Tuesday, November 24, 2020

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!'

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Many of you are familiar with Paavima.org’s project as covered here on DeeperBlue.net, where an enterprising and diverse group of divers, dive instructors and volunteers periodically invade the small village of Madiha on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Our primary goal being to foster local employment opportunities and environmental awareness through the operation of a non-profit diving training and eco-tourism operation. This isn’t your typical bloated N.G.O, it is a tiny operation, originally funded by MailMan China/SriLanka where everyone is a worker bee and a manager, and we are all responsible for the survival of the project and to those who enlist our help. My name is Philip Mucci and I am one of those happy bees, as well as one of the founders of the project. Today I bring you the story of one of Paavima’s greatest triumphs, the certification of Indika Gunawardena as a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor, one of just a handful of Sri Lankan scuba instructors in Sri Lanka today.

First a little background on Indika. Having grown up managing his father’s guest house, The Beach Inns, Indika has commanded a working knowledge of English and an excellent knack for lateral thinking, problem solving as well as a cross cultural sensibility. Indika graduated from high school, passed his exams and has worked on and off at his Dad’s hotel ever since, making friends from around the world. Indika has served as a consultant, advisor, translator and cultural liaison for Paavima from day one. Of course, Indika also spent countless hours making sure that these strange visitors didn’t violate too many cultural norms. And violate we did, whether it was doing too much on Poya day (full-moon), not having our boats blessed, or having our girlfriends parade around in bikini’s, he was always there to keep us straight and inform the rest of the village, that hey, these dumb foreigners just didn’t know any better.

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!' 1

Indika in front of Paavima’s ‘Dive Shack’ in Madiha, Sri Lanka

Last year, Indika finished his Assistant Instructor PADI certification and since that time, Paavima.org has been hard at work raising money to fund his Instructor Development Course (IDC) and Instructor Examination (IE) that we scheduled for September in Phuket, Thailand with Bjorn Täckmann (www.idc-phuket.com). Due to the language barrier, someone needed to go with Indika to the IDC and to help him out when necessary. I could not bear to miss this chance to skip out on work and fly to Thailand with Indika, especially considering that it was his first ever plane ride, his first trip out of the country. Our destination was, Kata Beach, Phuket, about 10 minutes from Patong, the Thai equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course, I wanted to go for my own instructor certification as well. So we arrived at the Dive Asia center (www.dive-asia.com) about 3 days prior to the IDC and began our pre-study sessions, which involved some skill reviews in the pool and taking a few practice Theory exams.

A quick note for those non-divemasters/instructors out there about the exams. The I.E. exams come in 2 parts, the first of which is broken up into 6 sections, Physics, Skills & Environment, Dive Planning, Equipment and Physiology. There are 12 questions in each section, no more than three can be missed in each. The second part is a standards test, where the candidate must find answers to lengthy questions about PADI standards in various parts of the PADI Instructors Manual, a tome that makes Crime and Punishment look like light reading. Now, keep in mind that not one line of PADI course material comes in Sinhalese, one of the two dominant languages in Sri Lanka. If you’re a geek like me, you like saying things like “decreased partial pressure causes supersaturation” and “mediastinal emphysema is a very serious barotrauma”. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t have many dates in high school. Nevertheless, to one who’s fluent in English, such phrases can be solved with Google or god forbid, the dictionary. But for a non-English speaker, with little formal training beyond tourists, the task is utterly Herculean, even if you do know how to order a beer in 20 languages.

So, after the first day of exams, the results came back and they were not good. Steve, the Master Instructor who was assisting Bjorn pulled me aside with a worried look and showed me the exam. Honestly, it looked like a highlighter had exploded on the page: the tally? 49%. “Yikes”, I thought to myself. My results were fine, little brush up here and there, but not much to worry about, and so our journey began. Indika is a close friend of mine and he trusts me implicitly. However, he looked very worried when he saw his test results. I could see everything in his eyes, expectations of his family, his friends, 10 of us Paavimates, a dozen or so donors around the world and then the 100’s if not 1000’s of Sri Lankan’s he was destined to train and help with his work through Paavima.org. The only thing I could do was reassure him to trust me and that we were going to get through this together, one step at a time. I told him one of my favorite sayings, “How do you eat an elephant? The same way you eat everything else, one bite at a time.” This always gets a bit of a laugh since elephants are so respected and revered. BTW, Please don’t go making this joke around people or in countries, you are not intimately familiar with.

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!' 2

Bjorn Täckmann doing what he does best, training instructors for the PADI Instructor

You might be asking yourself, how can this happen, when he was a certified Divemaster and Assistant Instructor? The answer is simple. Many of us, as professional divers, perform ‘spot learning’ when it comes to the Theory material required for the Divemaster course. Most ‘normal’ divers, never use this knowledge and thus when the exam is over, it’s gone faster than the memories of a rough night out drinking (before cell phones had cameras anyways.) That , combined with the fact that much of Indika’s exams were done orally, means that very little of the material had sunk in, probably no different than you other divemasters out there reading this article. Regarding the I.E, the overwhelming majority of candidates who fail, do so during the test portion not in the water.

How was Indika in the water? Steve, Phill, Bjorn and Nikki all commented immediately on how comfortable Indika was in the water and how good his skills were. So, my job was to tutor him on the classroom material. And so we began, in the mornings from 7 to 9, and after dinner from 7 until, very frequently 2 or 3 in the morning. After 3 days, we took another exam. His result, 89%! I couldn’t believe it. I’m not that good of a teacher. But so it was, and we began to relax a bit, which was a mistake. The issue? The practice exams vary tremendously in difficulty. These exams were easy and when the next set came in a few days later, the results were very similar to the first. Our strategy was simple, work through every missed problem. When an area indicated significant difficulty, we would stop and do an extensive review of the topic, each of which needed to be followed by a verbal confirmation that it was understood. At this point, we were 1/3 through the IDC, we were stressed out, out of sleep and no one was having much fun. Then we hit another bump, the study habits instilled by the Sri Lankan school system. The problem? There were none. Indika was not taking notes and thus doing the problems in his head! I emphasized the importance of writing everything down, notes, problems everything. Now halfway to the I.E, we had another exam to take and we were both exhausted. We had to stop our all-night study sessions and needed to get some serious sleep. My own test scores had been slipping since the first day due to exhaustion and stress. The next day, we did better, down to 2 out of 5 sections that we needed to pass. Physics was killing him. Strangely, all the laws made sense to him. Indika knew what happened to gases and liquids when various parameters where changed, temperature, pressure, etc. But when moving on to the advanced tests, the numbers we were dealing with were no longer even divisors of he other and thus basic algebra was needed. The bomb was dropped. Indika had learned little basic algebra years ago, and no math competency was required to pass his high school exit exam. Ugh. So after swearing never to enroll my kid in that school, I set out to teach the basic principles of interval arithmetic, variable substitution and algebraic reduction. Even the word ‘variable’ was a hurdle. Imagine trying to teach someone about what a ‘variable’ is, that it can have any name, any number of letters, often implicitly has a multiplication factor in front of it and that there may be more than one in an equation. Are you frightened yet? I was and wishing terribly that I knew the Thai word for Valium. Another tricky one: The concept of negative numbers. -1 + 1 = 0 could never be more difficult. And the rules of reduction; remember how easy it was to ‘multiply both sides by a constant factor’? So, in addition to dive planning, we worked algebra every day. Indika never broke, his attitude never failed. I asked him to trust and believe and he did. He was up before me every day and asleep after me every day. And no matter how tired he was, he never said “I can’t do this”. Many of the other students gave us strange looks when I’d ask Indika over breakfast what -3 plus 1 was.

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!' 3

Steve Spruce, Master Instructor and Phill Rogers, IDC-Staff Candidate talking over the performance of the group.

The rest of the course was going reasonably well. Indika performed well in the water, especially during the problem solving scenarios. The only other challenge was the teaching presentations, which needed to be in a defined format. He wasn’t the only one having difficulty with that, as others in the class also wrestled with changing their focus from the notes to the class to the white board and back. But his smile and enthusiasm just blew everyone away. No matter what he did, he was having fun when we has in front of people. So, with just a few days to go, the next hurdle came up, a practice standards exam. Indika came to me the next day and said it had taken him 2 hours to get the answers to 3 questions. As we both had electronic versions of the Instructor Manual, this one came down to a bit of computer tutoring and the wonders of the search button. But the language barrier was still killing him. Even with the search button, it takes a fluent speaker to absorb the context of the results to see if the match is appropriate. But we continued to work with it. Bjorn, the course director, spent an extra amount of time going through each of the standards sections in the manual, in an effort to make us all more familiar with the material.

At this point, we were at the end of our IDC. The exam was around the corner and we had one more practice exam, both Theory and Standards. On the Theory test, Indika was close to passing but not yet over the hump. On the standards test, he was beaten up pretty badly with a 60%. The course director suggested we reschedule our EFR training (Emergency First Response) to another day so we’d have another 18 hours to study. And so we did. Again, working through every question of that 3-hour test over the next 18 hours. Indika was looking worried still. And, unbenounced to him, I had started emailing the rest of Paavima to prepare him for what was the inevitable. Indika would fail this test and I had failed him as a tutor and we needed to have a backup plan. Bjorn had spoken repeatedly about the big party that was happening after the I.E. and all I could think of was being at that party without Indika. I gathered my thoughts and said to him, “You are doing the best you can, that is all anyone can ask. Tomorrow, go into the exam and do exactly as you’ve been doing. There is another I.E. in a week if things don’t go our way. This is not an all-or-nothing affair my friend, this is just you doing the best you can. We will get through this together.” Now, when you give such a speech to a 24 year old, you don’t really expect them to listen. But Indika did, he looked visibly relieved and we set out on a marathon study session that mandated 6 hours of studying, 6 hours of sleep followed by 6 more hours of studying before the exam the next day. Upon review, I was given new hope! 75% of the questions Indika missed, he did so because he did not understand the question! This was good news, as we were allowed to ask as many questions of the examiners as needed to make the question clear. Upon review of his score with the questions that he could have gotten correct, he just might pass. I told all my friends that night to pray to their god of choice for a little help. We were going to need it.

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!' 4

The IDC gang, from the left, Tyler (US), Luke (Can), Phill Rogers (UK), Lais (Brazil), Indika (Sri Lanka), Phil Mucci (US, author), Nikki (Korea), Bjorn (Denmark), Vicki (Thailand), Steve (UK)

We met the next day at the hotel and Indika and I sat side by side. He still smiled and joked in his nervous way. His hand kept moving from his head to his chest. I paced, smoked cigarettes (I’m not really a smoker) and drank coffee nervously. The Dive Asia crew Bjorn, Steve, Phil, Nikki were all there, as were the other candidates, Lais (Brazil), Luke (Canada) and Tyler (US). Everyone became friends during this IDC, everyone helped Indika and everyone wanted him to succeed. As we sat down, I was to take the Standards test first and Indika was to take Theory. I kept telling him to ask questions. After we started, I got to question 10 of 50 on the standards test and thought “Shit, there is no way he can pass this test.” The exam I was given was nearly 10 years old and each question was 3-4 sentences long, with difficult vocabulary and construction. It didn’t resemble the practice tests we had been taking very much. During that 90 minutes, I asked about 20 questions, both to ensure my own success as well as to demonstrate to Indika that I had no shame in asking questions about everything. Fortunately, Indika was awarded a bit of extra time as the PADI materials are not available in his native language. We didn’t finish together so we were not able to talk during our 10-minute break. Eventually, we were both at our desks again and this time he was taking the Standards exam. I kept peeking over to see how it was going. He was blowing air out his nostrils in frustration and I could see he only had a bit of the answer key marked. I took a big risk and whispered to him “Indika, you have got to ask questions”. He whispered back, “I don’t understand any of this!”. My heart sank. “Please just ask.” I said. And at that, I went back to my test. He was on his own now. If I could have failed for him, I would have, but it doesn’t work that way. I finished my test and went outside and the others followed shortly. We all gathered and talked about our scores. Everyone had passed the exam. Everyone was waiting for Indika. The only analogy to the IDC and IE could be basic training commonly known as boot camp. The friends you make there, you surely never forget. It was hard to celebrate our own success, we all knew how difficult the test was and how Indika must be feeling. Periodically the door would open and groups of happy candidates would come out. Every now and then, one would come out and you knew what had happened. I saw the look on the face of a French woman who had failed the test and prepared myself to face a good friend, with that very same look. The door opened and Indika stepped out. He was walking like John Wayne, two steps closer he broke out into a smile, opened his arms for a hug and said “I fu#$ing passed the test man!”. I yelled “Holy Shit” at the top of my lungs, it echoed throughout the atrium of the 5 star hotel. We all hugged each other, we jumped, laughed, screamed. All decorum was lost and all youth was regained. His success was our success. Our success was his. A new instructor was about to be born.

On return to the dive center, we broke the news to Steve, our Master Instructor. Steve, hadn’t let his guard down around us much throughout the IDC. When he heard the news, he dropped his cool British demeanor and grabbed Indika and hugged him like a father hugs his son after he’s been away from home for years. Everyone was in a combined state of elation and stunned disbelief. He had done it. Next up were 2 days of practicals, which we had rehearsed repeatedly, with Bjorn, Steve, Phil and Nikki. We were ready. During those next 2 days, Indika wasn’t the only one who exceeded himself. I saw everyone in our group perform better than they ever had before. I don’t know if it’s like this for every I.E., as I never ever hope to take one again. But the inspiration that Indika provided us all to exceed surely fueled our stellar performance those next 2 days. On the last day, we were to teach some skills from an open water class followed by each of us performing an in-water rescue. Conditions were horrible. 1-meter seas, downpour, and visibility about three meters, but we all did it. No one made any obvious critical mistakes, but the final word would come from Rob, our examiner. It is so easy to fail the I.E., as missing one critical mistake in a simulated student could result in severe injury later on. So, the pressure is really on. We did our final briefings and then it was time for the results. I passed and then waited for the results for Indika. There would be no premature celebrations. Indika received his marks and emerged with that broad smile. Indika grabbed me and we hugged, laughing, congratulating each other. We danced around for a while, with exclamations of “Get a Room!” being shouted in at least six different languages from the others on board. Only our group knew of the magnitude of this accomplishment. At that point, it was truly over, I could finally relax and let go, so put my hands and head down on the table, stretched out and had a good cry in plain sight of everyone on deck. Years of work had come down to this one simple moment, a triumph of the individual over seemingly insurmountable odds.

'I never thought I could be doing anything like that!' 5

Bjorn as proud father of two new instructors.

If you are like me, you find it hard to find many things to be hopeful about these days. There is so much conflict driven by dogmatism, greed, fear and ignorance that many things each of us find important in life don’t get much press anymore. Rarely ever do we read a headline that gives us a true sense of hope for humanity as a whole, one that gives us faith in human nature. My friends, this story is one such headline and it is a privilege to share it with you. The reality is that the world functions on the accomplishments of the individual, but those individuals need support, be it family, friends, communities or merely a group of strange foreigners who thought helping out in Sri Lanka is way more fun than going to work. My fondest memory of this occasion was Indika smiling, holding his head with his hands and saying, “I never thought I could be doing anything like that.” This isn’t just a story, it’s a lesson. Next time you’re thinking about something that seems impossible, think about Indika down there in Madiha, Sri Lanka, probably a world away from where you’re sitting at this very moment. He did it and so can you. Indika, way to go my friend.

Indika, myself and the rest of Paavima will continue to operate the non-profit dive and eco-tourism center down in Madiha, Sri Lanka as well as to provide community outreach and training programs whenever possible. Should you be in the area and feel like going for a dive, checking out the wildlife and/or volunteering some of your time, please contact us at [email protected]. Note that Paavima.org is still searching for additional funds to help cover Indika’s costs for the IDC/IE. If you’d like to make a donation, please visit the website and use PayPal or contact us at [email protected].

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