Mafia Island at four am

The dining area is dark. Just a few recessed lights to help you make your way around. It’s open on all sides, allowing the very early morning breezes through. Because of those breezes, the bugs aren’t as bad as they usually are when I open my computer. Yesterday they plastered the screen, and in spite of my bug juice they danced a jig on my face as I struggled with local Internet. You deal. Sometimes, not with the Internet.

It often doesn’t work here. Mafia Island is an ancient place. As I’m writing, the power has just failed, and with it, the Internet. That happens often during the day. The only time that’s a real bother is if you’re trying to cool off from the brutal heat and the fan takes a leave of absence. In more ways than one, not cool. But this is island life. You and I are subject to the whims of being isolated from the mainland. That’s part of the beauty of the place.

It’s so easy to get lost in thought. There’s a lot to think about right now. And speaking of thinking, I can’t think of a better place to think than Mafia Island, a true hideaway gem, at 4 am, with the breezes coming in off the ocean, nobody around but a few flying foxes and elephant shrews.

The small islands that make up this tropical archipelago are rich with history. Not much is written. Some oral history has lent understanding, but there’s not much of it. There are some detailed German accounts but those are far more recent. Mafia’s history goes back many centuries. It lay at the crossroads of critically-important trade routes for many years. The small island of Chole still sports the ruins of both German and Portuguese presence here. Those ruins are interwoven with the roots of massive trees precisely the same way that Angkor Wat has been given over to the whims of the local forest, making the ancient structures a visual fairy tale. The structures in some cases are only standing because strangler figs have entwined themselves among the coral, bricks and ancient moorings of the buildings.

One of the best features of Mafia Island is the local diving. The reefs here are among the best in the world. And while there is little to no research to back up this claim, locals noted that after the reefs experienced coral bleaching on several occasions in recent years, they also recovered far more quickly than other coral, notably the Great Barrier Reef, which has for all practical purposes died off.

Lots to think about. Mafia is one of those magical places that time forgot, mostly, and which offer a particular kind of experience, if you’re willing to trade a touch of inconvenience for the joy of being remote. Part of that remoteness means that the diving here is superb.

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Three days ago I went for two dives, the first I’ve taken in seven years. Those were the first really challenging dives I’ve done since 2002 when I had a diving incident that nearly cost me my life. Part of the reason for being here was to answer the question of whether I want to continue this sport. As I have written elsewhere, I don’t wish to have fear be the only reason I choose not to engage in a sport.

The answer is that I still don’t know. I had issues with visibility, my buoyancy was very frustrating (didn’t used to be), the fins, even with booties, shaved the skin off my toes, the visibility here was not always very good due to unseasonable rains, my ears gave me terrible trouble (and two days later I still can’t hear very well out of either of them )it’s the tag end of whale shark season so there are none to see, and there was a ripe asshole on the diving boat who did a good job of souring a day that was difficult to begin with. I noticed that because I couldn’t see a damned thing, the entire dive was largely spent hanging out very close to the divemaster, struggling with my BCD to correct the fit, constantly fighting with the proper amount of air to allow me to float instead of fin the precious coral, and thinking WHEN IS THIS GOING TO BE OVER WITH?

That’s probably not a good indicator of fun. I honestly did not have fun. It was a struggle, but then I rather knew that was likely.

None of this is anyone’s fault. Any time you or I return to a sport we’ve not been doing for a very long time, guaranteed we’re going to feel like clumsy dolts. Okay, I’m a clumsy dolt anyway, but this was worse. This is clumsy dolt on top of clumsy dolt.

I’m not without humor.

It is simply exhausting to be constantly correcting a tank that slops over one side or the other, constantly trying to equalize your ears, constantly trying to correct buoyancy as one second you’re floating away like a birthday balloon (only to have yourself jerked back down by the fin as you try your best to release just enough air) and the next, putting your hands down onto coral you really do NOT want to touch for all the obvious reasons, but you have to brace yourself somewhere. Divers everywhere can relate.

Putting bare hands on coral means that you’re going to be dealing with minor issues with your hands later. That too. I brought itch cream, it worked.

Again, this is what it’s like to return to something after a very long hiatus, especially with new and different gear, and especially after an horrific accident. On top of that you’re in the water with other people. If you think like I do, you’re concerned that you don’t whack someone in the mask with a fin or for any reason cause the whole group to have to surface because of your own ineptitude.

I am well aware that group diving is by definition being mindful of and sensitive to the entire group, and that if someone is in distress we all rise. Still, these trips are pricey for all of us. My ego would have a hard time dealing with being the reason others had to cut their reef time short. That’s my problem, of course, but you see where I’m going with this.

Lots to think about at 4 am, the Milky Way a right riot of stars overhead, the last of the flying foxes flapping overhead. Fascinating creatures. Lots of reasons to like being on Mafia. Diving is only part of being here. I’m glad it’s not easy to get here. That’s one of the ways it will likely keep its charm.

I like being lost in thought. Lost in time.

I enjoyed parts of being underwater again. If nothing else, being able to face my inner Smaug and stay calm, go deeper, clear my ears. After the initial, and inevitable ,clumsiness of the first parts of both dives, each of which had its own gear issues and challenges, I was able to finally, finally, find a place to relax and enjoy. Still couldn’t see much. That’s more a function of being more far-sighted, which I’ve always been, but which age has increasingly affected. You can get prescription masks. Most of what I was dealing with were gear issues, all of which can be fixed.

It would be fair to say that I managed the dive, rather than particularly enjoyed it. That said, the owner here, Marco, who has been diving all his life, is that kind of uber-enthusiastic expert diver who believes that diving is a life imperative, and certainly worth pushing through these minor issues so that I can continue. I enjoy his joy even if I’m not sure I share it. He pointed out, and he’s right, that if I continue, my comfort level will return, along with my competence.

Those aren’t the issues.

As the stars wheel slowly overhead, the fat, waxy leaves rustle. During the day, the scruffy local squirrels toss down partial branches on your head while you’re eating- inside the dining area. They’re building a nest. We can’t find where, but the shower of leaves is proof-positive.

Lost in thought. In fifteen minutes I am off to go birdwatching. There’s a lot to do here, including nothing. Sometimes that is the greatest gift. I’ve climbed onto the big, expansive bed and snoozed a number of times, if for no other reason than for the pleasure of not having to do anything or be anywhere. There’s plenty of that when I get back to Denver, where a house sale and search for a new place are imminent.

I’m no longer scared of diving. Mission accomplished. That alone was worth being here.

But continue? The jury is out. As with all things, we’ll see. Meanwhile, I am going to enjoy exploring magical Mafia Island, a place of flying foxes, sweet breezes and ancient history.

Lost in time. Lost in thought. Perfect place to be both.

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash