Tidewater Traveler - February 2009

The Gift of Travel


George Sellers

   Nine-year-old Wyatt opened his birthday card and was immediately ready with the answer even before reading the perennial question penned inside the card: “Where would you like to go for your birthday trip this year?” Now before my readers jump to the conclusion that I spoil the grandkids with lavish trips, let me explain. The practice of giving children toys for birthdays and Christmas is not for me. When asked to name a toy that was received a year ago as a gift, I am willing to bet that not one in 100 children or teens can accurately recall what last year’s “oh-so-special-toy-of-the-year” had been. Now that I think of it, the same might be true for adults as well.
    So, instead of enriching the stockholders of Toys “R” Us and other similar purveyors of products for pipsqueaks, I prefer to make a present of an experience. An example of an experience gift would be a day trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, to walk on the railroad bridge and see the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or the confluence of the mighty Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Another experience trip would be a train ride to New York City to walk around and learn first-hand to define the opposite of ‘rural.’
    The experience gift is not always a travel experience; sometimes it is a cultural or an educational occurrence like a live concert; a NASCAR race; a Broadway show; a day at the National Aquarium; a hour’s flight in a small plane to have pizza for lunch at some dinky little airport; a horse show or deep sea fishing.
    I prefer to choose an activity that is not a part of the child’s regular family repertoire of experiences; for example, if the family already does some ocean fishing, it makes sense to me to select something different. If the family goes to the circus every time it is in town, then I like picking something other than a circus for the experience gift.
    Wyatt’s suggestion/request upon opening this year’s card was “I want to go SCUBA diving!” Hmmmm….. He doesn’t have a clue what he is asking for, I thought. His only experience with diving has been via TV and movies – the glamorous, no-risk view of the sport. Kids see a dive scene in a movie and think it is ‘neat’ but have no competent understanding of the risks involved and the training required to minimize those risks. But he got me thinking.
    Thinking and remembering...
    It was only ten feet of crystal clear water – the dive-well at the YMCA pool. My first thoughts – What if this breathing thing stops working? How can I get myself to go back up with this lead belt strapped around me? Will my ears hurt like this the whole time? What if I go up too fast – will my lungs explode? This water has closed in all around me – is this what it is like to be claustrophobic?
    I have to admit, that very first time while dwelling on the fallibility of mechanics and the potential for human error, I was a little panicky. I recall thinking, “I can’t do this.”
    And then I willed myself to calm down and began to recall some of what the instructor had presented during the many hours of classroom training and textbook work (My two sons took the class with me at the YMCA) that preceded entering the water.   Relax – try to breathe normally – relax – exhale into the tube of the vest just enough to make yourself begin to rise and become neutrally buoyant – like floating in space – relax – check the time to see how much longer I should stay down (I’ve only been down here for thirty seconds!) – relax – look around – relax – enjoy yourself.
    Good – so I made it through the training, passed the written test and qualified for a ‘check-dive’ to be done in some God-forsaken abandoned stone quarry in lovely south-central Pennsylvania. Cold water? The temperature of the water in that quarry must have been maintained by a secret underground aqueduct coming directly from polar ice cap melt. Dark? After instructions, my group descended to a platform about 30 feet beneath the surface. Who turned the lights off?
    I was supposed to use the compass on my wrist to guide me to the exit point. I did not see the compass, or my wrist, or anything else until I surfaced about 20 minutes later. It was so dark I could not determine whether I was going up or down, left or right. Amazingly, I made it, though my success had nothing to do with reading a compass. I think this ‘endurance test’ got me past any remaining fear of diving.
    And the result was worth the effort!
    The next family vacation, when my sons were about 12 and 16, took us to Margarita Island in the deep southern Caribbean, just off the north coast of Venezuela. At the resort the boys and I signed up for a SCUBA dive expedition – our first. It was to be an unforgettable experience of the type that would appear in the bucket list. (If you have not seen the movie The Bucket List you may not know that a bucket list is a list of things you would like to do before ‘kicking the bucket.’)
   “Sit on the rail of the boat; cross your arms; with your right hand hold your mask and mouthpiece against your face; hold your right wrist with your left hand and then. . . fall over backward into the water.” You’ve got to be kidding! Oh yes, I’ve seen Jacques Cousteau do this kind of entry dozens of times, but that was on TV. This is real life – didn’t practice this in the pool at the Y or at the quarry. My sons are watching – waiting – gotta do it! One, two, three . . . over I go – backward! Not sure how long it took for me to get myself re-oriented and figure out which way was up. We joined up, got our bearings, and then I noticed it! The world of underwater – it is incredibly beautiful. Until now I had not seen past the concrete walls of the pool – amazing – so, this is why people do this! The clarity of the water, the vibrant colors of the plant life and fish, the feeling of weightlessness, the quietness – like looking at the Grand Canyon and realizing that no photograph can ever capture the experience of seeing it in   person.
    So, maybe Wyatt’s next birthday gift will be SCUBA lessons to prepare him for the day when the opportunity presents itself for a dive trip. Maybe it’s just a quirk of mine but I think that will make a much better gift than a purple-and-green-striped-Beanie-Bob-Blaster with all the related accessories. But please don’t tell him. I want it to be a surprise.
    May all of your travels be happy and safe!

   George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.