We arrived in Belize City around 11 am on a Friday. We cleared customs smoothly and walked across the airport parking lot to the car rental offices. They were small, with only one attendant for three different rental companies. We advised the woman working that we had a reservation and she replied, “You are early and the car isn’t ready yet. Do you mind waiting?” Cars are so few and far between in Belize that there were probably only three or four cars available for rent. We chatted with her while we waited and learned that Belize only has four stoplights. Not Belize City. Belize. As in the whole country. She also told us to be careful not to get onto the Old Coastal Highway when we drove to Placencia (where we were headed that night) as it was a long, dirt road with no where to stop and the ride was very, very rough.
The car was ready soon and we headed into Belize City for lunch and pictures with the relatively new BELIZE sign. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare as we had to make it to Placencia before 4 pm, which was about a three hour drive. We were planning on doing a few scuba dives the next day and needed to make a reservation with a local dive shop. Unfortunately, the dive shops won’t take reservations online or over the phone; you have to make them in person. I had a few places spotted, but there was no guarantee that they would have availability, so time was of the essence. I put the address into the ‘Maps with Me’ app and we were on our way.
About an hour into the drive, we turned onto Manatee Highway, which soon turned to a dirt road. I think we both thought it was just a short section of the road that would be dirt, and didn’t think much about it. But about five miles in, we realized that we had a long way to go on this rock and dirt path. We spent over two hours driving on this road, passing only three cars, and not a single dwelling or building. We later learned that this was in fact the Old Coastal Highway we had been warned about. Whoops!
We arrived in Hopkins first. One of the dive shops was located here and we checked to see if they had room the next day for us to dive. Nope. That one wasn’t an option. Back in the car and into Placencia we went. Placencia is a very narrow peninsula off the coast of Belize, about a half mile wide and ten miles long. Our hotel was halfway down the peninsula and we stopped to check in and see if they had any diving the next day. Nope. They didn’t have any openings either. We drove another five miles down the peninsula, including a curvy road that drove around the Placencia airport, with needles that would stop traffic when small propellor planes were taking off and landing, so as not to collide with the planes.
We arrived at Splash Dive and a few minutes later found ourselves signing waivers and providing contact info for our dive the next morning. It was really happening. And I was scared shitless yet again.
As we drove back to the hotel, I told Tony that I was really nervous and almost wanted to back out. “You? But you’re such an adventure seeker. Why are you scared?” We talked in length about the fact that I loved adventure but many, many times I had to force myself into doing things that scared me. I explained that I feel so lucky that I am able to do things, albeit hard at times, that I can’t just sit back and not do them. I, at the time of signing up for things, often hate that I push myself to such discomfort, but always, in the end, have a feeling that can only be accomplished from very specific adrenaline rushes. And so I fought the nerves and knew I would be jumping into the Atlantic Ocean the next day.
We woke up early and packed our bags (we were heading to San Ignacio that night) and had breakfast on the beach. It really should have been a very calming moment for me, but I was so incredibly anxious that I was just going through the motions. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything that could go wrong. What if I couldn’t get my buoyancy under control and I just sunk straight to the bottom, hitting a wall of coral reef that’s as sharp as razor blades? What if I sank too far, beyond what I was trained to do? What if I got sick on the boat ride to the dive site? Well, forget that, I was going to make myself sick just thinking about everything that could go wrong. Heck, I was halfway there already, feeling my heart beat stressfully as we drove to the dive shop. I was in utter silence. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and I didn’t want to think about this. I wanted to get it over with.
This continued for the next two hours – as we prepped our gear, as we rode comfortably in a mini-yacht to our dive site, and as our dive master gave us a briefing on what we were about to see. I had made up my mind by now that I was only going to do the first of the two dives that day. Scuba just isn’t for me.
My gear was strapped to my back and I was breathing oxygen through my regulator. “Ready?” one of the dive masters asked as he held my tank. I gave him the thumbs up and he let go of me. I was seated on the edge of the boat. I leaned back ever so slightly, my hands holding firmly onto my mask, and fell five feet into the water, the aluminum tank on my back breaking my fall. Just a mere three seconds later and I resurfaced. I gave the ‘I’m ok’ symbol to the crew onboard, swam a short distance to the dive master in the water, and he said, “Let’s go down!” Just like that. I had barely had time to grasp what was going on and I was releasing air from my BCD and sinking into the ocean. I had told myself over and over, “You know what you’re doing. You’ve had the training. Just stay calm.” And as soon as I was two feet under, it was a like a whole new paradise. I can’t even begin to explain it. I dove down with our group to about 55′ and just floated, a few inches from the coral and sea life. All of my anxiety and fears were left at the surface. Tony was having some weight issues and wasn’t sinking, so he worked with someone on the surface to resolve it. I kept thinking the whole time that I hope they can get him down soon. He can’t miss this. And shortly thereafter he was swimming towards us.
We floated along slowly, taking in every minute and every view. I thought to myself how different it was under the water. It really is an entirely different world. The colorful fish swam by, minding their own business. What it must be like to be a sea creature – there are no worries of things that occur on the surface. No time. No stresses about money, or education, or dangers from terrorists or war. There’s an incredibly massive area of pure peacefulness, only disrupted by the things we are doing on the surface.
I was monitoring my air levels carefully, and after 30 minutes, indicated to my dive master that it was time to go up. We surfaced quickly and I couldn’t wait for the next dive. I couldn’t wait to just float in the water again, away from the stresses of the world I reside in. So yes, I did complete both dives that day. The amount of time we had under the water is just not enough. It never will be.
Our day ended with the sun setting as we headed back to the mainland. I sat on the back of the boat, with the wind blowing around me, and looked out across the ocean. It is a moment I will never forgot. I was feeling pure happiness. Maybe it was the after effects of a huge adrenaline rush, or maybe it was the smell of the ocean and the view of the crystal clear water that was creating my high, but whatever it was, it was a feeling I will never forget. I had just conquered my fears and the payoff was so, so incredibly rewarding. I thought at that moment, like I have many times before, that I must be the luckiest person alive.
Ironically, Tony and I chatted later the next day about this. We were driving through a very remote and impoverished town in Belize and he asked why I liked to visit towns that were full of poverty in such rural areas. I replied quickly, “Because it puts my life in perspective.”
He commented that the had the same feeling on the boat after our dives. He couldn’t help but think that most of the people living in Belize will never get to experience scuba diving (more or less scuba diving in one of the best places in the world) and the joy it brings from their own country. That the amount of money we spent for a day of diving is the amount of money many of them make in a month. We really are lucky, some of the luckiest, if you ask me.