Baltimore native Ann Schlott Hillers spends the summer in Bali with her three young sons and, despite fears, embraces the underwater world of the Indonesian Sea.
When I was in my twenties and childless, I dreamed a lot about drowning. Not my own drowning, but that of my niece, Maggie, my older sister’s eldest daughter. First, she scaled a tall Victorian hotel whose roof was covered in ice. As she reached the peak, I scrambled up the roof only to arrive as she was sliding down the other side, falling a mile into a lake of ice below. I tried to grab her dress, but she was slippery and fast. And gone.
When she was ten, I dreamed Maggie was swept down the Baltimore County street where I grew up in a raging flash flood. As I tried to run through the water on Darnall Road, she washed into a storm drain, the same one my sisters and I played in when we were her age in the dream. I was too late and too big to go after her. And she was gone, again.
Though I am older now and the mother of three boys, I don’t dream about drowning. I don’t dream much about calamities befalling my children. But I flashed back to my niece sliding down and away into unforgiving, irretrievable waters when my family learned to scuba dive in Bali last summer.
We’re on the northeast coast of the island in a remote village called Amed. It has one main street that for now is blissfully free of traffic, but full of great beachfront fish shacks and loads of dive shops. We eat lunch at the same place twice, Warung Ole, mesmerized by a running video loop of a sport called Fusion Freediving (and in love with the shrimp curry). Free diving is exploring underwater while holding your breath, diving without scuba gear. We watch as men who look like eels sink down 100 meters, walk around like zombies on the bottom of the ocean—one guy wears a pair of jeans—then ascend after several minutes. It’s a strangely beautiful sport, but a guy died here just two months ago; dive masters had to find his drowned body and bring him home.
We skip the free diving and decide to get certified in scuba. Our beach bungalows are opposite a dive shop cum B&B nestled into a jungly setting on the hill across the street. The boys, ages 10, 12 and 14, are now old enough to qualify. Each morning we get iced coffees and little English cookies with our instruction, then walk to the beach for our dives. We enter from the shore, our tanks heavy on our back, wading into the Indonesian Sea with turquoise jukungs bobbing around us, waiting for their fishermen to take them out to sea.
One morning, the day is sunny but the water is choppy and dark. The waves curl over us a bit and we move to deeper water, our buoyancy vests tight around our chests, keeping us afloat. Our dive master, David, takes my husband and two older sons down to the bottom of the ocean. Somewhere below us they are waiting for me and Mason, my ten-year-old. It’s his third dive, his first in rough, troubled water. David resurfaces and tells me to wait while he goes down with Mason.
Mason has his right fingers on his nose, ready to equalize and his left hand high above his head letting air out of his vest. Slowly he starts to sink. The water starts to close over him; he’s heading straight down like a pencil through a shaft of green. His blond hair has turned white as flour this summer in Asia. The sun shines on his head for a few brief seconds and then the water slowly closes over him. It’s all I can see of him, that white hair floating up and rising above his head like a crown. There’s an opening where he was and then it’s like he never existed.
I wait for David to come up; it’s my turn to go down. And there they are, my whole family, lingering in the see-through water under the surface. Bo floats in the lotus position practicing his buoyancy, Redding is swimming around with a school of navy blue and yellow fish, David is clanking his tank with a metal rod to get Mason’s attention as he drifts over a brain coral and starts to rub it with his finger. Everyone is safe and calm and breathing like sea creatures through a black, rubber mouthpiece connected to their oxygen tank. It’s like the most ordinary thing in the world.
Writer Ann Schlott Hillers lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with her husband and three boys.