I stare up at a mosaic of clouds passing up above me through the bit of window I have access to from my current, odd predicament. My neck is crooked over my friend’s arm as he passively tries to support my head, the rest of my body sprawled across two more bodies in the back seat of a small taxi. My co-workers and I are heading into town for a weekend of well-deserved debauchery after 10 days of being on the clock 24/7. I can’t really see where we are or where we’re going, but when I finally do glance up I can see we’re about to take a left at the cross streets of Tamarindo and Villarreal.
I’ve become somewhat familiar with this particular cross street, especially after trying to describe said location some weeks ago to the taxi driver who confirmed how bad my Spanish is by taking me to the opposite side of town. It was Independence Day. My personal Independence Day, in fact. Not to say it wasn’t also the same day as the United States’ celebration back home, but on this particular day I was celebrating my own one-year liberation from a life I didn’t belong to. You might ask if I purposely planned to leave my fiancé on the fourth of July, but no… A series of events happened in the months and days leading up to the fourth that naturally placed me in my dining room that early July morning, having the fateful conversation that sealed the end of our relationship. I left the house that day shaken, relieved and somewhat terrified of the huge gaping hole that was growing in both my heart and what felt to be my future.
By some lucky coincidence I ended up with the fourth off this year. While my coworkers were floating the river with our students, I struck out on my own to do some scuba diving. It’s been years since I’ve done any diving, but from what I recall I thoroughly enjoy being under water and exploring the big open blue. Only last time I was traveling through Thailand and Cambodia with my ex, and back then I thought that might be the last of our diving adventures. The majority of the time we went scuba diving he’d emerge with a mask full of blood, a very concerning sight as we broached the surface. The last two times we dived in Cambodia he was left writhing in pain for hours; it was the most uncomfortable I had ever seen him.
But now scuba diving is something I can pursue as a solo flyer and on this Independence Day that’s exactly what I intend to do. I book the trip a few days before, coordinate a ride with a local taxi driver and set out at 6:20am the day of to head to the cross streets of Tamarindo and Villareal, the meeting point of this excursion. After a detour across town and way too much time fumbling through google translate to get my point across, I end up at the cross streets to find an unmarked grey jeep patiently waiting for my arrival. The fact it’s unmarked makes me feel weary and I momentarily wonder if I am about to be driven to my death (while traveling in foreign places I always assume I could die until proven otherwise). All the taxis here are unmarked too, so this isn’t that unusual. I’m not even sure the taxis here are real taxis- locals might just be stopping to make some extra money on their way across town. Hard to say. It usually feels like I’m literally jumping into the back of a stranger’s car, pretending I’m totally confident about my decision in doing so even though there is some part of me that is smiling, ironically (moronically?), on the inside that this might be the day I finally use the throat punching technique I’ve been saving for a special someone.
My diving instructor and I drive along, making small talk while I ask a series of questions to confirm he is in fact the diving instructor- there’s still nothing obvious about what’s happening that would indicate this in indeed my dive instructor, other than some answers that feel somewhat satisfactory. It’s not until he gets a phone call from an associate needing a ride whose similarly unmarked jeep sits on the side of the road, the back seat full of fellow tourists, that I begin to feel like I’m for sure in the right place. We pick them up and stop at a small shop to get fitted. I’m offered (and gladly accept) a cup of coffee, sitting down in a seat near the entrance. It has just become blatantly apparent I have forgotten everything about scuba diving, a realization that hits me when I’m asked whether I was trained on PSI or bar. I pretend like I know the answer to this and blurt out PSI, immediately realizing I’m only familiar with PSI because that’s what I look for when I’m filling up my tires. I try to give off the notion that I’m calm, cool, collected and composed while, really, I’m frantically scrolling through my phone looking up how to scuba dive. The more I read, the more I feel entirely unequipped for this.
We climb back into the jeep and head toward the ocean. A commuter boat picks us up and transports us to a larger boat, where I hand over my sandals and climb in. The back of the boat is loaded with tanks and other scuba supplies. A handful of instructors and guests are on board, each instructor representing a different company. Luckily, I’m the only one who booked with my instructor today, which gives me a bit of relief as I try to transparently admit to him that I have no idea what I’m doing. Looking back, maybe I wasn’t entirely transparent to how unsure I felt in that moment- my knee-jerk reaction in most situations is to act more confident than I actually am. Maybe it’s a first child thing. Maybe it’s a Taurus thing. Whatever it is, it’s a blessing and a curse, and in this moment, I’m in it and this is happening, so I settle in for the longer drive to our dive site, maybe 45 minutes to an hour out.
Waves toss over a rocky island landscape, it’s massive carved features creating a scope of perspective that leaves me feeling very puny and very in awe; I’d be feeling extremely insecure if we were any closer to its tumultuous banks. We’re some yards out though and I get to slipping on my wet suit. The boat rocks heavily as I concentrate on keeping a strong grip on anything to stay upright, I’m sure a really graceful site to behold (it wasn’t). After zipping up I make my way over to the stern, sitting down in front of my oxygen tank and place my arms through the life jacket (it’s actually called a BCD- Buoyancy Compensation Device). I strap the weighted belt around my waste and buckle everything in. I’m handed my mask and stretch it over my head. The tank is open, so I place the regulator in my mouth to get a feel for breathing through the mouth piece. I immediately notice the decrease in air quality. Nothing beats the breathing of high quality fresh air, but I suppose this will due.
I waddle to the end of the boat, holding my mask with one hand, the other hand firmly attached to the boat as I keep myself in balance. A few moments of hesitation pass before I lift my hand off the railing and place it over my regulator. With my right leg out first, I move my body weight over the edge and allow myself to take the plunge. The waves move over me, but between my mask and mouth piece I feel comfortable being bombarded. Breathing still seems difficult, but I remind myself it will probably take some time to adjust.
My instructor and I swim out a bit farther from the boat. He carries a buoy with a line attached so I can use it the first time we head down, a way to ease me back into this process a bit more. He asks if I’m ready and I give him the okay sign. We begin our decent and almost immediately I decide… I am drowning. I am for sure drowning. I wave to him we need to go back up. Granted, we are probably a foot under water, but he obliges and I emerge, taking the regulator out of my mouth to gasp for air. I tell him I couldn’t breath and he checks my tank. It’s open and full. He tries my backup regulator and says its working, then tries mine. He shrugs, commenting that he thinks it’s fine, before trying his own and admits that I’m definitely not getting the same amount of air. He realizes that the pressure of going under water cuts it off even more. We swim back to the boat and trade my regulator for a new one.
We’re back at the buoy, waves lapping up around us. He asks if I’m ready. Am I? My heart feels panicky after what felt like a near death experience. But today… Today is my Independence Day and I am going to fulfill my badass duty and do the damn thang, so I try to gather my wits about me and give him the go ahead. We begin the decent and I immediately notice the way claustrophobia sets in as I slowly make my way down the rope. Oh. My. Gosh. Why am I doing this? My thoughts dart back and forth like a crazy person. Am I going to die? I might die. Is this dying? I might be dying. I try to equalize, holding my nose and blowing out, but my right ear continues to fill with pressure. It releases a little. I let more air out of my jacket as we continue the decent. My mask fills with a little water. I blow it out. Equalize. Clear my mask. Claustrophobia. My ear hurts. Positive affirmation: I am not dying. Positive affirmations currently failing. The walls are closing in. There are no walls. What is a body? I think I might pass out.
I look around and see stars. Oh my gosh. I am seeing stars now! I really am dying! I am going to lose consciousness down here and this poor dude is going to have to save me. I wave at him and give him the sign that I am seeing stars. That is not a real sign and he has no idea what I’m talking about but has me follow him back up anyway. We come back up to the surface once again and I take off my mask, remove the regulator from my mouth and breath in this most gracious thing we call air. He asks me if I’m okay and I tell him I thought I was going to pass out. He assures me I’m fine and suggests I take longer more controlled breaths next time. Duh, Drake. Like a meditation. Ain’t no thang.
But it is a thang, and there is very little part of me that wants to go back down there. Except, that is, for the part that reminds me I am a strong, independent woman who doesn’t let her fears control her. If they did, I would still be stuck in a life I loathed, but I’m not and instead I’m currently in the oceans of Costa Rica with this attractive Argentinian man (who probably thinks I’m a huge pain in the arse right now) living this amazing life adventure. And so we continue.
We begin our decent for the third time and I try to focus on my breath. My attention occasionally switches between equalizing and clearing out my mask. I feel a little neurotic, but continue to return to long, deep, controlled breaths. I look at my oxygen levels, disappointed each time I look down and see how little time has passed since the last time I checked. I hear myself thinking about how terrified I am of scuba diving and how great snorkeling is. “The views are great up there. What is the point of coming all the way down here just to see the same thing? I think I’m going to stick to snorkeling. Snorkeling is safer. Why would anyone ever want to scuba dive anyway?” Conversely, I wonder when this whiney, nagging voice moved into my brain. Surely, this doesn’t belong to me? I make note that I’ll have to see if I kept the receipt so that I can return it later- I don’t think this inner voice fits me and the person I want to become.
We continue on. I see an eel, an array of beautiful fish, a spotted ray, a shark. These things are all pleasant. Even the shark. What I continue to observe though is how uncomfortable I am in my own skin, in how unpleasant the present moment has become. I continue to breathe deeply in between equalizing and blowing air out of my nose to clear my mask, still patiently waiting for this whole thing to end. The instructor has me check my regulator and its finally time to start heading up. I sigh a little as we begin the ascent.
The truth is, it probably has become somewhat harder for me to remain present in the last year. This last 365 days have been filled with more discomfort, pain and uncertainty than I have experienced in my whole life combined. I have cried more tears than ever before, prayed more than ever before and generally been at an entire loss as to what the heck I am doing. Being present, being truly present, means to feel the depth of my pain that I still carry around with me, and sometimes I’m too tired to feel that burden.
When we talk about presence, we often refer to the quality of our thoughts. Are we thinking about the past? The future? Our wants, desires, needs, fears, or dreams? Are our thoughts positive and helpful, or are they negative and fearful? In every moment some concoction of these brew within us, providing the flavor by which we experience the world around us. In this particular experience, I can see the way these thoughts might not be doing me any favors.
On the other side, presence isn’t just about what our thoughts are doing, but what our body is doing as well. Emotional strife leaves real, tangible pain inside of us. Hearts ache and nervous systems go into shock. Eyes well with feeling and leave proof of life as they carve permanent maps along our faces. Sometimes there are no thoughts at all, just the retracing of wounds etched into our very being- some raw, exposed and at times festering so that we may better come to know and name them. With some luck and time maybe we’ll find they heal.
I’m back onboard the boat, half way stripping off my wet suit, cold and shivering, but acknowledging the experience itself was fine. Scuba diving wasn’t the factor bringing me down; it was only what was going on inside of me that altered the experience. We wait for the rest of the group to join us again and I snack on some pistachios. I decide the second dive will be better as the boat moves just north, closer to the rock face.
We descend without a buoy this time, and I feel mostly at ease. I’ve tapped into a greater sense of personal security, a real and true confidence. I look out into the beautiful blueness that seems to go on forever, noticing the magical bubbles surrounding me in every direction. Stars. I laugh at myself, realizing in my panic earlier how my mind turned this beautiful scene into a dungeon. I breath comfortably as a school of fish glide by. We float effortlessly along the bottom, my guide pointing out a few subspecies of eel. Tuna swim above us. A four or five-foot pregnant shark rests on the sandy floor, just a few feet away from us, before realizing we’re intruding on her and she swims away annoyed. We continue on, emerging through the coral to find another half dozen shark lounging about. The shark don’t scare me. On the other hand, the harmless, 4-7 meter manta rays living in the area make me a little nervous, although I’m not sure why and we never come across them anyway.
I look at my regulator much less this time. I take in much more of my surroundings and observe how peaceful it is to be in my body and my mind in this place, on my own, living my best damn life in Costa Rica. I feel joy. As I swim along, brief moments of panic do occasionally try to poke into the experience, but I smile at them, letting them know this moment too shall pass, that I am protected, that I am loved and that I am safe. And before I know it, I’ll be at the surface again. Tomorrow, I’ll be back at work. Some weeks will pass and eventually, I’ll find myself crammed into the back of a taxi, starring up at a partially cloudy sky as we take a left on the cross streets of Tamarindo and Villarreal.