, shades of pink, blue, purple, beige, green. Like snowflakes, I think—alike but each one unique. We eagerly seek out the more unusual varieties of fish, spotting the gloriously colored clownfish proudly displaying their fluorescent blues and oranges and the patrician zebrafish, sporting black and white stripes and a splash of yellow for contrast. We are careful to give wide berth to the lionfish, stonefish, and sea porcupines, so as not to arouse their poisonous venom. A large pink coral is home to at least 15 full-sized lionfish peeking menacingly out of the crevices.
The slight danger merely heightens the experience—similar, I think to myself later in the day, to our walk through the streets of Aqaba. As Israelis, we usually need to take an airplane in order to arrive in “chutz la’aretz,” that place that engenders feeling of being far from home. Here I am a mere three-hour drive from home, yet the sensation of being abroad is palpable. The language is familiar and the smells recognizable as we walk through the market in a matter-of-fact sort of way, belying the strange feeling of being in this country that is so close, yet so far away.
As we return to the sea the next day and rediscover an entire universe below the surface, I am struck by how we live in parallel worlds most of our lives, focused on ourselves and little else. In my daily routine, I rarely think about Jordan or about the universe waiting right under the surface of the sea. My family, my career, my health, and various and sundry details like How much milk is in the fridge? and Did anybody fold the laundry? occupy my thoughts. Travel, and slow travel in particular, allows that delicious peek into these parallel universes, blowing wide open the opportunity to learn about others and, perhaps more importantly, look at our own lives from a distance.
In contrast to that heightened sense of perspective, while diving, each of us is ensconced in a mask, breathing through a regulator, disconnected from the world. Underwater, my focus narrows to the screen of my mask and the dial connected to my oxygen tank. The only way to communicate is by sign, and every few minutes the guide signs the OK sign, questioningly, as we pick up our hands in response, forming the O with thumb and forefinger. Aside from these periodic breaks, I am alone with my breath, hearing each inhalation whoosh through the regulator, and each exhalation bubble out into the deep blue.
I am present—deeply and fully present. My eyes scan the watery scenery, marveling at the greatness of G‑d and His world, the colors, the shapes, the flora and fauna in all their glory. The more slowly I move, the more I can see, appreciate, and marvel. Under water, all sense of getting somewhere and accomplishing something disappear. I simply am. This is slow travel at its best. v
Dr. Naomi L. Baum, an inveterate scuba diver and slow traveler, enjoys taking in the sights and writing about them. Her slow-travel blog can be found at slowtravelsblog.wordpress.com.