As I’ve illustrated in some past horror stories, long-term travel isn’t all glitz and glamour. Some days you’re riding high: you get a free bus ride, you meet some amazing locals and have amazing conversation, you grab the last tour time at a popular site before it closes, and you stumble across a town’s best-kept-local-secret-restaurant. Other times, your bus runs late and you miss a transfer, the locals try to scam you, you miss every last site you wanted to see in a location, and you get sick drinking contaminated water.
Mexico was the first time in Michael and mine’s dual travels that things went really downhill for us both. Sure, there were good things – the turtles at Akumal were pretty dope, and the beaches in the Yucatan are still amazing, no matter what’s going on in your life – but we also ran into a string of unfortunate events that cast a pallor over the entire experience.
The Beginning of our Bad Luck
It all started upon entry: As we crossed from Belize into Mexico, Michael was stopped and documented at the border for trying to bring produce between countries. (Admittedly, it was some pieces of fruit that he was carrying for me because I couldn’t fit them in my bag. Oops.) Around the same time I developed a slight head cold and had to deal with an annoying runny nose and exhaustion for days on end. Then, when we finally made it to Tulum we found ourselves in the kind of social-hierarchy hostel where there is a definitive group of cool kids. Walking in there, sweaty from travel, one of our noses dripping and the other exhausted from long conversations with the Fruit Patrol, we suddenly felt like the awkward new kids in a tight-knit rural high school.
And then Tulum wasn’t all I had proclaimed it to be. It turns out that after several months of travel, Tulum quickly became less impressive than it was as my first stop six months before. In comparison to the places we’d been in the past month, it was touristy, pricey, and relatively difficult to travel around.
Even with all the flashy western amenities, though, it wasn’t able to save us when Michael realized that all of his hearing aid batteries had died when they came in contact with a magnet in his backpack. Every single shopkeeper we spoke with in Tulum stared at us with blank eyes while we tried to describe what we needed. We motioned furiously at his hearing aids, pointed to packs of AAA batteries and explained that we needed smaller ones, employed our best Spanish and pantomiming in combination, but to no avail. So in an attempt to make the best of it and do as Tulum (travelers) do, we bought a bottle of tequila – and promptly underestimated its power. I woke up the next morning swimming in sweat and cringing through the throb of my headache.
Playa del Carmen and our Mexican Mistakes
A few days later we said “good riddance” to Tulum and made our way to Playa del Carmen. We suspected we wouldn’t love the city, as it’s known for being far more flashy, Western, and touristy than Tulum. Still, we were using it as a jumping-off point to go diving on the nearby island of Cozumel so we decided to spend a night strolling Playa’s flashy streets. We spent most of our day in Playa searching (again) for hearing aid batteries. We finally found our treasure in the only Wal-Mart I saw in the entirety of my time in Central America. Relieved and hearing well once more, we spent the rest of the night hopping bars and people watching. We had a surprisingly fun night, finally calling it off in the early hours of the morning. On our way back to our Airbnb, we decided to grab a late night snack.
Now, let me explain my stance on something. I admit that there is some danger in eating street food. But on the whole, I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor: across the world, street food is some of the most authentic, delicious, experiential, and cheap local cuisine. And if you’re smart about what and where you eat it, in MOST cases you’ll be perfectly fine. And in my mind, a lifetime of street food is worth getting sick a handful of times – if that.
That being said, you must choose street food wisely. And unfortunately, wisdom tends to go out the window when you’re drunk and hungry. And on that walk home, Michael made just about the worst informed decision I have ever seen him make. He bought a slice of tuna pizza.
I feel like I should emphasize that. Tuna. Pizza.
A slice of pizza at a stand where the slices had been sitting out under heaters for hours, waiting for somebody to claim them. A slice of pizza in Mexico, for god’s sake. A slice of pizza with canned tuna on it.
Needless to say, he was tossing his tuna a few hours later. He spent most of the night between his bed and the bathroom. By the time we needed to check out of our Airbnb the next morning, he was still in bed, moaning and sweating and miserable. My own head pounding from a lack of sleep and several successive nights of tequila-drinking, I dragged him out of bed and into his clothes and backpack and out onto the street.
I was determined to get to Cozumel. We had planned our schedule precisely: one night in Playa, three nights in Cozumel (including two days of scuba diving), and one last night in an airport hotel in Cancun before we flew out to Cuba. The entire reason I returned to Mexico was to dive, so I wasn’t about to let a measly slice of tuna pizza keep us from getting to Cozumel on time.
My head aching, his chest heaving, the world swirling before us, we trudged through the glamorous streets of Playa del Carmen. I sat Michael down on a bench, handed him a Gatorade and some saltines, and bought us ferry tickets to Cozumel. We were gonna make it.
It was a painful experience, but it worked. Half an hour ferry ride and several barf bags later, we were stumbling onto the strange world of Cozumel. This little paradise island off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula is part cruise-stop-location, part diver’s paradise, and part rambling seaside Mexican village. It’s well-known for resorts, beaches, and most importantly, some of the best drift diving in the Western hemisphere.
The Search for a Dive
We planned on spending our first day on the island conducting research, asking locals for recommendations on dive companies, and booking our dives. However, after a few stops I was dismayed to find that most of the companies that I researched were booked out for weeks. I assumed that diving would work like everything else in my travels: roll into town, ask around for advice, and there will be space for you in at least the second-best spot around.
Not in Cozumel. I failed to factor in that we were no longer trudging along the remote backpacker superhighway of Central America. Cozumel is a short van and ferry ride away from the massive Cancun airport, making it a very accessible location for divers from all over the world. Many of these divers are working people with limited vacation days who plan out their vacations months in advance.
Oh yeah, that’s how the real world works. Riiiiiiiight.
Thankfully, the very last dive company name I had written down did the trick: they had just two more seats available on a dive going out the next morning. Huzzah! We returned to the Airbnb and went straight to sleep, resting up for the dive.
Retelling this story now, it’s so clear to me that we never, ever, ever should have gone on that dive. We were practically living out a textbook example of when not to dive. Michael had been sick all day. I was recovering from a head cold. We were both exhausted and had drank too much alcohol over the past week. We hadn’t planned out the dive ahead of time, and ended up signing on with whatever dive – and dive company – we could find.
Let it be known, kids: that stuff they teach you ain’t for nothin’.
The Dive Begins
The next morning we arrived at our dive boat, breathless with anticipation. It had been several months since we first learned to dive in Belize and we were both itching to get back under the water. After a lot of research, we landed on Cozumel as the location for our first non-certification dives. The island is particular famous for its drift diving, a kind of one-way dive in which the divers are carried forward by a current. In a drift dive, the boat follows the scuba-divers through the water instead of the divers returning to the boat to resurface. In Cozumel, where currents are strong and coral reefs are abundant, this makes for an experience not unlike watching the world’s best nature documentary while floating along a lazy-river.
As happens in small groups of tourists, our dive boat was a pack of characters. The dive masters were sea-kissed, wind-blown, dive dudes, muscled and flirty and altogether too cool for everybody else there. Our fellow divers were largely older than us, many of them middle-aged Americans with years of diving experience. We made sure to explain to our guide that this was only our third dive, and he nodded and smiled, reassuring us that we would be fine.
The sun blazed down on us blissfully as we skipped across the sea towards the reefs. After twenty minutes or so the boat stopped, and the dive masters split us into two groups. We geared up, and I leaned backwards and toppled into the water.
The Initial Descent
It felt amazing. My heart was positively jumping out of my chest with excitement. The weather was perfect, the water was clear, and we were going diving! After a few minutes of safety checks, we began the descent.
During the initial descent it took me quite a while to equalize, an essential process in which you allow higher pressure air into your ears to match the increasing water pressure surrounding you. The other divers looked up at me as I hovered above them, waiting for me to accomplish this simple step. Eventually I got to the sea floor and looked around me with relief. Truthfully, I had been slightly worried that the cold would keep me from equalizing properly, but I had made it.
The Coral in Cozumel
I looked around and saw the most amazing, colorful coral reefs. The coral structures were much larger than nearby Belize. They formed full underwater cities, their stone architecture painted lurid colors and riddl
ed with windows and secret passageways. Fish and creatures of all sorts flitted through the openings and rested in the shadows, gazing out at us.
But before I knew it we were moving again. We drifted forward a few dozen yards before the dive master stopped us and pointed downwards. Beneath us was an enormous coral arch, ten or fifteen feet tall, covering a wide, short tunnel of coral. The dive master swam down and through it and beckoned for us to follow.
One by one we swam through. I was thrilled by the sight of my divemates flippers within the tunnel, but I was also nervous. I already had trouble clearing my ears, and now I was going significantly deeper while also in a confined space. Michael went ahead of me and swam through with no trouble, looking back at me with wide, excited eyes that said, “That was the best thing I’ve ever done.” I swallowed, bucked up, and started my descent, headfirst as the divemaster had demonstrated.
Blind Panic Amidst the Glory of an Underwater World
The bright, rocky walls were suddenly all around me and I was wildly amazed, surrounded by life and structures and animals that are so different from anything I’ve ever seen before – and then I was stalled, my ears hurting me – I tried to go deeper but they pounded even more. I tried to rise back up but my feet were above my head, and there wasn’t enough space for me to turn rightside up again. Panic flooded me. I let a little air into my vest and felt myself rise, felt the immediate slight relief in my ears as the water pressure decreased. Frantically, I tried to swallow, to pop my ears and relieve the pressure. It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t clear them. The group of divers were all ahead of me, looking back and waiting for me to follow them through. I hung in indecision in the tunnel, scared and amazed and overwhelmed and distracted by the fish and the colors and the muted, oceanic rumble and I kicked forward once more—
A sharp blast of pain blinded me for a second, my head aching as if it had split in two. My momentum alone kept me moving. The next thing I knew I was floating next to the group and my head was flooded with relief. The pain was gone. My ear felt strangely light, a little sore, but fine – there was no pressure at all. I gulped a sigh of relief. I had made it again.
Sweet Relief and Spiny Lobsters
We embarked forward another half an hour, drifting among some of the most indescribably glorious creatures I have ever seen in my life. Enormous spiny lobsters; floopy, floaty rays; huge, red, spiky tubes and small, pink, squishy brains; schools of silvery fish and families of orange clownfish and singular, shimmering, rainbow fish; angry, bright green eels poking their eyes out from under rocks; lionfish, invasive and poisonous but beautiful; an uncountable list of colorful life, a strange foreign world hiding in plain view.
We eventually rose back to the surface and retreated to the boat, and I explained my strange, painful experience to Michael. I looked down at my dive computer. The dive had peaked at 85 feet – a full 25 feet deeper than we were safely certified to dive. The dive master had completely ignored that we were beginners and taken us on a significantly difficult dive.
I felt slightly angry but also strangely not, enamored as I was with the experience. We ate lunch and drove to another dive spot, where we did a shorter, shallower dive, and then called it a day. Michael and I immediately went and paid a down payment for a trip the next morning.
Ah, the Miracle of Foreign Healthcare
As we shoved down dinner that night, one of my ears still felt strange. Sounds were slightly muted, like I still had water stuck in it. I slept with my head on that side, hoping that the water would drain by morning.
But by morning my hearing was still odd and my ear was starting to ache. I started to get scared. It had been a really deep dive, and I had been equalizing badly, and it had hurt for a second. Michael’s ear hurt too, and we wondered about our dive. After a serious and regretful conversation, we decided to forfeit the deposit and go instead to a medical clinic in town. Perhaps, if everything was fine, we could pull off an afternoon dive instead of a morning one.
But it wasn’t. Through a surprisingly effective combination of my basic Spanish, his basic English, and liberal use of Google translate, the doctor explained that I had burst my eardrum. Michael also had severe irritation and would be at risk of bursting his own if he dove again. He prescribed us medication, told us we couldn’t dive again for a month, and slapped us with a totally reasonable bill (under $50 for meds and diagnosis of two people). Twenty short minutes later we were back on the street, looking around us solemnly.
Screw Mexico. I was unbelievably disappointed. After all the trouble we took to get here, we now had an extra day on this godforsaken tourist island, unable to participate in the only interesting activity it had to offer. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. But Michael came through, as always, with the right mindset. There was nothing we could do about it now. We might as well take advantage of having a free day in what many people would consider paradise.
So that’s what we did. We rented a scooter and buzzed around the island to a paid-entrance beach club, where we sipped tall frozen margaritas and laid out in the sun all afternoon. On our way back to town we stopped at a famous seaside seafood restaurant, where we splurged on an emotional-relief feast. As the sun set over the water in front of us, Michael held his beer out towards me.
“A toast!” he said, smirking. “To burst ear drums and tuna pizza.”