“Greg my friend… It is Alvaro… Listen my friend… I have hurt my
shoulder. It is immobilized. I cannot dive with you tomorrow. I feel terrible about that. But I have set something up for you with
someone I know so you can dive. His name
is Gerry. I feel terrible about it. But at least you can go. Ok.
Goodbye my friend.” Click.
With that I learned I would be going to diving with some
strangers. Normally this would have made
me uptight, but I was feeling pretty zen about it. It’s Mexico after all, and if things aren’t
sort of fucked up then they aren’t really authentic. The key to enjoying yourself in the Third
World is to give in to the culture. They
have their own way of doing things. Oh,
the elevator is broken so this little kid is going to haul that heavy shit up
four floors in a bucket with a string on the handle? Hmm.
OK. Sounds good. How old is he? 11?
Hmm. OK. That’s fine.
I went to the small scuba shop on a sleepy side street. Young boys in official employee polo shirts and
rubber sandals gawked at the young women walking to work. “Hey, is Gerry here?” No Senor.
They gave no indication that the had any idea of even potentially
knowing Gerry. A small brown girl in
tight jeans walked by as they both turned their heads to look at her ass. “Alvaro sent me?” Alvaro Senor?
Another small man in glasses emerged from the office. “Are you Gerry?” No senor.
“I’m supposed to go diving with some guy named Gerry?” He stared at me for a moment and then dug
into a manila folder. Yes. Yes. OK… but senor?
It is very important that you do not tell the other people on the dive
how little you pay. Special price.
I have been to Mexico a dozen times or more. There have been zero (0) occasions when I
have not paid “a special price”. This is
just like how every single person you know that has purchased a car got “a
great deal” on it. You know you are
getting screwed, you just don’t know how badly.
However, when you get screwed in a Mexican tourist town you are out $3
not $300 like in the States. I settled
back into the plastic chair to fill out a form comforted by the fact I would be
paying this man a “special price” to dive with him. What a day.
I was, in my own small way, making America great once again.
OK Senor, Cheena will be here in a moment and he will take
you. “Cheena?” Yes, like “China” the country but sounds like
“Cheena”. As if on cue a small middle
aged man with gold teeth walked into the shop.
He moved quickly, almost harried as he gathered gear. He had
the leathery limber strength of a man that has spent a life working
outside. “OK my friend… You have
gear? No? OK..
Try this on… No, this one! OK…
You OK with deep dive?” How
deep? “Eh? 120 feet?”
Yeah I guess. “OK” Hey, where are we going? “Cenote”
Is that off Cozumel? He looks at
me with an incredulous look. “Cenote!” OK.
One of the things to know about diving sites is they are all
named. Usually they have these great
adventure sounding names. “The Devil’s
Throat” is a favorite. What better to
swagger around in a beach side bar than to say “Yeah, so we drop down into the
Devil’s Throat and the fucking current is ripping.”? The fact it is a small swim through with a
bunch of pretty little fish isn’t really something people need to know. It could just as easily have been called
“Butterfly Daydream”. It’s hard to
embrace that skull and crossbones sea mythology when you are dropping into
“Butterfly Daydream” though. In Mexico
it might not surprise you to learn that most of these sites have Spanish
names. I have recently learned that the
official language of Mexico is Spanish, hence the proliferation of Spanish
terms. Since my Spanish is essentially
limited to two words (Cerveza and banos), if you tell me we are going to
“Bolones de Chankanaab” or “Cinotes”, it’s all the same to me. I don’t know where the fuck we are going.
The people I am diving with turn out to be two very
attractive Swiss girls and one of their boyfriends, who is of course athletic
and handsome. They are very Swiss. By this I mean they have that confidence of
growing up Swiss, where everything is beautiful, works precisely according to
plan and there is more than enough money to do whatever you want. They are probably better at everything than I
am. They are all proficient in a number
of different languages, are well traveled, and knowledgeable in every topic that
crops up on the eternal car ride to “Cenotes”.
One of the girls is an orthopedic surgeon. Of course she is. The guy is finishing out medical school. They all have a sense of humor, which is rare
in Switzerland. They’re really fun. We get along quite well despite me being this
weird American fourth wheel.
We make a right turn down a dirt road into the jungle. There is no ocean in sight. The drive down the hot dusty road is ten
minutes or more. We finally stop in a
circular crude parking area where about six trucks have people in various
stages of putting on/taking off dive gear.
This is when I learn a “cenote” is a sink hole in the earth where
underground caverns run though limestone.
I will be climbing down a rickety ladder in full dive gear, jumping into
a hole in the jungle and swimming into a cave that is 400 feet deep. Hmm.
OK. This looks pretty fucked up
and well beyond my meager skills, but why let the possibility of death stop
me? The drive was pretty long, so I
might as well jump into a cave with four strangers and drop down into a tight
passage 120 feet under the water.
Besides, I don’t want to look like a pussy in front of the Swiss girls.
There is no way in hell any American insurance company would
allow this to happen. The staircase down
the rockface to the pit is closer to a ladder.
That alone would have some State Farm guy in cardiac arrest. Forget the fact that I’m wearing a scuba
tank, in a wet suit, holding swim fins, and in flip flops with someone ahead
and behind of me while descending this wet ladder. It’s an excellent place to break multiple
bones. I get to the bottom, get my fins
on, and jump in the pit. It’s cold fresh
water. We descend into the pit. The water is crystal clear, unlike anything I
have ever seen really. It’s the clearest
pool in the world. At one point the
fresh and salt water mix and it creates a cloudy visual. We drop below that to an entrance of an
offshoot cave. Flashlights on. The natural light has disappeared.
I am not normally claustrophobic. Allow me to be honest. I will freely admit that after six minutes of
swimming further and further into the darkness and banging my tank on the cave
ceiling, it was starting to work on my mind.
Silt made the visibility diminish. Clank.
It’s getting tight. Depth 126
feet. I’m having buoyancy issues. I am 100% in over my head on this dive. OK, I am ready to start working towards the
surface. Don’t freak out. Anyone seen the sun lately? There’s no visible way out, but don’t
freak. I scanned in front of me with the
flashlight. Yes, your air is getting a
bit low, but I’m sure this man you met an hour ago named Cheena with the gold
teeth has everything worked out to the smallest detail. Sure, he never asked you about your
experience, but they wouldn’t just let some asshole jump down into an
underwater cave would they?
Finally natural light.
We emerge from the deep cavern. We
have to ascend in slow circles to decompress.
The dive, despite otherworldly beauty at times, wasn’t so much a
pleasure as an endurance test. Had I
been an English frogman in WWII, the dive master ranking officer with a walrus
mustache would have said “Let’s test your mettle a bit, eh Old Bean?”. My mettle was tested. We climbed the dangerous ladder back out of
the hole, took of our tanks at the truck, and drove to another hole in the
We had some surface time to kill before jumping into the
next spot. I resolved to do a better job
this time with my technique. I
absolutely detest not being as good at something as those around me. The Swiss divers looked like fucking water
fairies. Meanwhile I felt like one of
those primitive Civil War submarines. Sonofabitch. This next spot was a lengthy run through
caverns. Though only 15 feet in depth,
they were totally submerged without any air pockets. Freaking out means you probably die. There was a nylon rope strung along the
recommended path. As the caverns stretch
out in multiple directions, it would be very easy to swim off down a corridor
and get lost. Cheena gathered us for a
pre-dive plan. “OK, we will go in the
order we stand here, OK? Greg? You take up the back?” Sure.
Let me stay back here and make sure everyone else is OK. Got it.
It was probably about 20 minutes in when I got caught up
swimming through a tight passage. I was
stuck. In front of me the rest of the
group moved ahead, took a left and dropped out of sight. I waved my flashlight behind me to see what
the hell I could be snagged on.
Nothing. I swam forward. Something held me back again. I reached around my tanks feeling for
something hanging onto the gear.
Nothing. What the hell? This was the time I reminded myself “Hey man,
if you freak out right now, you’re done.”
I backed up again. This is when I
noticed my air gauge had somehow caught on the yellow nylon guide rope. By my swimming forward I had now knocked the
gauge out of alignment and was leaking air.
Hmm. That’s not good considering
I am alone and have no idea the quickest way to the surface. In a restaurant I would have raised a finger
and said “Waiter?”. I untangled the line
and swam ahead to try and catch Cheena. Where
the hell are they? If there is one thing
a leathery Mexican guy with gold teeth can do, it’s probably fix a fucked up
The Swiss who had been effortlessly sliding through the
skinny rock openings with their perfectly toned bodies noted me passing them
with some surprise. I caught up the
Cheena and pointed to my hose leaking air.
Had I been able to I would have said “Dude, I am not real handy, so if I
try to do something here I will either fix it in a half assed fashion or knock
it off completely and drown. Can you
give a brother a hand?”. I think he must
have recognized that in my pointing to the bubbling hose because he fixed it
pretty quickly. He then made the “OK?”
sign and I gave one back. Good
times. I clanked my way around the underwater
tunnels until we returned to the original hole.
It was really beautiful with stalactites throughout. It’s like swimming through a James Cameron
movie set. That said, it’s as David
Foster Wallace once noted “a supposedly fun thing that I will never do again”.