Monday, July 3, 2017

Nurse the Hate: Culebra Dive

The Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander is a small dual propeller plane, probably the smallest I have ever ridden commercially.  It seems like an excellent plane to appear in a newspaper article about a tragic airplane crash killing all passengers.  It was hot and the air was thick as the plane sat on the runway while the engines roared to life.  I was crammed into the last seat in the back, directly in front of "baggage storage".  This is, in effect, the back of a flying station wagon as I could just turn around and get at the bags.  The clumsy plane stubbornly went down the runway picking up enough speed to become airborne and it chugged to Culebra.

It struck me that a neighbor of mine had died in a crash on a similar flight as we rapidly descended and made a sharp left to avoid slamming into the hillside to land.  It was a maneuver that wasn't standard operating procedure in many United Airlines flights.  The silence was deafening when the plane shut off the propellers.  It was the only plane at the tiny one room airport.  A boy came up to the plane and opened the door to allow the passengers to step out.  The passengers stood near the plane as he passed out our small pieces of luggage. A man sat on a bench with half closed eyes lazily looking at the scene with indifference.  The boy handed me my backpack and I walked into the airport.

I was here to scuba dive.  The dive was scheduled for 9a tomorrow.  There was no way to get to the island reliably prior to nine in the morning the day of the diving, which necessitated my overnight accommodations at a place called "Mamacita's Boarding House".  This is a place well off the grid of "Star Plus Rewards Points".  Having no idea on the location of Mamacita's, I approached the only three people in the small airport.  They were drinking coffee around a tiny counter and looked at me with surprise when I inserted myself into their circle.   I am not sure why this is the case, but the smaller the village, the more complex the directions to the destination.  An older woman gave me ten minutes of detail filled directions on how to get to Mamacita's which I can effectively summarize for you here:  Take a left out of the driveway.

I made a 15 minute walk past small cinderblock houses.  Wild chickens walked  everywhere.  Wiry cats slunk through dusty yards.  A man cooked chicken skewered on sticks over a fire in a kettle drum.  This is a great business as your supplies will walk right past you.  It's like having a popsicle stand and popsicles saunter near your cart.  People drove past in golf carts.  The few small storefronts specializing in selling things no one wants or needs began to shutter.  It's hard to even classify this as a town.  A multi colored hand painted building announced itself as Mamacita's.  A pre teen girl took my credit card and led me to my simple and clean room.  This would be fine.

I ate an entire red snapper with rice and beans at the bar on the back canal.  I tried to engage in small talk.  The bartender also worked as a dive instructor for the crew I would dive with tomorrow.  He assured me the diving would be good.  Stuffed, I had to walk off the food.  I paid my bill and asked if there was anything to look at or do here.  "Go left and walk towards the dock.  The Spot is a pretty good bar."

The sleepy town was really just a little street of tired one story buildings.  A small group of people sat on plastic chairs smoking cigarettes and drinking from plastic cups at the seedy looking Hotel Kokomo.  A young girl splayed her arms and head on the counter at a pizza place while old men stared above her head at the TV showing boxing.  I found The Spot easily enough.  It is a bar with five stools and a tough looking woman tending bar.  I was the only customer.  She charged me $6 for the best rum they had on the rocks.  I asked where the men's room was in this joint.  She said "It's out back.  I will get you the key."  That's ok.  I'll wait.

I took my drink outside and sat at one of the three tables on the sidewalk.  An old man sat at the table next to me.  He must have been about 90, and appeared to be the town pest who somehow continues on year after year despite complete neglect.  He motioned to me when he wanted to make a point.  I answered in broken Spanish.  He smoked an occasional Winston which he pulled from his sock.  The rum was very good quality with a coconut and butterscotch finish.  The late ferry docked.  We watched families tiredly walk home.  Men pushed carts with supplies.  Two men rode bareback on horses to see if they could haul anything for a small fee.  After the ferry was empty of passengers, quiet settled back over the street.  I walked back to my room.  

At the first hint of daylight the roosters started crowing.  This is a shame as it was 515am.  I'm in my room staring at the ceiling listening to the urgent crowing wondering if I can fall back asleep.  I had crazy dreams that I can't remember completely. They were unsettling but I don't know why.  I am supposed to dive at 9, I can't sleep, and so I read more Karl Ove Knausgard's never ending "My Struggle".  I shuffle over to the dock at 845 to meet my dive expedition.

I am the only one diving, and I am going with two Virginians that run the show.  These guys have clearly embraced the "island life".  Trevor has a laid back hippie vibe and sets me up with gear.  John is an older Irishman that reminds me of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.  "The national sport of this place is politics, and no one knows anything."  He seems like a salt of the earth, up by his bootstraps, probably Trump guy.  His bushy white mustache is stained brown from tobacco smoke.  His broken brown bottom teeth jut out when he is trying to add emphasis to a point.  He is crotchety and has firm opinions on everything.  I like him.  I think he is glad to have someone new to run his political commentary on.

The first dive is uneventful.  The visibility is good.  We drop to about 60 feet and nose around coral formations.  Angel fish, a couple big barracuda, and a large lobster hiding in a small cave are the highlights.  I feel good, in control.  It's good to be back in the water.  It's very calming.  Breath in.  Breath out.  We get back in the boat and make a quick run over to the second dive site, which is called Shoots and Ladders.

The idea of Shoots and Ladders is to drift with the current.  At a certain landmark, we need to make a turn and fight against the current to a swim through that will act almost like being spit through a straw.  In theory we will be shot out and then be enabled to hug the reef as we work around the corridor.  Such are the best laid plans of mice and men.

The current is really ripping.  We are drifting, completely without effort.  Yet the water is pushing us FAST.  The coral passes underneath us seemingly at increasing speeds.  We are really moving.  We move so fast in fact that we miss the swim through and get pushed out to sea.  By the time we ascend, we realize we are about a mile from the boat.  Trevor has no idea we are in back of him and is busy scanning the opposite direction.  This results in a monster swim as we kick our way back against the surface current to the boat.  John struggles with the orange buoy to alert the passing holiday jagoff boaters not to run us over.   It's not ideal.  Two Good Samaritans come over in a small boat with an outboard and ask if we are OK.  We give the OK sign as we keep kicking.

We get back to dock.  The guys are sheepish after the screwup at Shoots and Ladders.  It's ok by me.  I had fun.  They hand me a Medalla beer.  We drink our beers as the compressor putt putt putts away re-filling the air tanks.   Salsa music plays from a radio nearby.  A rooster crows.  No one is in too much of a hurry.  The island has about 70% unemployment.  Old men sit in chairs staring out waiting for something to happen.  It must be hard to maintain a sense of purpose here for all these unemployed.

I thank them for a good time and head out to Dinghy Dock Restaurant.  The restaurant is a small deck set against the natural harbor.  Dismissive waitresses eventually provide basic surface while giant tarpon swim up against the dock hoping someone tosses them a fry.  I toss them a fry.  The fry is immediately snatched by angry seagulls that appear from nowhere.  They yell their outrage about not having more fries and shit everywhere.  The other diners yell out at me in Spanish. I have made a mistake.  I pay my check with the heavy lidded waitress and leave.

I walk along the main road back to the airport.  It's hot when the mountains block the breeze.  I'm really tired so I buy an iced coffee from the tiny shop at the airport.  I sit on a stool outside and speak with the older hippie woman that runs it.  She is a classic Upstate New York artsy type, dressed in colorful flowing robes and with jangly bracelets.  I ask her if the island becomes small fast, and she says it can but they make their own fun.  The local librarian bought an old semi trailer.  She cut the trailer in half and converted it into a movie theater.  They show bootleg DVDs on a big screen TV.  BYOB.  Popcorn is $3.  The woman smiles at me and makes herself an espresso.  I sit on the stool and face the breeze.  The three airport employees lounge against the wall, waiting for something to do.  It's quiet as I wait for the plane.   


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