I was adjusting equipment when the dive master asked us to move for a second. A tiny woman, shorter than I, walked by us to the collection of scuba tanks under a tree.
She grabbed one, and hoisted it up. As easily as picking up a child, she lifted the tank to her head and balanced it lengthwise on a coiled towel resting on her grimy baseball cap. Gently swaying, she walked toward the water, the heavy tank an exotic hat.
Our first dive at Tulamben was on the USAT Liberty shipwreck a few yards offshore. To get there we needed to walk for about five minutes down the rocky beach and then swim out. To get their paying divers' equipment to the site, the scuba shops use an army of these porters—mostly women. As we labored to cross the rolling, fist-sized rocks in our wetsuit booties, I looked at our porters' feet. Battered, plastic pink flip-flops. What big, soft babies we tourists were, I thought as I struggled to put my tank on and walk to the water.
Dan was signed on this trip as a snorkeler, while I was refreshing my kinetic memory by going diving for the first time in four years. My father taught me to dive when I was only 8 years old, but I hadn't been in the water with gear on since Alaska in 2005. Worse yet, except for our week in Malaysia in September, I hadn't even gone swimming in years.
But once in the water while I waited for the other divers, a German couple on their first sea dive since their certification course, I started to relax.
I'd added a little too much weight to my weight belt, but soon I was able to focus on looking around me at the parrot fish swimming by in search of a handout and the silhouette of the wreck.
The USAT Liberty was a cargo ship that was torpedoed by Japanese in the Second World War, rescued, beached, and then shrugged off into the water by an erupting volcano in the 60s. Now, it's one of the most popular dive sites in Bali.
There wasn't any coral near the beach, just rocks, algae, grass and many schools of stripy yellow fish and parrot fish. There were plenty of divers too.
As we were suiting up, a group of ten or more were coming out of the water and, farther down the shore, another large group were following their porters. Under the water there were even more. I don't think I've ever seen this many divers in the water.
Dan was following me to take pictures with our underwater camera, but there were so many divers he got confused and focused on the fish instead.. Used to so many visitors, the fish mobbed him when he slipped the banana bread out of his sleeve.
They started out politely enough, nibbling at the brown crumbs, but then a school of foot-long brown and purple fish started to dart in and edge out the others. When about 50 of these bigger fish were surrounding him, Dan decided to ditch the last of the bread and escaped their scaly advances.
While Dan dodged the fish, the Germans, dive master and I followed the shore's slope down to a more interesting part of the wreck. At about 40 feet I started to see more than just fish and grass.
Big sea fans and antler-style coral growing off the wreck sheltered iridescent worms and spiny sea urchins. We watched a six- or seven-foot barracuda in his hidey hole under a broken beam, swam through the archway of a broken hatch (but not into the interior of the wreck) and saw a cyclone of jackfish performing for a pair of divers with some impressive photographic equipment.
The second dive was to the east of the wreck, on a shelf near the point. This dive had better sea life but not as interesting terrain. Dan didn't get much out of snorkeling on the second dive, but enjoyed the overland trip to the two sites.
It was an important festival that day, Diwali, so the roads were clogged by slow-moving religious processions and pilgrimages of people trying to get to the temples or to the feasts.
I felt sorry for our driver, who instead of enjoying the holiday was ferrying tourists around. The roads were so blocked on the way back that the driver decided to go the long way around, along the sheer, arid cliffs of the east side of the island. Here, there were no tourists in evidence, just the gates of the occasional secluded resort.
The villages we passed were stick huts and at every stream flowing to the sea we watched women and girls washing laundry or themselves.
It was a good day, a nice contrast to the shopping and eating lifestyle of Legian.
** Please click here to see photos from the dive!!**