Friday, May 2, 2008

Grand Cayman

Confession: On Wednesday April 23, 2008, between 7:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., I consumed four large lobster tails, a house salad, several rolls, an assortment of steamed vegetables and at least two glasses of sauvignon blanc.
Excuse: I was merely getting my money's worth on all-you-can-eat lobster night at a Grand Cayman restaurant that caters to American appetites. Besides, we were on vacation, damn it.

A diving vacation, actually. A well-traveled diver once explained to me the difference between a diving vacation and a diving trip. On a diving vacation, you mix a few dives in with your gluttony, lying about, and overspending. On a diving trip, you get off the plane, throw your gear into the rental car, and drive directly to the boat. Over the next few days, you spend as much time in the water as you can without succumbing to nitrogen poisoning. In other words, you dive the way I went at hunting and fishing back in my teens, twenties, and early thirties. I don't go at anything that hard anymore, including work.

Normally, Grand Cayman Island would be way too upscale for a cheapskate like me, but my alert and resourceful left-brained wife put together a great deal, one of those tedious and confusing arrangements involving points, miles, credits, discounts, and upgrades.

Given a choice of vacation spots, I'll head to some mountain range or other or back to Kentucky. Jane will head for the ocean. I'm a decent swimmer, comfortable in water. Jane is powerful swimmer, a former life guard, who'd rather swim a mile than walk a mile. I'm convinced that her ears double as gills.

So we left glorious spring weather here in North Texas - crisp nights and mornings, highs in the low 70s, bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, tender greenery everywhere - to land on a Saturday afternoon in suffocating heat and humidity. Sweat ran down my sunglasses as I toted our gear from the little terminal to the rental car office. (Welcome to de island, mon!) I muttered something like, "I can have this shit in Houston in August." If Jane heard me, she held her tongue.

The intrepid divers head out to sea. We don't have an underwater camera, so we ended up with the standard ridiculous tourist photos ("...and here we are at Rum Point, standing next to the giant wooden lizard.")

* * *

When I was a kid, back in the early seventies, I did some diving with my father. Dad was a spear fisherman and volunteer diver for the local rescue squad. He and another squad member taught me the basics in the pool at tiny Campbellsville College, in my hometown. What I remember most from those lessons is the gentle amusement in Dad's brown eyes, behind his mask, as we passed his regulator back and forth in eight or ten feet of water during our "buddy-breathing" exercise. No doubt my eyes were big as silver dollars as I waited those few seconds for Dad to calmly take his two or three breaths before handing the regulator back to me.

After that, we did some shallow diving along the banks of Green River Reservoir, slow, easy diving, with decent visibility. We filled up a tackle box with lures that anglers lost to roots and stumps. The number of huge bass that hung around in six feet of water in the middle of a summer day astounded me.

Dad stored his personal diving gear in a small, faded army-surplus rucksack. I loved to go through it, and he didn't mind. He kept his mask and regulator in the main compartment, wrapped in rags. His compass and depth gauge went in side pockets. His knife, in its hard scabbard, was shoved to one side of the main compartment so that when the flap was closed the big orange handle protruded. The bundle smelled of old canvas, lake water, rubber, and a scent that I can only describe as "Dad." I relied on borrowed equipment, but I had my own rucksack, and I daydreamed about filling it with my own gear.

In his work with the rescue squad, Dad located and helped recover the remains of drowning victims. I asked him about it, and all he'd say was, "Usually you're right on top of the body before you recognize it. "

Then, on a cool, gray spring day, he descended into a deep, flooded quarry in search of a missing mother and her toddler and infant. He found the car in about thirty feet of water. The windows were down. He turned on his light and looked inside. After that, my unshakable father, a WWII combat veteran, lost interest in diving. I was too young to continue without him.

Years passed, and Dad seemed to get his second wind. Still vigorous in his early sixties, he bought a new bird dog pup - this first since his best old dog died a dozen years before - and regained his passion for old pursuits. He began to talk about diving again. By this time, a couple of years out of college, I could afford my own gear. We made some rough plans, noted improvements in equipment, looked at prices.

Then he died suddenly, and I let go all thoughts of diving.

* * *

A few years back, Jane announced that she wanted to go diving in the Caribbean. I told her she'd have to take lessons and get certified, and that I'd need to go through the training again. She let it drop, and I figured that was the end of it. But this past January, we saw "Bucket List," the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, about two cancer patients determined to do all of the things on their list - their bucket list - before they kicked the bucket. So they jumped out of planes, drove race cars, reconnected with family, and so on. A very funny and touching movie. Jane decided we'd get an early start on our bucket list. Next thing I knew she'd signed us up for scuba lessons. We finished our academic and pool lessons here in the Dallas area. We'd finish our certification with four successful training dives in the waters off Grand Cayman Island.

It all came back very quickly, though I had to adjust to major equipment improvements. For one thing, the old style of buddy-breathing is out; today's diver is equipped with a back-up secondary regulator for emergencies. Modern masks are far lighter, more comfortable, and easier to clear than the older models, though they lack the satisfying heft. No more confusing dive tables. A dive computer that attaches to your BC or wrist crunches the numbers for you.

Sunday morning on the island, we rigged up our gear, and, along with five other students, followed our instructor, Dave, down the ladder, through the rocks, and into water too clear and blue to be real.

Trouble, right off. This being my first saltwater dive, I underestimated the effect of the additional buoyancy. Twelve pounds of weight, I discovered, would barely get me under water. I worked way too hard maintaining reasonable depth as we worked our way out to the remains of an old cargo ship sunk by the British Navy in the 1920s. Jane kept looking back, motioning for me to get with it and keep up. It seems that descending thirty feet has little effect on a relationship. Still, I managed to get to the designated open spot on the bottom where we demonstrated a few necessary skills.

A bit later, as we switched out tanks in preparation for our second dive, Dave, a very reserved, patient young Brit, who'd said not a word about my struggles during the first dive, walked by and placed a four-pound weight in my hand. The second dive went much better.

* * *

It seemed to me that despite its posh restaurants and hotels, gorgeous beaches, rising financial prominence, and well-deserved reputation as a top diving and snorkeling destination, Grand Cayman Island hosts a high concentration of unhappy tourists. Eye contact was rare and fleeting, unless I happened to say "hi" or "good morning," which usually elicited a a startled glance and quickened pace. Grim or bored visages nearly everywhere, even on the beach. A typical breakfast scene: Jane and I are sitting at a table, sipping coffee and orange juice, enjoying the morning view of the beach. In walks a striking young woman, thirty-something with patrician good looks, followed by three or four young children, an uncomfortable-looking nanny and well-dressed and tonsured husband. The kids' eyes never leave their video games. The father's eyes rarely leave his Blackberry. They order without looking at the waiter. Other than the nanny' s corrections of the children, no one says anything. We noticed this sort of thing right off and saw it every day. Only in the tackiest tourist traps near Georgetown or out at Stingray Island, where crews from tour boats feed the stingrays to keep them around and tame, did folks seem to be having a big time.

Then there was the disappointing lack of birds. Maybe we were there at the wrong time of year for birding, but I expected lots of songbirds, gulls, and the like. Instead, I saw mostly white-winged doves, a few swallows, and lots of grackles. I don't believe I saw a single gull or wading bird. Maybe that's as it should be; I haven't checked into it. But I'll pass along a story. One night we were sitting in Sunset Grill, a hamburger and taco joint that became our favorite restaurant, (incredible fish tacos!) when a plane flew over so low that Jane thought it was about crash on the beach. I said it reminded me of a crop duster. The manager overheard our conversation, and said, "That's the mosquito plane. It comes over about this time every night. You've probably noticed that we have absolutely no mosquitoes." Actually, I hadn't noticed, most likely because, sure enough, there were no mosquitoes. Jane said that she was glad we weren't dining outside just then.

The life of the party. Your faithful correspondent in Paradise. Tired, sunburned, grouchy, and ready for supper.

* * *

The next two dives really were spectacular. We spent time about 70 feet deep, demonstrating proficiency with a compass and convincing Dave that we could take off our masks for a few seconds, put them back on and clear them without freaking out. Mostly, though, we eased along above the coral, watching turtles, tarpon, and schools of fish I couldn't identify. One of my regrets is that I didn't do more reading on the ecology of the island and its waters. Earlier that morning, a group of divers saw a hammerhead, so we kept an eye out, but didn't see one. Jane didn't seem especially disappointed.

Jane loves diving; she's thoroughly hooked. I like it. Actually, I took more pleasure in her delight than in the actual diving. Although I was quite comfortable, save for mild ear squeeze that forced me to slow my descent and equalize more often, I couldn't help but feel like a foreign object. Maybe it was the Darth Vader hiss of breathing from a tank. Maybe I prefer the mystery of something coming from unseen depths to take my fly, lure, or bait. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky and prefer to spend my time where I feel I belong. Or perhaps the world's best diving can't match the wonder of being a kid six feet deep in a Kentucky lake, easing along with Dad, looking at schools of largemouth bass and bream, keeping an eye out for lures tangled in the brush.


Matt Mullenix said...

What a meaty and satisfying post. Thanks Henry!

The section on your dad was very moving. Mine is still with me, 72year old, and twice in recent years he has come out to Amarillo on my hawking trips.

Incedentaly, my hawking "trips," while still vigorous excersizes in manly pursuits, are slowly becoming hawking "vacations." :-)

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks for your kind words, Matt. I think it's great that you're dad goes with you on some of your hawking trips. I can't go afield, especially with dogs, without missing my father, and he's been gone for 23 years.

mdmnm said...

Great! All I can do is echo Matt's comment. Thanks!

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks, Mike! I get a little long-winded sometimes.