Sucker Phenomena: Indo Snorkeling Edition
An American with sun-streaked hair and a nose ring warned me about Indonesia’s scuba diving guides.
“They can’t afford real training so they don’t have the same safety standards,” she explained in the over-assured voice common among her brand of oh-so-principled recent grads. “And you can’t really trust their equipment.”
My husband Gregg and I had just arrived in Indonesia for our honeymoon and were on the boat heading out for the first of a dozen dives. I was relatively new to scuba diving, and so the warning resonated, especially because I had seen similar comments on scuba diving websites.
For our ten days of diving, we had selected three resorts — two high-end spots with a cheaper one sandwiched in the middle to offset costs. The budget resort was a two-hour drive from the main airport through a small town lined with fruit trees and flowering cacti. The houses were expectedly modest, painted in cheerful colors that seemed to mimic the vegetation: vibrant coral, pale yellow, sea green. From the village, we hiked two kilometers to an isolated stretch of beach dotted with bungalows.
The foreign owner had prepared my husband for the resort’s rustic environs via e-mail. There was no air-conditioner, electricity, or even a shower: “I’m telling you in order not to let this become a honeymoon horror for your wife,” she wrote.
Showers aside, I was more concerned about whether there would be a reputable dive shop. It was looking doubtful as the “resort” included less than a dozen huts, scores of wayward chickens — clearly not on their honeymoons — and miles of jungle. On the second day, I followed a sandy path past hibiscus bushes and palm trees, their tops heavy with ripe coconuts. In a small, sky-blue painted shed sat Pra, our Indonesian diving guide.
Pra was in his early 50′s with deep brown skin and a sloped posture that only served to accentuate his bulging belly. He moved as if he were treading in slow motion through the thick tropical air. Together, we tried out regulators, the mouthpiece used for underwater breathing. One by one, all three of them failed. The fourth worked, catapulting a puff of dried leaves and stale air into my mouth.
Pra responded to my alarmed glance with a shrug of his shoulders and a half-smile.
“I don’t know about this dive shop,” I told Gregg as I packed our masks and fins, the two pieces of scuba equipment we had brought from home.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We can handle this on our own — even if the guide is awful. We know how to do the safety stuff, right?”
Once in the water, fear morphed into exuberance. Pra was the most spectacular guide we had encountered, and we had his full attention as the only divers on that day’s excursion. As a local who grew up on the island, Pra seemed to know every underwater crevice, and each sea creature that called it home. We lingered around a pale white rock that suddenly twitched to life, revealing the craggy face of a frogfish. Pra would lean close and point to the dime-shaped nudibranch, a seagoing slug decked out in its shiny blue and yellow striped suit.
The “no-touch” rule didn’t seem to apply as he poked and prodded at a sea anemone, sending its occupant clownfish swirling in rippled reverberations. He’d seize a puffer fish, squeezing just lightly enough for it to balloon in defense.
As we relaxed on the boat afterward, my new-found admiration for Pra swelled. I chided myself (bad Westerner!) for judging him so harshly just because he wasn’t as uptight as the international dive masters. It made sense that a local who had dove on the island for years would know more than some know-it-all American surfer gal.
Pra seemed to notice the subtle shift from hesitation to admiration, and began to talk more freely. As we powered back to the mainland, he told tales of the live-aboard scuba boat where he had worked for six years.
“Was it hard to be away from your wife?” I asked.
“I had a girlfriend, or maybe a few girlfriends –my wife didn’t know,” he said. “But when I returned, we had a kid so I say no more girlfriends for me.”
When the admirable topic of adultery dried up, we relaxed, leaning back on the deck as the sun danced on the clear, turquoise waters. As the boat neared the shore, Gregg and I packed up our fins and masks.
“Where’s my mask?” I asked, searching the boat’s empty cabin.
The two of us combed the area while Pra and the two Indonesian boat hands idly watched, their gazes out to the sea. They had been so eager to help before — with everything from loading equipment to offering tea — that their disinterest was unsettling. I felt as if we were inconveniencing them as we stumbled across the bobbing boat floor.
After a few minutes of searching, though, it was clear: the mask wasn’t there.
“It probably drifted away as you were treading water, waiting to get on the boat,” Pra said. “We can go back to the spot and search for it, but it probably won’t be there.”
As we wandered back to the bungalow, the high of the dive dissipated. The mask cost $100, but it had sentimental value. The first time I had tried diving, I got stuck on the mask-clearing drill, the one where you have to expunge water from a half-filled mask while 20 feet underwater. My mask wouldn’t clear, which sent water up my nose. Coughing, chocking, and overall panic ensued as the instructor held me underwater until I could fix it.
Upon resurfacing, I had planned to forego diving completely, but an uncle encouraged me to keep at it. He took me to his favorite diving store, where an employee outfitted me with the most leak-proof mask they had, or at least that’s what my uncle had them assure me of.
I ended up getting re-certified, mastering the clearing drill, and regaining confidence. Still, I had always felt safer with that mask. How could I have been so stupid as to drop it in the ocean? And now, with days of diving ahead, I’d probably have to rent an old, leaky one. The old fear was threatening to resurface.
“It’s kinda weird that I lost it,” I said, reviewing the timeline in my head. “I mean, I always hand up all the equipment before getting on board.”
“I think it’s a bit strange, too,” Gregg said. “We swam by the side for awhile after, right? Wouldn’t we have seen it there even if you had dropped it?”
We walked in silence, dodging the piles of brittle, dead coral that littered the exoticized beach.
“It was funny how they didn’t really help us look,” I said. “They were so helpful with everything else.”
“I know,” Gregg said. “That’s why I tried to look in their stuff — in case they had hidden it.”
The possibility of theft had lurked at the edge of my thoughts but hadn’t yet surfaced. Now that it was out in the open, the idea surged to life. The mask was manufactured by a top dive brand and still new. They could use it as a rental, bringing in $15 a day! If I had let the mask fall, it would have floated long enough for us to see it. Besides, wasn’t Pra a bit shady with all his talk of cheating on his lucky wife?
It was an accusation that likely wouldn’t have arisen if we’d been scuba diving in, say, Hawaii. But there was more going on here than naïve stereotyping.
There’s something that can happen to you when you’re living or traveling abroad for too long, especially in a developing country. We call it the Sucker Phenomena. The first time I got a glimpse of it was when my American friend, then an expat in Peru, would haggle incessantly for the equivalent of ten cents off her cab ride. What’s wrong with her, I’d wonder. Why doesn’t she chill out and get over the ten cents?
But now that we had been living in China — and traveling in Asia — for more than a year, I have started to understand that it isn’t about the ten cents, or the scuba mask. There’s just something so frustrating about always feeling like a sucker, from the double-priced fruit at local markets to taxi drivers fixing the meter to add a few extra renminbi. I even unknowingly paid double the local price for my gym membership, as my Chinese neighbor informed me with glee.
It makes you a little crazy, paranoid even. You want to fight back, prove that you’re not a fool, even if you end up hurting yourself (or ruining a perfectly good beach day) in the process. The idea that we just got duped out of a mask triggered the sucker button. There was no going back.
And so, we quickly came up with a Master Plan. I’d walk over to Pra and the guys, now eating lunch, and tell them I was sure the mask must still be on the boat. I’d explain our logic, without directly accusing them, but with enough conviction that they could read between the lines. If they were indeed innocent, they’d probably just blame it on my pre-dive neuroses. Then, we’d disappear to our bungalow, giving them enough time to place the mask back on the boat and avoid embarrassment.
Once onboard, we combed the seats again to no avail. In broken English, the boat hand explained that he had seen me with the mask around my head, instead of around my neck where it should have been. It probably fell off and quickly sunk, he said, motioning below the water to convey what his English couldn’t. Hmm.
Unconvinced, we returned to the dive shop which was empty at the lunch hour. We poked around, and quickly saw a mask — my blue-and-white mask — on the top of a bin of equipment.
“I can’t believe they’d just let it sit there,” I said, grabbing it quickly. We were going to win this one, after all, I thought with satisfaction.
“Is it yours? For sure?” Gregg asked. “Where’s the snorkel?”
We decided they had probably discarded the snorkel since it was of no use for scuba rentals. I put it on my head and it fit almost perfectly, perhaps a tad tight, but I always liked the masks snug.
I lifted the mask to my face and pressed my nose to the inside cavity. Unlike Gregg’s, it didn’t have a lingering baby wash scent from the clearing agent we had used. But that could be explained by a simple rinsing. It did still have water clinging to the edges. Mask in hand, I left the shop and returned to our bungalow.
“We need to tell the owner about this,” Gregg said in support of my now slightly crazed quest. “We shouldn’t have to pay for the dive.”
For a second, our determination not to be chumps faded to the background, and I saw this for what it really was: a battle over a piece of plastic. Clarity washed over me. Pra’s future hardly rested in the hands of two self-assured honeymooners. And even if he had stolen it, was it really worth all of this anxiety for a replaceable scuba mask?
Moments later, I told the lanky boat hand about the now-recovered mask as he walked by our front porch. He paused in confusion, then broke into a smile. Within minutes, word had spread and Pra appeared at our door.
“That’s not your mask,” he said, his calm demeanor starting to erode. “That belongs to a group of Dutch divers who will use it tomorrow. You need to give it back.”
“But it’s exactly the same,” I persisted. “How do you know it’s not mine from the boat? Why don’t we ask the Dutch divers to make sure they can identify it?”
“It’s not yours,” Pra said, increasingly exasperated as our conversation continued past the threshold of politeness. “Yours probably sunk. Yours was newer than this one, anyway.”
I gave it to him, reluctantly. How did he know how new mine was? Who pays attention to that unless you’re interested in stealing it?
I was back on his trail. But without any concrete evidence, we were at a stalemate. And, so, the next day, we tried to forget about the mask and move on with the vacation, substituting scuba for snorkeling off the shore. If Pra truly had been innocent, we were wasting time that we could have been spent discovering the rarer creatures that lurk in the cooler depths.
Even worse, it made me uneasy to accuse someone of theft (adultery, well, that’s his problem), even if we never said it directly. The uncertainty was unsettling, and I worried that we were letting past experiences obscure the present. The line between savvy traveler and overly suspicious, fixated freak was blurring, and I had a feeling we may have crossed it. It was time to retreat.
As we were lounging in the bungalow later that afternoon, Pra knocked on the door. He called Gregg’s name loudly, pointedly, making it clear he wanted to talk to only him.
“Here,” he said, flatly, handing Gregg a mask, my mask. “I went back to the same spot today and searched for it. It was on the ocean floor this whole time, in the same spot where we anchored yesterday.”
“Wow, thanks,” Gregg said.
Pra turned without waiting for a response and walked away. We sat in silence.
I picked up the mask and its corresponding indigo-colored snorkel, turning it over in my hands. Then, I brought it to my nose, taking in the sweet perfume of baby wash, and blushed.
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