This trip was overall a lot closer to the "vacations" I used to take: early mornings, packed schedule, a gradual buildup of exhaustion until the relief of your hard-earned rest day, and coming back your eyeballs brimming with new sights and beautiful pictures. I'm so happy I found a way to do all that again.
The dive trip was a little bit of a risk: I wasn't loving pool SCUBA and I had no chance to try the ocean before we left. I also couldn't find a "handicap" diving instructor on Hawaii. So I passed the able-bodied, unmodified version of the certification's first part -- the pool sessions. Then we flew to Hawaii and in person, on our first day on the island, I finally convinced a dive company to teach me (I was armed with the standard referral letter, but telling people I was in a wheelchair over the phone still didn't go well.) Finally! Now all I had left was to pass the open water portion of the certification and learn to like it. My first two dives were the next day. I wasn't prepared for how much the boat was rocking. Sitting on the edge of the rear platform, finally ready to roll in, I stared at the moving water and fought with the tank strapped to my back. I must have hesitated for only a few seconds.. but it felt like quite a while. Then I bit into the regulator and rolled.
My first dives went ok. I quickly learned how to check that the system was perfect before I hit the water, because adjusting anything after was too hard. For four dives I had to demonstrate the required skills to my instructor. Taking off my mask and putting it on again under forty feet of water was my least favorite. I also had to struggle quite a bit to show that I could towe Ben, my dive buddy, back to the boat in a fake "tired/hurt diver" scenario. Since I was using my arms to swim, grabbing him in the choppy water and swimming on the surface for any length with one arm was... an interesting challenge. But I did it! And I'm proud of myself both for trying (in the face of skeptical dive shops) and for succeeding. After I got my certification we did one more day of diving and then took a rest day. On that last day I finally got to experience the water outside my worries of tests and skills.. and it felt great. I was exhausted... on the last dive I couldn't even help haul myself out of water.
On our rest day we drove around Big Island looking for and finding natural beauty. (The southern tip! Green Sand Beach!) We also visited some farmer's markets and coffee shops/plantations. (I love the coffee grown there!) The highlight was the Tropical Botanical Garden. I got a solid walk -- despite protesting arms -- through its winding paths. The new and fantastical shapes to the flowers and trees were really fun for me. I love immersing in a completely novel landscape.
Then it was back to the water. I was eager to get to it -- a day of doing the tourist thing is usually enough for me. Our next three days of SCUBA went really well. I started feeling comfortable enough that the equipment and the technical aspects receded into the background and I could focus on the fish and the blue world I was finally able to explore. It felt so freeing: to wander, to follow strange creatures (in addition to the rainbow of fish, we saw turtles, manta rays, and even two sharks!), to get lost exploring. I haven't felt like that... like myself... since the accident. I didn't have to worry about stairs and curb cuts and the extent or perfection of the upcoming stretch of pavement. I just went where I wanted. SCUBA is my chance to exit a world that no longer feels built for me. Maybe I'm still in that painful adjustment period, but I'm so sensitive to those constant little differences on land. And to how wheelchairs are perceived. But there's no stigma attached to swimming with your arms. So underwater feels freeing. A blank slate. A level blue playing field.
I don't move like the other divers. But that doesn't matter. Under water, like on land, I mostly use my arms to get around. And while on land this causes me a lot of angst, it was unnoticeable while diving. To me this helps to narrow down the cause: it's not that I mind so much looking different, it's the difference in access. And the difference in other's perception. It is hard to convey how my interaction with strangers has changed. But that... that and all the new invisible fences is what I keep wanting to escape.
This diving trip ended with a manta ray night dive. We were armed with flashlights and taught how to aim them so that plankton builds up over head... and so the manta rays don't bowl you over. The plankton attracts these alien beings and we swim with them. Their slow largeness was really fantastic to watch. They can weight up to a ton! Check out the video.
Then it was time for another rest (and decompression) day before flying out. We visited Volcanoes National Park (I walked through more jungle) and then drove to the top of Mauna Kea (dormant volcano ~14K feet above sea level) to see the observatories, watch the sunset, and catch the views. Seeing the snow after all the days of sun and sand and water was jarring. After sunset we went to a sky party (the name for when lots of telescopes are out for everyone to use) and got some of the best star gazing I've ever experienced. Watching nebulae and the molten ball of Venus from a telescope the size of a microwave at the top of Big Island was an experience I won't forget.