A Missive From Thailand: Everything's Going Swimmingly!

Our correspondent travels to Thailand and gets to grips with something most of us take for granted – swimming

Feature by Ally Brown | 29 Nov 2011
  • Swimming
I'm sitting in a beach bar on an island off the coast of Cambodia with five other travellers: guys from Belgium, Italy and Germany, and two girls, from Sweden and Holland. I'm here for the white sand beaches and the view of the torquoise sea; they're here for the scuba diving. I had never talked to divers before. We talked all night. I did not realise it was apparently such a wonderful experience that people build their lives around it. Anne-Lie tells me she will return to Gothenburg to work, to save specifically for her next diving trip. My resistance is about to topple, but first I have a confession.
"Do you mean... you are not a very good swimmer?" the Dutch girl, Cher, says, baffled as if her impeccable English has suddenly failed her. "No" I say, to stares, "I mean exactly what I said. I can not swim." "What would happen if you jumped into the sea?" someone asks, to which I can only guess, having never jumped into the sea before, "I would sink." "Well you would make a natural diver then," Anne-Lie says, "because we need help to sink!"
When I lived in a city and had a job in an office, being unable to swim was about as meaningful as being unable to flap my arms and fly. I never needed it, it never crossed my mind as something to do. But travelling constantly challenges you to try new experiences, and teaches you about the lifestyles of people from different backgrounds: a little ironically, there I was in Cambodia learning about a passion of five Europeans. I was fed up of staying on the beach while others played in the sea; waist-deep was my embarrassing limit. I was frustrated at instantly dismissing from my mind any water-based activity on offer at a beach or resort. I was bored of feeling anxious on any small boat, like the one that had taken us to this island, constantly aware of the nearest life-jacket and the next big wave. At 28, I decided to pick up the armbands again.
The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai seemed like the perfect location to take up lessons: it's far removed from the intense bustle and stifling humidity of Bangkok; it's medium-sized, easy to get around, exceptionally cheap and full of things to do when not in the pool. At a resort just outside the centre, enigmatically named The Centre of the Universe, a big local guy called Wayu teaches children and adults to swim in a 25x16m salt-water pool. On my first lesson he identified my first big problem: with my head underwater I couldn't breathe out normally; I stuttered, burst and tensed, and emerged from the water frustrated. So twenty or thirty times a lesson I had to dip in and exhale until I could do it smoothly and reliably every time. On my second lesson I was making progress: my breathing was much better and I could kick myself away from the wall and doggy paddle for about 5m without any floats. Progress therefter was slow, until my sixth lesson, when I made a big breakthrough: I discovered I could float.
Most people don't remember that discovery. Some fellow backpackers at my £2-per-night hostel seemed to enjoy the enthusiasm with which I described my minor daily progress towards acquiring skills they acquired almost too long ago to remember; others remained perplexed: several asked me if Scottish people couldn't swim because the water was too cold. No, I explained, time and again: I just never learned. I missed the lessons at primary school because of illness. Most Scots can swim. Just not me. It was awkward trying to reconcile how difficult the learning process was for me, with how effortless others considered swimming to be. Maybe this is what it feels like to be an idiot, I thought: to be proud of achievements others take for granted. I was euphoric to discover I could float; some laughed with me, others furrowed their brows.
This was my biggest achievement in water yet: I asked Wayu why I had to frantically paddle while other pool users were calmly gliding through the water; they seemed to be enjoying it much more than I was. "You're a beginner," he said, "so you believe you can't float". I didn't like being told what I believed, so he challenged me. He fell forward and spread out like a starfish, and just floated on the surface. I did the same. I jumped forward and let my chest sink a little, then lifted my back and my legs, and sure enough I floated back up. I just lay there on the water. I wasn't sinking. This was a huge revelation to me. It was a glorious moment.
After several lessons of minor progress, discovering floating allowed me to finally enjoy myself in the pool. I learned to fall forward while holding the wall behind; if I tucked in to let my feet come up the wall, I could then shoot myself off, narrow my body and glide underwater, before choosing any forward stroke to propel myself further. So suddenly I could swim the width of the pool, 16m, in any stroke, in one breath. I showed Wayu my improvised butterfly stroke, mimicking his; he fell about laughing; I got to the other side. What fun!
Of course, Wayu wanted me to breathe out and then come up for air, so that I could swim much further. But when I was at the end of a breath, I was lower in the water, so I had to leap to get back up for long enough to breathe. Two or three of these leaps sapped my forward momentum, so I never got much further than about 20m. He tried to teach me to front crawl, breathing to the side while my right arm was out of the water; but I kept taking in water, again because I wasn't quite on the surface, but a little below.
On my final lesson I had another entirely new experience: I jumped into the pool. As I emerged, exhilirated, Wayu said "Don't you feel like you're 13 years old again?". But I had never jumped into a pool before, not at 13 or any other age, because I could not swim! Standing on the edge of the pool's deep end, I tried to calm my nerves by thinking of all the times in the previous few days when I had jumped forward from within the pool and floated; now all I had to do was jump from a little higher. I also thought about a conversation I had two weeks prior, when I admitted I could not imagine myself jumping into a pool any easier than I could imagine myself doing a pole vault: my mind struggled to conjure it because it was an experience I knew I would never have. In some odd way, it just wasn't me.
But it could be me. I jumped. And then I jumped again, and again, and again. My whole life I had believed myself incapable of this, this that I am actually doing, now. I jumped again! Wayu wanted me to jump in and then swim, but I couldn't, because I was overwhelmed with joy; I had to stand up to laugh, to let it all out. Eventually I pulled myself together, and the final act of my final lesson was this: a jump into the pool, then a 20m freestyle swim on my front, then a flip onto my back to paddle the last 5m to the wall.
Scuba diving is still beyond me. It's possible for non- or poor swimmers to do some limited diving, almost hand-in-hand with an instructor, to get a taste of it. But to get a certificate which allows you to dive more freely and in most locations, I need to be able to swim 200m in the sea: eight times further, and in rougher water, than I have ever even attempted. But I am on my way. With more practice and experience my confidence and technique will improve. I no longer have to admit "I can't swim", because now I can say "I am a rubbish swimmer". That's a big improvement.
Next up: who can lend me a big bendy pole?
Find a hostel in Chiang Mai
Ally learned to swim at The Centre of the Universe, a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride from central Chiang Mai, in north-west Thailand. All details can be found at the website www.therealcentreoftheuniverse.com and by contacting the owner by e-mail. Ten one-hour long one-to-one lessons cost 3500 baht (just over £70). Individual lessons can also be purchased Find cheap hostels in Chiang Mai http://www.hostelbookers.com/hostels/thailand/chiang-mai/