There are certain things in life that you should not attempt to teach your children.
Like riding a bike. Invariably, you will work your heart out, huffing and puffing beside that bike, hovering so as to catch it should it lean too much to one side, and when things go wrong, as of course they will, who is the person getting yelled at? You, of course.
Skiing also belongs in that category. Which is why we always wisely opted for full-day ski school whenever we went skiing. But just the act of schlepping four kids with skis to the ski school building, which is never anywhere close to the slope – or if it is, the only way to get there is right across the busiest slope on the whole mountain – and prying yourself loose from the grip of death by a toddler refusing to be left behind is so grueling that Noisette and I would typically aim straight for the next hut after drop-off and recuperate over a Jägertee for the rest of the day, forget skiing.
So now I’ve added a new item to that list. Teaching your kids snorkeling is most assuredly one of those things you shouldn’t attempt to do yourself but rather find someone else to outsource to.
Or perhaps you just shouldn’t attempt to teach our kids. Sunshine and Impatience particularly.
Because there actually are other kids who follow their parents’ instructions like docile little lambs, hanging on their every word and nodding their little heads in eager agreement, following them around through the Egyptian museum, mouths agape at all the wonders to be seen, asking eager questions and reading all the plaques.
Those kids do exist, they really do, but sadly only in other families.
Our kids, first of all, cannot ever agree on anything. If there are four directions to go into, each of them will choose a different one. Four different meals at the restaurant, or, rather, four different restaurants altogether. Four different types of fruit in their lunch boxes. Twelve different salad ingredients, none of them overlapping.
The only time they can ever agree on anything is when it comes to seating arrangements. Like in an airplane. Then all of a sudden everyone is in agreement on the one very best seat to be had and will proceed to fight tooth and nail for that very same seat.
Should you, as the parent, be so unfortunate as to try and resolve their dispute, they will also be in perfect agreement on who to start yelling at next.
When we went to the Egyptian museum, our kids headed straight for the nearest bench, because after five steps in the stifling heat they were exhausted. Occasionally they’d get up to trudge along behind us, but only to ask for the 100th time “how much longer in this horrible place?” The only thing that roused them temporarily was the prospect of seeing real mummies. Which it turned out you had to pay an extra fee for, something they didn’t mention at the ticket booth at the entrance. Our supply of Egyptian pounds having dwindled once again to almost nothing, we determined that there was only enough left for two mummy tickets. Which somehow the four kids shared between them, don’t ask me how, to disappear for about 2 minutes and come back with a hearty “Ok, can we go now?”
Noisette and I never got to see the mummies.
But I digress. So we are on a boat off the coast of Sharm-el Sheik, bobbing on the Red Sea in the most perfect snorkeling conditions anyone could ever wish for. Warm water, plenty of sun, great visibility both above and below, the most stunning coral reef you have ever seen right under us. The boys and Noisette are off diving already and it is time for the non-divers to go snorkeling.
Can I just insert here that I am hereby making a mental note to never attempt explaining something to Impatience when she tells me she doesn’t get it? Please remind me to run, next time, and fast! If there is one thing I’m certain of it is this: Had I ever tried to home-school my children, not all of us would have survived to tell the tale. In her defense I should mention that Impatience didn’t really want to snorkel. She gets a little flustered – one might also call it impatient – when something ever so slightly doesn’t go according to plan. Like let’s say a mask that leaks. Plus stuff in the water that freaks her out. Like a bazillion fishes and other creatures. She probably cares even less for the fish than she cared for the camel in Giza.
But her dilemma, you see, is that the prospect of being left behind on the boat with a bunch of Middle Eastern men with funny accents was even worse than giving snorkeling a go.
Sunshine, on the other hand, is eager to go. She has already snorkeled happily around the hotel dock and even done an introductory scuba dive. I’m not worried about Sunshine.
Except I have not considered the possibility of faulty equipment. We don everything we’re handed, hop in – Impatience only after much coaxing and arm-flailing – and I take one breath through my snorkel only to come up spluttering and spitting out a mouthful of seawater. I make for the float our guide Sharif has brought along, where I am greeted by withering looks from my girls, who are already there, ready with a litany of complaints.
“My mask is leeeeeaking,” screams the one.
“My snooooorkel isn’t working, wails the other.
So we spend the next fifteen minutes treading water and swapping equipment. Or rather, I tread water while the girls hold on to the float and whine at me. First the strap is too loose. Then it is too tight. The life vest, so eagerly grabbed by one when offered earlier, is now a hindrance and must come off. A fin has already come off and is floating into the distance. Hair is getting into eyes. When it isn’t tangled up in the strap. Masks are ripped off and handed to me to readjust, and then saltwater gets into the now mask-less eyes. A fight between them breaks out when Impatience says “I told you so,” in response to Sunshine gloating the entire previous day how great the snorkeling was for her.
My mistake, if anything, is that I’m trying to be helpful. If you don’t have kids, you may not know this, but you should never really try to help them with anything. Or, if you must, only if they’ve given you a written and notarized permission. Because what will happen is that you will help by explaining, calmly (!) how it should be done, your kids will not listen, and then they will yell at you because you didn’t explain it right.
In Sunshine’s case, I can see the culprit. She is craning her neck too far down so that the top of the snorkel dips under the surface. But of course trying to explain this simple law of physics to a hysterical girl is as futile as trying to get any money back from Eskom, and I am informed right then and there that this was a terrible idea, that it’s impossible to snorkel with such bad equipment that doesn’t fit, and that it’s all my fault.
In the meantime, while my legs are getting tired from all the kicking and I struggle to hold onto stray masks and fins and life jackets, I keep hearing exalted shouts from the other snorkelers. A turtle this way! A stingray that way! And, by god, a barracuda right below us!
I am not proud of it, but do you know what I did in the end? I just swam away. Left the girls and all their stuff and dipped my head in the blissful quiet of the sea, seawater-breathing snorkel notwithstanding. I fleetingly conjured up scenarios of girls bobbing on the waves by themselves, scared, swallowing water, panicking, crying inconsolably, exhausted. And yet the urge to swim away was simply too strong. They say that a mother will do anything to defend her offspring against predators, but in this instant, if a shark had come along and circled around us, I’m not sure I could have brought myself to go back and defend this particular offspring.
Perhaps the next time we should just stick to underwater photography in the pool.
Or do what I love best in the whole wide world: Find an umbrella and read a good book.