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Drinking the China Sea


The first day of swim rescue, the instructors had us practicing getting in and out of the swimming pool. Next, we learned to put our face underwater. To keep us organized and avoid accidents the 60 or so participants were divided into two groups, swimmers and non-swimmers.

Why someone who was classified as a non-swimmer would join a rescue course was beyond me. 

“You are doing the exercise wrong.” Shouted an instructor. I was shocked when I realized he was talking to me and not one of the people who was near drowning.

“What do you mean! You said put my face underwater ten times. So, I am putting my face underwater ten times. What more do you want from me?” I shouted. I was more than a little frustrated with the elementary nature of the course.

“No,” he corrected. “That was the beginners exercise. Now, we are doing the advanced exercise, put your face underwater and blow bubbles.”

I must have missed this slight nuance of instruction when I tuned the teachers out. I was ready to quit this silly child’s swim course, but I didn’t want them to think it was because I was incapable of making bubbles. 

“Don’t be scared.” He added. “It’s just water.”

This wasn’t really the Kevin Costner, “The Guardian,” training I was looking for. On day three we had an elimination test, swimming two miles in the pool, timed. Day four we had to tread water for forty five minutes, while supporting a dead body. Day six, we were required to swim nearly two miles in the open ocean. Talk about crawl before you walk, I had never seen a course, in any subject, which started so infantile and ended so advanced.

Thirty minutes into the water treading, I vomited chlorine through both my mouth and nose.

“Are you OK?” asked one of my classmates.

“More than OK, I am finally starting to enjoy myself.” I answered. Taking in so much water, my brain was running on only about 50% oxygen, and I started to hallucinate. The hallucinations were those half-real-half-dream kind of trip you get when you have a high fever or mix Benadryl with wine, so most of the hallucinations still reeked of chlorine. You can over analyze these things, but for a brief moment, I was Kevin Costner. The tabloids would have us believe that being rich, good-looking, and famous, is allegedly not everything. But I can tell you, from my short foray into nirvana, NOTHING sucked about being Kevin Costner.

Amazingly, this six days of fun, eight hours per day of grueling training, only cost 800 Pesos. This is the beauty of the Philippines. There are so many great courses here, things you have always wanted to learn, but never felt like spending the money for. Courses here are cheap, and they are mostly taught in English. The students frequently ask their questions in Filipino, but learning the language is just part of the experience. A lot of courses in the Philippines are not accredited elsewhere, so you would just be studying for yourself, for your own knowledge and for the incredible experience of getting to know the Filipino people on a personal level. The EMT (emergency medical technician) course I just finished at LSTI is accredited by Australia, so there are exceptions. The fee for the EMT course was 20,000 Pesos, which for a Filipino is a lot, but is not even a tenth of what the same course would have cost me back home.

The Basic Water Safety and Rescue course was sponsored by the Philippine Red Cross. The advantage of the Red Cross courses is that they are cheap even by Filipino standards, and they are internationally recognized. To qualify for this course you had to already have completed your Basic Life Saving (BLS) which is the CPR course, and a first aid course. All the courses were offered at Red Cross. I qualified because these courses were included in my EMT course. If you are an ex-pat or just want to make friends with locals, taking these kinds of classes is an excellent way of doing it. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but Red Cross classes are available in nearly every country, so no matter where you live or work overseas, this would be a good option to look into.

Sir Jun, the director of the program told me that life guarding in the Philippines is horribly behind the times. This is unfortunate in a country made up of more than 7,000 islands. A large percentage of Filipinos can’t swim, and if they get in trouble in the water, there generally isn’t a competent life guard around to save them. The Basic Water Rescue is the highest level course offered in the Republic, and most beaches either don’t have life guards or if they do, the life guards haven’t had any training at all.

Money is always a problem in the Philippines. I suspect that the reason why we had people labeled as non-swimmers in our course was because they just couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the money to first take a swimming course and then take a life guarding course. So, the two courses were compressed into one. But, the standards were maintained by making the exams and qualifiers so difficult. Well-over half my group failed. Amazingly, at least one of the ones who made it was originally listed as a non-swimmer. On Monday morning he didn’t know how to swim. On Saturday he completed a two mile ocean swim. You have to respect that kind of hard work and courage.

Having a background in swimming or diving is a huge advantage in this type of training, but it is no guarantee that you could pass. I swam competitively and did triathlons till I was about twenty-one, but in competitive swimming you only learn the four racing strokes, which are different from the four rescue strokes. Rescue strokes include: modified crawl (head out of the water), modified breast (head out of water), side stroke, and elementary back (your arms don’t come out of the water as you do in racing.) I have never liked back stroke because it just seems t force water up my nose like some type of interrogation torture. And sidestroke is one of the slowest most awkward strokes. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I tried swimming sidestroke carrying a victim.

You don’t know the meaning of the word slow till you are swimming an awkward stroke, that you hate, and towing a human being at the same time. I kept wishing the whole world would just learn to swim better, so there would be no chance they would need me to rescue them.

The course started out frustratingly easy. We had to practice getting in and out of the pool alone, then helping someone else up onto the side. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. The first lesson we had was on a black board, where the instructor drew a map of the pool area.

“The bathroom is located here.” He said, pointing. Actually in Filipino-speak they call the bathroom the comfort room or CR. “If you want to go to the CR there are two entrances, here and here. But this one is locked, so you will need to go to this one.”

I could not believe how silly this was. I had never had someone explain the layout of a pool to me. I usually just figured it out when I got there. But, just like lessons in getting in and out of the pool and making bubbles, these instructions were important for people who had never been in a swimming pool before. Being American you just take it for granted that schools have pools and people know how to swim. But here in the Philippines only people with a lot of money have access to a pool. So, we were starting from the very basics.

Amazingly, three days into the course we already had our first test. They kept calling it a mile swim, but actually, it was 3,200 meters, which is two miles. I came in fourth. It would be the last event in the course where I would push for time. I only pushed because they told us if we didn’t come in under a certain time we would be cut from the program. Actually only six people passed, but somehow the others weren’t cut. All of the other events were about completion or completing with your partner, so I didn’t push to be first.

The following day we had to tread water. Which the instructors pronounced “thread.” Originally I thought it was a sewing test, like if we were going to learn to repair our swim suits or something. This was the big test, where they actually did cut people out of the program. We were in a deep-well pool and had to complete various tasks while treading.  If we touched the bottom or the walls, even once, we were disqualified. One thing that made it more difficult was that there were so many bodies piled in on top of each other. You were constantly getting kicked and bumped into by other students. I was particularly wary of having someone panic and grab onto me or even just trying to support their body weight on me. It was hard enough keeping myself afloat. I didn’t need any passengers weighing me down.

We had hardly begun when Sir June, standing at the side of the pool, shouted “Tums up.”

I thought, he was saying, “times up.” This is too easy, I thought. I can’t believe they made such a big deal about this. We were only treading for like five minutes. How could this be the big elimination exercise? But then I noticed that no one made any effort to get out of the pool. And they were all holding up their thumbs.

Dugh! Not, times up! THUMBS up. It was one more Tagolish moment that added to the difficulty of being a native speaker in a group of semi-native speakers.

Thumbs up is really hard for me. First of all, it is a biological and historical fact that I don’t float. That is to say, I can’t float on my back, but I find it very comfortable to do turtle float, face down, just a few inches below the surface of the water. Also, I have a good, strong kick for Muay Thai and for swimming, but not for treading. I need to rely on my arms to stay afloat. Any time Sir June called “Tums up,” I sank into the water, barely able to gasp air, while I held my arms aloft and counted the painfully slow seconds.

As I sank helplessly below the water level, I pushed out my lips like a snorkel, to gain precious centimeters.

Each time he called for us to float, I would just about get into a comfortable floating posture, until I bumped into another swimmer, or someone kicked me. It broke the delicate, spell-like balance, and I would have to start swimming. Slowly, I would return to floating on my back, at which point, someone hit me and it all started over again.

“This is like a shipwreck.” Explained Sir June. “You may not be alone in an empty sea. You have to swim with all the other survivors.”

Next, Sir June yelled. “Plane crash.” He told us a plane had crashed nearby, and we needed to save the pilot. One of the fat instructors became the pilot and we had to pass him over our heads, from person to person, around the circle, while we treaded water. Each time I saw the pilot coming back around, I would scream “PILOT” to alert the person after me to be ready to take him from me. Then I would take a deep breath, put my hands over my head, sink beneath the water and inch the pilot over me to the next person.

After the pilot had made several trips around the circle, Sir June shouted again. “Here comes the stewardess. Now we had two victims, one male and one female. Although the girl weighed less, she was actually more difficult to handle.

This being a Catholic country I had to be careful not to touch her in an inappropriate manner. This is also funny since much of my job as an EMT consists of cutting off a stranger’s clothes and blowing in their mouth.

“Here is the black box.” Said June, adding a ten pound weight to the list of items we had to hand off. Earlier in the day, we had been diving to recover the black box, swimming the length of the pool underwater, carrying it. Now we had to hand it off to the next rescuer.

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