I'm 30 years old, and by society's standards, I'm an adult. I pay my own bills, I have a Masters degree, I lived with a boy. But put me in a large body of water, and I regress to a toddler being thrown in a sink-or-swim lesson: flailing arms, panicking cries, and jolts of terror. But this water phobia never stopped me from traveling and signing up for water-related activities like swimming with the dolphins or canyoning (which at one point, I had to jump from a cliff into a dark body of water; everyone stood nervously waiting on the other side after they heard the thud of my belly flop, fearing the worst). I even lived by the beach for a year, but never went into the ocean until my last week there, mother and sister by my side, jumping waves like I was a carefree kid.
Last year for spring break, my friend Jenny and I went to Costa Rica. We ended in Tamarindo, a beach town known for its surfer-friendly waves, where we signed up for a horseback riding-snorkeling trip.
After the scenic horse ride, we got to the beach and everyone excitedly put on their flopping flippers and damp masks. I took my equipment with me like I was going to use it, but I knew I would just be standing at the shore with my feet enjoying the tepid water.
After a while, an older woman with cropped brown hair came out of the water. "Hello."
"Hi," I said back, waving my free hand while the other held the heavy, wet flippers.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"It really is!" I said. I meant it. The sand was soft and white, the ocean was a translucent turquoise.
"The colors of the fish are incredible!"
"Mmm!" I nodded.
"Did you get to see any?"
"No, not yet."
"Well you have to go out to the rock, over there." She pointed to a land mass within sight, but all I saw were the tumbling waves in between us and that rock.
"I think I'm good here," I said.
She must have sensed my trepidation since she walked me through how to put on the snorkel gear, how to swim with it, and what to expect while I was out there. She was so passionate, kind, and patient that I felt safe enough to go with her. She took my hand and before I knew it, I was swimming in the Pacific Ocean, face down, witnessing one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever experienced. This world was unbelievable: secret, foreign, special.
She was right. The colors of the fish were incredible--brilliant oranges, yellows and reds. I was so much in awe that I barely noticed some of the squirmy bodies fluttering past me. It was strangely peaceful.
We swam back to the shore, hand in hand, my heart thudding with adrenaline and pride. I saw Jenny wading in the ocean.
"Did you see those fish?" she asked.
"Oh my God, they were so beautiful!" I said.
The ocean didn't have any souvenirs, any local dish, any bustling city drivers. It was just me, present and aware, experiencing this unbelievable ocean as I never had before.
And it all started with a stranger's hello.