When I first set about traveling in South America, I didn’t have any specific goals such as unlocking a hidden talent or even an ambiguous goal such as “finding myself”. The theme of the trip was always to explore and write, and see where that takes me. Colombia however, has become a special destination for me because in unforced and relatively spur of the moment fashion, I made two decisions that led to discovering new interests and conquering old fears. The first was my fear of social awkwardness with salsa dancing in Cali and the second was here in Taganga. I’ve always had a fear of drowning and as such, scuba diving has always been one of the last frontiers for me in adventure sports. On a whim, I decided to give the introductory scuba class a try and ended up liking it so much (I still think I had a nitrogen high) that I continued on to get my Open Water Scuba Diver certification.
You Always Remember Your First Time
Long before I ventured into the Caribbean waters in Taganga, I had a little prelude with the good ole Regulator down in Australia about two and a half years ago. I visited two friends for New Years and we all decided to do an open tank shark dive to spice things up a bit because dodging blue bottles on the beach wasn’t exciting enough. This would involve using SCUBA equipment to enter the tank of about 2 meters.
All started out fine enough. My friends and I gave momentary pause as we noticed our dive master sporting only half an index finger. He later fessed that yes it was a shark that bit it off and yes it was one of the sharks in the tank in which we were about to go traipsing around. Throwing caution to the wind, we forged ahead, got suited up and started off in the practice pool. This is when I almost hit the abort button. All of my friends had easily enough submerged their bodies while breathing through the regulator, but I started hyperventilating and that’s when the old fear of drowning was reawakened. I turned around and tried to get out of the pool, but apparently they were prepared for my kind and one of the instructors took me aside into the remedial class and gave me a pep talk as tears were inching out of the corners of my eyes. He was probably saying something along the lines of, “It’s natural to be afraid, just remember to breathe deep”, but all I heard was, “It’s natural to die, just remember to repent before the last breath.” I didn’t want to be any trouble so I went ahead and followed what he was showing me. Eventually I got the hang of breathing underwater, passed the mini-quiz and was soon stepping into a tank full of grey nurse sharks.
The first experience left me in a daze about diving. I barely even noticed the fact that sharks were swimming around me, instead being absolutely terrified of dropping my regulator. I remember my jaw hurting the next day due to the death grip I had on the regulator. I came to the conclusion that when it comes to diving, I came, I saw and now I never have to do that ever again. Done.
Much time has passed since I was bumbling around Australia and even though I recalled several nightmares of drowning, I decided to give the whole SCUBA diving thing another go. After all, everyone here seemed to be enjoying it and were not dying, so I figured I couldn’t be that coordination-challenged that I couldn’t also experience the same success. I signed up for the Discover Diving class and made sure I told my Mom that I loved her.
The big day came and I prepared for my first dive lesson on a beach near Parque Tayrona. I dumped myself in the water and clumsily put on my SCUBA gear. I thought it would take a couple dips of my head below the surface before I would be comfortable with breathing underwater again but after I dipped my head under everything came right back to me. I stayed under at the surface swimming all the way to my instructor. My heart was racing at this point, but so far it was going well. We submerged about two meters and began the lesson which included taking out and recovering the regulator. All went well and soon enough we were swimming off into the deep sea in search of aquatic life. We did another dive in the afternoon and at the end of my first day I felt good about diving and decided to go for full certification which would only take two more days.
After watching a long video with a ridiculous man demonstrating all of the SCUBA do’s and don’t’s, I was getting ready to go out for another set of dives. My instructor, Marin, explained all of the exercises we were going to do today and my head shook up and down to convey understanding and acceptance, but my disparaging and sarcastic inner voice was saying, “Good luck, Jacques Cousteau!”
It was the same routine as the previous day, boating out to our location and suiting up in the water. Today though, the run through the exercises didn’t go so smoothly. I lost my nerve at first when choked on my snorkel trying to alternate between that and the regulator. My confidence was shot at this point and then Marin demonstrated the free air flow exercise. This basically involves inserting the regulator only partially in your mouth while purging air (to simulate a malfunction in the regulator) and sipping only what you need while using your tongue as a splash guard. I look at her doing this and my eyes said, “Hell no, this regulator stays in my mouth.” She was tough yet patient and waited for me to get comfortable. I tried by attempting to take the whole thing out and then put it back in but this was a huge failure. I ended up swallowing a bunch of water while desperately trying to clear my regulator. Now all I could think about was getting the fuck out of this water and saying I gave it my best shot. Still Marin, was firm and patient and made me try again, showing me an easier way of what I was trying to do. I figured she wasn’t going to stop until I died so let’s just get this over and done with already. I flicked the side of my regulator out as she pressed the purge button and closed my eyes. I was shocked that when I opened them I was breathing normally while the regulator was half outside my mouth. I succeeded!
At this point though, I thought I had put myself through enough stress for one day and knowing that the replacing my face mask bit was coming up, starting figuring out how I would tell her, “Not today!” I finished all of the other exercises and then she demonstrated the replacement of the face mask. I shook my head like a stubborn child, but she calmly shook her head up and down, “Yes, you are going to do this.” I was cursing myself and started thinking of what brilliant speech I would give to St. Peter to excuse all of my bad behavior and let me frolic in paradise. Here’s when I was shocked again. I shrugged, closed my eyes, took off my mask and was breathing normally. She then took me on a short swim and I was putting my mask back and opening my eyes as if nothing special just occurred. Marin gave me a high five but I was confused. I kept trying to use hand signals to say, “Wait, what? Did I actually do it. Really?”
After getting the confirmation above the surface, I felt like one bad ass diver and was starting to enjoy the experience. During our second dive of the day I started noticing more than just my breathing though I did have fun imagining myself as Darth Vader. I almost wished I could have a Darth Vader costume on to bring to life the image I had of myself swimming around underwater. By Day 3, I felt like a pro! I was more gracefully getting into and out of my SCUBA gear, I was equalizing my ears a lot faster and all of the exercises were coming naturally to me. During the second time I had to replace my mask I actually knocked my regulator out of my mouth. Even though I was now blind as well as running low on the air in my lungs, I quickly retrieved the regulator with one hand and then put my mask back on. I thought I should earn extra credit for that maneuver.
As I was surfacing from the final dive, I felt a glorious release and slowed my ascent more than the others to enjoy the moment spinning around in bubbles as I made my way toward the light of the tunnel. When I looked out to the horizon, the sun was almost getting ready to set and I felt tingling all throughout my body. It was one of those blissfully serene moments with nature that you appreciate more when you realize that your previous fears were holding back from experience such beauty. On the boat ride back to shore I thought about my Uncle Ronald, my first travel hero, who told me about his adventures diving around the world and told me he was going to take my diving one day. This never happened as my Dad expressed some concern due to the fact that I couldn’t swim at the time, but it felt really nice fulfilling my Uncle’s destiny for me and remembering from where I get my adventurous spirit.