Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Fear is a messenger if you’re willing to listen

It was an overcast day out of season and we were done with the volcano stop. We’d viewed Mount Agung from the safety of a village close by and were ready for something else.

‘You want to go closer?’ our driver Gede offered. ‘I know a friend who can take you…’ He trailed off at our energetic head shaking. ‘No thanks.’ Not keen to die today.

We were on a day trip around Ubud and had already taken in the rice terraces and a few temples. But Bali is small and it was only midday so we headed to the coast. By the time we reached the beach, it’d started raining. ‘Snorkel?’ Gede suggested.

I might as well have climbed up that volcano and thrown myself into it. Putting my head under water was not a vibe for me. But we were here to adventure so adventure I must.

While my partner took to the water like the Little Mermaid and headed out to the wreck off the reef, I stood knee-deep and alone in the small, flat bay, goggles on and snorkel in, staring at the crystalline surface like it might reach up and bite me in the face. It took every ounce of courage to dip my head under water and into the terror: the world tipped upside down and inside out, everything moving, every life form invisible from the surface shockingly alive. I was in a foreign landscape, alien and absurd.

Reader, I panicked. I started hyperventilating so hard I sounded like Darth Vader on a treadmill. For a few more minutes, I crouch-walked, thrusting my face below the surface while I spluttered through mouth-breathing until, quite suddenly, a more horrifying scene emerged: the edge of the reef and the abyss of the blue beyond. It was enough. I scrambled back for the safety of dry land and my life.

I was in a foreign landscape, alien and absurd.

Looking back, I don’t begrudge the fear that insinuated itself on what could’ve been an amazing experience. I didn’t yet understand what it was trying to tell me, the real value that it held. At that stage, I’d bought into the fashionable philosophy that fear was nothing but an illusion, a cheap trick of the mind to keep us small and limited.

But I don’t think anyone born in South Africa can hold that philosophy for long. In this country, we’re very close to the elemental forces of nature, both human and environmental. Our oceans are wild, our sun hard, our history cruel, our cities violent. It’s taught me the value of fear and fear is a many-faced god.

It howls, but it’s also caretaker, keeping us close to shore, our water bottles filled, our eyes and ears open. It screams, but it’s also the creative force that taught us farming for fear of famine, built shelter for fear of hungry creatures at night, created communities for fear of isolation and weakness. It moans, but it’s also the prime mover of conscious awakening.

When fear starts exaggerating itself, starts twisting in on itself, demanding disproportionate responses and producing an allergic reaction to life and its people, it’s wailing for attention: ‘Look here!’ it cries. ‘Listen to me! Here is a problem, here is something you need to attend to. Here is something that needs changing. Here is where you must go to grow.’

It can take years to acknowledge that voice, and then frightening, monstrous even, to listen to its message, to go where it shows you its wound, and then to heal it so that you can open your eyes to a new world.

It took me more than a decade to understand that I wasn’t afraid of putting my head under water, I was afraid of losing control, afraid of trusting a body I had no faith in. It’s a small analogy, but apt, I think.

I’m snorkelling now, this time in wilder and colder waters than the lukewarm splash I took in Bali. My breath still catches on the first dip, but its steady now, and strong. I’ll still not visit a volcano but that’s a fear I’m willing to live with.

The image is from my first snorkelling trip with Yvette from WildBlueVetty and this was a column for the March issue of Woman&Home.