Facing Fears

We all have fears. JFK said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” These last few days I have been addressing a nearly lifelong fear of drowning. At 8 years old, I fell through the ice on a gravel pit pond. I remember it vividly. The snow was deeper than I was tall. The temperature was literally less than -20*F. My friends and I bundled up for Winter adventure at the gravel pit. I could go on about the things we did, but not this blog. Suffice to say we always wanted to cross that lake.  Surely it was frozen at his point. I had little if any fear. Of course, as always, I would lead the expedition because the others had fear, and rightfully so (we were a band of young daredevils). About halfway across, the ice broke. I plummeted in slow motion into the water that was well over my head. I still remember the blue ring of light from the hole. All else was grey and black. I could feel the water soaking my clothes and pulling me under more. I swam up with all my strength to the blue ring. I popped back through the hole. My friends were there with broken branches from our daredevil sledding. I grabbed on and they pulled me out to the thicker ice. My clothes began to freeze. We quickly trekked to my house, and my father tended to me there. And it was that day that fear itself was planted.
I have swam my whole life. Usually by jumping off something high above the water, or swinging off a rope. But, that fear was always there. I had an incident in water just before I turned 19. I swam less and less after that. Only jumping or water skiing could really get me in anything over my head. I snorkeled with a vest a few years ago. I went surfing a few months ago. These things somewhat addressed the fear. I faced it. That is not to say I conquered it. It was standing right there on that surfboard with me.
So this time, I have set out to conquer it; to slay the Dragon. I am training for my open water scuba diving certification. I am halfway there. Two of 4 open water dives complete today. The first one, a dive from shore to depth went fine. My instructor was pleased and so was I. It was amazing and beautiful, serene and surreal. I felt great. But, I knew that Dragon was not dead. He was injured and bleeding, but not dead.
A good lunch and a short nap, and it was time for dive #2. We got in the boat and headed for open water. As the island diminished behind us, the Dragon tapped me on the shoulder. I was not surprised. I knew he was there the whole time. A pre-dive buddy check, a quick how-to, and I was rolling off the boat backwards into over 40 feet of water without a pedestal anywhere. That Dragon was breathing fire now. Some deep slow breaths and calming words from my instructor brought me around to the task at hand. We didn’t come out to bob on the surface. We came to dive.
Down we went, forty feet. The Dragon was drowning. But, he wasn’t going down without a fight. He reared his ugly head. I looked up and saw the blue ring. I couldn’t get enough air. I signaled to go up. My instructor gave me the OK? signal. I shook my head ‘no’. The Dragon was standing on my head crushing me with visions of the blue ring and questions of why I was there, and spears of self doubt. The water seemed so heavy. I was breathing too shallow. I convinced myself I had an equipment failure. I had every weapon of knowledge, and the Dragon laughed. I ditched those weapons and headed for the surface, albeit too fast. My instructor stayed with me. We broke the surface to the air. My mouth was clenched to the regulator. I was still breathing through it. There was nothing wrong with my equipment.
My instructor asked me what was wrong. I told him fear was there. He scolded me for the fast ascent. I had endangered him and myself. He talked me through the fear. He reminded me of my successful dive earlier that day. It was time to carry on or get in the boat and call it quits. Not my style, time for another round with the Dragon. We made a slow descent. My instructor aware of, and guiding my breath. We got down to 30-something feet. “OK?” was the signal. “OK”, I signaled back. Instead of doing the tests right away, we took a leisurely swim. We went over the coral and vegetation to the next sandy bottom. I was ready to beat the Dragon this round. I flooded my mask and cleared it twice. I pulled my air regulator from my own mouth and threw it behind me. And then calmly, with textbook style, I recovered it. I purged it with my own fire-breathing Dragon breath, and began breathing underwater again. I was thrilled. And, my instructor was  happy and congratulatory. Finally, we simulated out of air and air sharing return to surface. Simulated indeed. We were still on the bottom with air for about 30 more minutes of exploring the reef. The fish welcomed us. The sea fans waved like angel wings. I looked around 360*. The Dragon was gone for now. I played with fine tuning buoyancy with my lung capacity. We practiced hand signals and enjoyed the scenery until my air was low.
The last exercise before surfacing was an out of air, buddy assisted, alternate air ascent, slowly to the surface. I was disappointed the time had went by so fast. I was happy the Dragon was down, and that I was loading into the boat without him.
Tomorrow is the last confined dive, and 2 more open water dives. If I beat the Dragon those 3 rounds,  I will surely ace the certifying written test.
I now know that in the end, I do not have to slay the Dragon. All have to do is not fear him. JFK didn’t say, “Have no fear.” He told us to not fear the Dragon. That is what will get ya. I hear ya, Jack. And your words will be on the ocean floor with me tomorrow.


So, today was a beautiful day. Rain clouds circled the local cayes all day. But the Sun prevailed, and visibility at 60ft below was promising to be clear. I had breakfast and went over my studies with my instructor. Then some yoga, and a short meditation. It was time to dive again. Out into the open waters to Stovepipe reef. It was quite fitting, and comforting, that Captain Jack, a local fisherman was at the helm. Again in the choppy waters I sparred with the Dragon, all the way to sea floor. I touched bottom and demonstrated skills for my instructor. I did not fear the fear. President Jack’s words were with me. I knew at that moment that there were hundreds of people all over the world safely scuba diving. I was safely scuba diving too. All of our equipment checked out fine. We had plenty of air. I had a great instructor as my dive buddy. And he was relaxed and smiling. Like all the other skills he taught me, I mimicked those.  The Dragon was tamed. I need not slay him. I put him on the leash that I had been on.
Lunch, nap, yoga, meditation and it was time to dive again. I was ready. We did skills again, and added navigation with a compass. Then it was tour time. It was my time. I was free and breathing in calm clear waters 60 feet under blue choppy seas. I was better at controlling my buoyancy. We got close to the coral teeming with fish, lobsters, crab, sponges, and surreal vegetation. I could see the blue ring. It was OK. Captain Jack was up there waiting, just following our bubbles. I could have stayed down for another hour, but conserving air will be an acquired skill on my next dives. I wonder if the Dragon needs a wet suit. I have mixed feelings about pets wearing clothes.

Oh yeah, Bob Marley was right. I saw theses 3 little birds when I first got here. And I knew, “Every lit’l ting is gonna be all right” I took this picture to remind me.



Yesterday Began Early

After my late night with the two Annes, I got early start as the sun rose in cloudy skies. With advice garnered the night before, I made my way to the taxi stop. Within minutes I got a ride, that afterwards I realized I could have walked in the same amount of time. Once again, I had unwittingly contributed to the local economy.
The local island hopper was very accommodating. The lowing flying high-wing 4-seater provided great views of the shallow bottoms of the Belizean coastline.
The gravel surfaced runway at the Belize Airstrip, was was right at the water’s edge. With a 30-or-so minute layover, I thought I’d find a coffee. Luckily, this terminal had a small kitchen, attended by a modern-day Maya named Mira. Upon my refusal of styrofoam (especially in a microwave), she graciously made my microwaved hot water (for instant coffee) in her personal coffee cup. I decided to try one of her homemade not-too-sweet coffee cakes. We continued our conversation about my anti-styrofoam stance, which transitioned to the origin of her cup. It was a gift from her son. She had kept it for 23 years. He had given it to her around 1st grade age. He was killed at the age of 22, during a hurricane a few years back. So, we engaged in topics of life and death, love and marriage, and home and travel, all of them overlapping.
Finally, off again on my final leg to Dangriga in an 8-seated, dual-prop high-high wing. I got a taxi to the dock. We stopped on the way to make change. It forced me to buy a couple beers. It is quite rude to just ask for change… Right?
I was dropped at the dock. I was informed my boat crew was out shopping and would return in an hour. I went into the nearest cafe and ordered some local fare. An obviously poor local began chatting me up. Rather than give him change, I offered him lunch. He accepted, and promptly started giving all the local tips, and included valuable bus route information for my exit upon return from the island.
My island host showed up and said he still had a couple things to handle. I told him, “No hurries, no worries. I am on vacation.” He looked at me and smiled. We were gonna get along just fine.
The boat ride out was beautiful and uneventful. I occasionally turned to see the mainland disappear behind 9.9 nautical miles of blue Caribbean seas. I was barely unpacked when a light knock and a child’s voice told me that my lunch was ready.
The afternoon followed with travel conversation with soon to be departing guests. In the lull, I caught a nap. Afterwards, I took a walk. I talked with a local fisherman cleaning conch that would be my dinner that night. He said that he would free dive about 15 feet down for them. As we chatted standing in the shallow water, several manta rays came and fed on the trimmings at our feet. We could touch and stroke them. They were even playful with us and each other.
The evening came on and dinner was served. I dined with 2 couples, one from Wyoming. And the other couple were newlyweds from Rome. Conversation with the host was wide and varied for the rest of the evening. The sprinkles grew into a true rain as I turned in for a good night of sleep. The steady pitter-patter sent me softly into another dreamland.
I awoke to a foggy predawn twilight and the sounds of the warm sea lapping the rocks and sandy beach. I languished in bed listening to the birds, ocean, and wind in the trees.
After breakfast, I walked a couple laps around the small island, stopping at a small shack selling beer and snacks. I ordered a Belikin. While I chatted with the shopkeeper, Margot, she offered up a shot of a concoction of bitters liquor and herbs. It was quite tasty.
Now, after lunch, sitting on the deck watching pelicans dive for fish about 10 feet away, I feel like another nap.
A fine slice of paradise I have found to learn to scuba dive….

Not lost, just wandering….

The Adventure Begins

About 12 hours ago I wrote a blog post. In a quick series of events, that post was lost in the sands of time and cyberspace. I will get back to that, after I re-begin my story…
Last night I was as prepared as I have ever been for a trip. I pared down a pile of stuff into a 35lb backpack and a 15lb duffle bag. I felt like I was slightly over packed, yet I felt everything had its purpose. I decided I would bare this weight, figuratively and quite literally. Still, I could not bring myself to sleep. I was restless and excited to embark on a journey I had envisioned years ago. This plan lay dormant until the possibility arose late last year. I came up a few dollars and a few days short of being able to make it happen, and still adhere to my commitments further down the calendar. This year things fell into place, and it has now come to fruition. I was preparing to cross the smallest continent by backpack.
I began by crossing the border from North America into Central America over land. Sure I could just fly into Belize City and begin there. But, it just seems worth the effort to cross that border by land. It just seems more complete in my mind.
So there I sat, waiting for my dawn departure to Cancun. Fidgeting with my luggage contents and their optimal placement, and other busy work to kill time. Sleep was only a concern to be avoided. No way I was going to miss my flight by over sleeping.
I made it thru the airport in stellar fashion. I paced the terminal until boarding. Sleep came quickly after reaching altitude above the freezing cold and snow storm below.
I awoke in the B seat, between a retired couple, who purposely chose their seating arrangement. We had pleasant and humorous conversation for the short remainder of the flight.
Luggage pickup, customs, and duty free booze were a breeze. Less than 10 minutes later I was on the bus, and on my way to my transfer to the border. The transfer had a little confusion and a slightly late bus.
The bus shows up and I am one the last to board. Luckily I get my prefered seat on the driver’s side, which is also the ocean side. Another stroke of luck; my phone begins chirping with accumulated emails and texts. One of which saying that I have unlimited text and web, because (unbeknownst to me) it was part of my global connection plan that included a national Mexican carrier.
With a long ride ahead of me, I figured I would tap out a blog post thru traffic, and sleep the long steady ride.
So, that brings us full circle to the beginning of this post. I finished some semblance of the preceding story. I added a couple pics, and clicked post. A couple of minutes into the upload, I got a low battery warning. At that moment, before I could reach for my auxiliary backup battery, I noticed some construction workers gathered at the curb with their hard hats off. There was a young man lying just out of the way of the traffic, but still on the asphalt. A small pool of blood puddled where his head touched the pavement. His strapless hard hat was lying a foot or so from his head. He clearly had died within moments of my bus window passing within a couple feet of him. I had never experienced human death in such close proximity of space and time. It was slow motion time as we passed. My eyes captured many details of the scene like a long time exposure of a camera. I can still see it; probably will forever. The hard hats off with bowed heads, the traffic cop holding the space, the washed grey of the pavement contrasting with the rich red of the fresh blood, the procession of ceaseless rush hour traffic, the faded white buildings decorated for Christmas, the people one block away totally oblivious to what had happened 100 or so feet away, and so much more…
As I transitioned from this surreal moment demonstrating the frailty of life, I noticed to that my phone had died as well. And with it, my blog post was gone too. I pictured the young man’s soul riding the lost radio waves of my post into another dimension. I recited the Gayatri Mantra 3 times to ground my experience, and perhaps propel him peacefully to the great beyond.
I slept restlessly for the next few hours of the bus ride, as the sun sank in front of the windshield. And the day turned into night.
I arrived at the terminal hungry. With the help of an unknown fellow on the bus, I sorted a taxi ride to the border. But first, local fare from a street vendor. Delicioso!
The friendly taxi driver overcharged me a bit, but was very pleasant. He spoke some English and gave me the lowdown on crossing the border. The Mexican exit was $25, but otherwise friendly and painless. The Belizean entry was free and easy. I was happy to be back in Belize. A place where English is taught in school and the exchange rate is a quick 2 to 1.
While waiting for the van to town, a young girl who had overheard my destination at the terminal, offered a free ride with her and her father. They brought me to this guest house. I had great conversation on socially and environmentally pertinent topics, with two lovely Belizean ladies, both named Anne, as we drank icy rum and Cokes. I knew I would not sleep until I penned or tapped this blog post. But, the time was well spent with them.
It was a beautiful day; leaving the snow to bask in the sun. My eyes grow weary as I finalize this blog (Who got the Primus reference?)
For the next few days I will be facing fears on a remote island atop the Great Barrier Reef. Hopefully I will live through it, and make anther blog post by Friday. Surely, at that point, I will be embracing my fragile, adventurous life