"I’ll tip you as much as this app will let me if you can get me to the marina before 8am." I planted my hands firmly on the rolled down window as my Uber driver scanned what was visible of me.
He glanced at the dash. 7:36. The doors unlocked and he motioned me in. I catapulted my day pack into the seat next to me and greeted his Camry’s cloth seats with that morning’s back sweat deposit. I’d only been awake a few minutes but with the tropical humidity and my stress levels reaching heights previously unknown to the stress level measuring community, I looked as though I had ran a marathon moments earlier. Or, attempted to, at least, before faking a hamstring injury at mile 18.
"You know, there’s traffic headed into the city. Everyone is headed into the city. I’m not going to say we can’t, but-" he sighed and adjusted his mirror to see the desperation in my eyes. "I’ll see what I can do." He flipped a U-turn and made his way back to the main road. Both him and I knew the commute from Palm Cove to Cairns on a Friday morning wasn’t without it’s metaphorical, and literal, speed bumps.
7:38. I glanced down at the app to see the estimated arrival. 8:07. Shit.
"Can’t be late for work again?" The driver questioned, trying to make conversation as we weaved in and out of traffic on the two lane highway. I ignored the factually correct implication that I manage my time poorly, even while traveling. "Scuba diving, actually." I responded. "The boat leaves at 8." We made eye contact in the rearview mirror again. This time, shooting me a look of disbelief, translating to: I’m speeding so you can look at fish?
FIG 1. DISBELIEF
The inertia of each roundabout pushed the limited contents of my stomach to its walls. 7:52. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to schedule the Uber the day previous, considering there were so few Uber drivers in Palm Cove that I ended up being a few drivers’ repeat American customer. In hindsight, five minutes of Googling before booking my stay in Queensland, I would have learned that Palm Cove was not, in fact, "a short drive to Cairns".
"Everyone is headed into the city."
"Have you been to The Great Barrier Reef?" I asked, deciding to volley back some small talk to drown out the car horns. He kept his eyes on the road this time. "Uh, yeah." He signaled to get over a lane. "It was… great." 7:56. Maybe silence wasn't so bad.
I pulled out my phone again. 8:04 arrival. Okay, we’re making up time. Could be worse.
I stayed up the previous night nursing some light nausea and a headache, making the Formula 1 tryout that was my Uber ride to the marina all the more punishing. My first day in Cairns hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing, but I was determined to get some sun as a direct response to the previous two weeks of downpour in Sydney. Somehow I’d managed to book my trip to Australia during one of the country’s rainiest springs. Tragedy plus timing, as they say.
FIG 2. BOAT (FOR DIVING)
We pulled into the city and raced to the drop-off point, making sure to avoid the swarths of hungover backpackers showing up to their temporary shift work. Cairns had this buzz about it that I really took to. There were families and tourists, but the city seemed to attract a specific type of backpacker that I’d been more inclined to connect with than those in Sydney.
The Camry screeched to a halt inches from the marina’s curb. 8:02. My departure from his backseat set the land speed record for the quickest to unstick a back and fastest to sling a Herschel over their shoulder, all while narrowly avoiding the backpack induced decapitation of a Romanian family making their way to the pier behind me. "Thank you so much! I really cannot express-" I started. The driver cut me off. "Go! What are you waiting for!?"
Back in the humidity, and with the five dollar sandals I purchased in Dee Why, I clopped my way to the boat I’d signed on to scuba with. A lady with a checklist stood near the stairs to board, verifying the passengers as they climbed in. I stopped just short of her, gasping for breath.
"Name?" She smiled. 8:05. "Prince. Garrett." I heaved in response. "Garrett Prince. Can I still board?"
She studied her clipboard. "Prince, Prince, Prince… Oh! Got you right here." She marked my name off on the attendance sheet and laughed. "Yeah, I don’t see why you couldn’t." She looked up from her papers. "We don’t leave until 8:30."
A month earlier, I sat inches from my monitor rereading my latest application rejection email. "The team loved you, but due to economic circumstances…". I knew how it went. I’d been broken up with before. Luckily, this time around, I didn’t have to convince the HR rep to let me keep the cat.
By that point in September, I’d spent the better part of 2022 coding each night. After staring at a computer, working my remote sales training position for most of the day, I’d then stare at a computer and work on software engineering and music projects until my body called it quits for the night. Some nights, I’d end early and walk to the Basha’s across the street with my roommate and best friend Tanner. We’d cheers a Topo Chico and talk about doing something big with our lives. Some days I’d work until I was so exhausted it looked as though I’d been haunting the abandoned house at the end of the lane that the neighbor kids dare each other to go inside when there’s a full moon and some get scared but others inevitably find strength in numbers and form a life long bond. Most nights, I was just tired.
In all of these late nights, and in all of this uncertainty, it got me thinking.
When I was a freshman in high school, a friend of a friend informed me of another friend that had smoked weed for the first time. Hearing the news, I responded with "Oh. Wow. I hope she’s okay." My 14 year old Mormon version of the sign of the cross. My friend told me about how the classmate had gotten so high she had thought she was in a fishbowl. She banged on the walls, but to no avail. They were so thick no one could hear.
FIG 3. STANDARD FISH BOWL
Now, I’m well aware of the stories we tell each other around that age. I once told a girl I couldn’t date her because I was in a long distance letter writing relationship. I also once had a zit so large and so deep on my cheek, I told my friends I had fallen and my knee hit it at just the right angle but it could also be hereditary "so I may have to get my blood checked to see." Whether my classmate had been stretching the truth or not when relaying her experiences to my friend, that image stuck with me: Banging on the sides of a fishbowl. Trying to escape.
I often describe pivotal moments of my life using that visual: The Fishbowl Effect, if you will. Applying for colleges and feeling like I had to get out of my hometown in Oregon: Stuck in the fishbowl. Leaving for the University of Hawaii: Getting out of the fishbowl. Developing feelings for someone who’s engaged to be married: Fishbowl. Starting a new career, moving, and getting over them: Out.
Engineering nightly, keeping too much to myself, feeling like I wasn’t creating things that I actually enjoyed making: There I was, banging on the glass again.
FIG 4. MY PERSONAL FISH BOWL
I’d been toying around with the idea of traveling abroad for a few years, but there was always a reason why I didn’t. Of course, the pandemic threw a wrench into some tentative plans, but my hesitations came years before that. It was always the "wrong" time. The "wrong" place. There was always something else more important. Something that needed my attention right then and there. Things I thought were important, but in reality, played such a small part in my life.
The action we take is the way out.
So, I made up my mind. In all honesty, on a whim. Australia. For a month. I had a place to stay, Tanner would watch my cat, and by combining all of my airline points I’d be able to get there by paying only a few hundred out of pocket. Yes, there are infinitely more efficient and cost effective ways to travel (which I’ll touch on at a later date), but I wasn’t worried about that.
It seemed that, with age, the fishbowl kept getting a bit thicker, so I needed something stronger. It sounds incredibly simple, but that’s because it is: The action we take is the way out.
On paper, this was a logistically awful idea. It was last minute, expensive, with no itinerary, during the end of Sydney’s rainy season. On paper, this trip shouldn’t have changed how I thought about what I would do and the type of person I wanted to be when I got back.
It shouldn’t have, but it did.
Once on board the vessel that would take our group to the outermost reef, I eagerly scanned the groups of tourists, searching for a German man named Philip I had befriended a day earlier. Excitement permeated throughout the main cabin as I grabbed the mandatory legal disclosures and found my chair beside Philip near the center of the seating area. There was an air of confidence from the certified and experienced divers, nervous chatter from the first timers, and an overall calm amongst the crew as they set out explaining the ins and outs of The Great Barrier Reef. As I fell into the "first timers" bucket, I listened attentively to the warnings of "If you touch this specific hermit crab and it stabs you, you’ll have four minutes to live" and "you may have to fend off this type of fish". The warnings were wrapped nicely in a "have fun and be safe!" as we side-eyed each other amidst a chorus of hesitant laughter.
"Can you see the terror through my dive mask?"
"Are you nervous?" Philip questioned. I grinned back at him. "I wasn’t until now." My mind swam with visions of slicked back antenna hermit crabs with poison switchblades, snapping in unison on the ocean floor. I’d been so hyper fixated with stepping foot onto the charter boat that I hadn’t really put much thought into all the uniquely aquatic ways I could die that morning.
FIG 5. DEATH BY CRAB
Philip, myself, and a recent uni grad from the Netherlands suited up for our guided dive with Jose, our certified pro. Within a few minutes, we were in the surprisingly temperate water, excitedly practicing the basic hand signs for "yes", "no", and "can you see the terror through my dive mask?". The last sign can be achieved by opening up your eyes as wide as you can, tensing your body from head to toe, and cramping up most, if not all, of your fingers, resulting in two arthritic shadow puppet shapes.
I delivery-room gripped Jose’s left bicep as we sank deeper to inspect the world famous reefs. Once the nerves had warn off a bit and I started breathing regularly like a human again, my focus redirected itself from basic biological survival to a quiet curiosity.
FIG 6. SERENITY
The rays of light penetrating the surface colored the millennia-old coral and acted as a natural highlight, guiding my eye-line to the schools of fish, hurriedly jetting from one direction to the next. Sea anemone danced effortlessly along the current. Our group floated among the sub-aquatic scenery, simply observing.
Among the other divers and the thousands of eye catching fish swimming in absolute freedom, there was one thing I didn’t see: A glass fish bowl.