2. Diving in Cuba

Here is story 2 of 3 short stories written by Eef, happy reading!

An unexpected turn of events

Part 2. Diving in Cuba.

1993, Cuba

Partner Wil and I were on a two-week vacation, booked in an early all-inclusive resort, a
location from which there was absolutely no need to leave the place. Everything was
within reach: a huge restaurant in the main building, multiple bars spread out across the
area of countless acres, several swimming pools, sun loungers, dance floors, live music all
day long, and more. And staying put is precisely what tourists like most: they stay and
enjoy the inclusive stuff. The only interruption is made by booking a well-organized trip
on the island, by bus, boat, or even by helicopter.

Wil and I on the other hand like to explore the local surroundings, hence we made daily
walks to nearby villages. Local culture for the taking.
For longer distances, we rented a car plus driver from a parking lot with cars that had
been discarded decades earlier by their US owners and ‘our’ car appeared to be a 1950
Chevy with large cracks in the windshield.
We were taken to Santiago de Cuba, a sizeable town with half a million inhabitants. The
driver dropped us off there. ‘I’ll be back at four o’clock,” he said, “Have fun.”

Just getting out of the car, we were surrounded by a large group of children, teenagers for
the most part, with all kinds of demands. They begged for dollars, for clothes even for our
shoes and they offered their services as a guide through the town.
We quickly decided to pick an older man – poorly dressed but with clean clothes – as our
And that worked. The group of children thinned out and disappeared eventually.
The visitation was worthwhile, with a visit to a cigar factory as the highlight. The finest
Cuban cigars were handmade there, right in front of our eyes. The scent was
overwhelming, I have never smoked but nearly started to on the spot.

On yet another occasion our cab driver took us to a restaurant somewhere in the
mountains he knew. Restaurants were quite rare in Cuba, I suppose they still are, and we
needed our driver to find us one. As we approached the inn, we saw three men in work
clothes, busy painting the wall.
They stopped and went inside as if we would be disturbed by their appearance.

We were guided inside and then to a nice, shaded garden where we sat down at the table
with the best view.
It was just us there and of course our driver, Antonio, who we had persuaded to join us at
the table. He was extremely shy at first, but after a while, he loosened up a bit.
Our plates were brought in – there was no choice to be made of course, just the menu of
the day – and the food smelled and tasted delicious.

Just after starting our meals, three musicians appeared, all three of with guitars and they
started playing and singing. They looked vaguely familiar, and Antonio acted upon my
thoughtful frown. “These are the three painters we saw on our arrival,” he said.
Amazing! Painters that make great music. And they delivered a fantastic performance on
our driver’s special request, ‘Malaguena’. I suspected Antonio, along with those guys, to
be part of a conspiracy, to increase the tip we would leave behind.

But this isn’t a story about the island of Cuba, however tempting it is to describe this
beautiful country with its many attractions and its nice and warm people.
This is a narrative about a diving adventure, so let us continue with that topic.

The second day after our arrival, I saw a small boat taking off from the dock along the
A few people with scuba diving gear were on board. I thought nothing of it.
In the afternoon, I was sitting near the huge swimming pool – filled with seawater – when
a young guy approached me.
“I am Carlos,” he said. “Are you interested in scuba diving? We have here a diving school,
and we teach people how to dive.
In a week, you can earn yourself a valid license. We charge $20 an hour.”

I was taken aback. I mean, I happen to know what it takes in our country to get a diving
license. In Holland, you must first follow a fairly extensive training program in a public
swimming pool until you are finally allowed to descend into the murky waters of the
Grevelingen Lake. This pool training includes a lot of snorkeling exercises. Taking the
mask off, taking the mouthpiece out, putting it back and clearing the pipe by forced
breathing out, swimming with a partner while sharing a mouthpiece, diving to the deepest
part of the pool while equalizing the ear pressure, and on and on.

So, what’s this about a shortcut to the Dutch training program?
“What do I have to do,” I asked the boy. “Well there is not so much to it,” he answered.
“We go into the pool with gear strapped on, and I teach you the basics. Foremost the
signals that need to be used underwater. And how to use the diving gear, of course. The
lessons in the pool are free, and if you pass the test, you are allowed to try the scuba gear
in the sea under our surveillance.”

I thought about his proposal. Considering I had a lot of practice – I had spent many days
snorkeling in the Mediterranean along the northern Costa Brava coast – scuba diving
shouldn’t be out of my reach. And I knew how to pop my ears; again, no problem here. So
I said, “Yes, let’s go.” And off we went.

Carlos showed me how to strap on the diving gear; he explained the functions of it and of
the mouthpiece and the mask. He pointed out that the mouthpiece is fixed on a rigid hose
protruding from the waist belt and – importantly – after the loss of the piece from the
mouth, one could always find it back by describing a large circle with the right hand next
to the body, and somewhere in that circle the hand will find the precious piece.
Furthermore, he taught me the underwater signs of the diver’s guild, after which we went
into the pool and practiced all this for about half an hour. That did it, and the boy declared
me passed.
He said, “You are able now to go into the sea with me. Follow me.”

From the sandy beach, we walked into the water and swam a small distance off the
coastline. Carlos had strapped some weight around my waist, ‘to make descending easier’
as he said.
Right from the start, a beautiful underwater garden was visible, full of colors, and I really
started to enjoy the excursion.
But unfortunately, I did not know how to control my buoyancy and with that my depth,
because Carlos had not told me how to do this. I thought that I had to swim to another
level to ascend or descend.

That appeared to be wrong. I sank steadily towards a large area of plants and I tried to
keep out of it. No success. The plants stood about one meter long and as I finally touched
them, I discovered them to be the most horrible stinging nettle I ever had been in contact
with. I bent my legs until they touched the sea bottom, pushed myself out of the nettles,
and started swimming back.
I signaled to Carlos that I was returning to the nearby beach.

He came after me and asked me what happened. I explained the situation and told him to
be in a lot of pain. He seemed very frightened and later I understood that he should never
have taken me on a trip into the sea on his own.

We went to the diving shop, and I unstrapped the gear.
Carlos told ‘el patrón’ what had happened and the boss got very angry.
“You stupid lad,” he shouted. “I told you to keep out of the sea with our clients. Your area
is the swimming pool and no more.”
That is at least what I think he shouted because it was all in Spanish. I interrupted him.
“Sorry sir, it is entirely my fault. I did not strictly follow up on Carlos’ instructions while
he had explained everything thoroughly.”
“No matter, he was not allowed to go into the sea with you, and I’ll punish him for this.
Did you pay him already?” he asked, and he gave me the money back. “Tomorrow I will
take you with me for a boat trip and some diving. And then I will instruct you personally.
It will be a free lesson. My name is Arturo by the way.” and we shook hands.

The next morning I was not feeling too well and even a bit feverish, so I had to cancel the
trip but promised to be back when recovered from the stinging nettle poisoning.

The day after, I entered the shop and Arturo was obviously glad to see me. “Welcome,” he
yelled, “You join our trip today?”
Besides me, there was a young woman, inexperienced as well, and a married couple, both
with diving licenses.

After about a fifteen-minute ‘ride’ we arrived at the desired location at sea which to me
was indistinguishable from the sea around us.
We strapped on our gear and the weight belt, and I kept calm. Besides Arturo, there was
another instructor.
“You’re with me boy, ” Arturo said to me. “From now on, you are under my protection.”

Then I could finally do what I have wanted to do all my life: falling backward off the side
of the boat, with pressured air bottles strapped on into seawater of a wonderful

And under protection I was! Arturo watched me closely and gestured continuously that I
should keep calm. No fuss, no excitement he meant.
Earlier he had explained to me how to adjust for depth under the surface. “Inflate your
lungs and you go up, deflate them and you go down. Keep breathing calmly around the
rate of chest inflation and you will keep rising, descending, or just floating. Easy no? But
don’t forget to frequently pop your ears while you go down. Otherwise, you will suffer
severe pain.”

It was a great tour, this first one. We went to a depth of about ten meters and stayed there
while our instructors pointed at the undersea miracles. Arturo tugged on a long, thin
thread sticking out from a flower in the shape of a vase and pulled out a kind of lobster
which he showed us. It was like swimming in an immense aquarium with large schools of
fish. Plenty of light, pleasantly warm, beautiful beyond words.

Time to go back. Halfway up, we had to wait a short while for the necessary
The other instructor – I forgot his name – checked my remaining pressure level. I had used
75 percent of the air supply, and 25 percent was left. He showed me his gauge: 75 percent
was still unused.
“You’re way too busy boy,” Arturo told me. “Much too energetic. Diving is a lazy sport.
Keep that in mind for the next time.”

The next days I continued my diving lessons, slowly improving my skills, and I certainly
didn’t forget to enjoy the overwhelming beauty of the underwater world. My oxygen
consumption decreased slowly despite the greater depths we now explored. Down to
twenty meters after a couple of days.

After a week, Arturo told our small group that we would visit a sunken shipwreck and
that the daredevils among us were invited to enter the cargo bay and search for forgotten
The wreck was lying on the sea bottom at 25 meters depth and unfortunately, it appeared
to be a rusty coaster rather than an old Spanish galleon. So much for the golden

At that point, I seriously considered whether I felt confident enough to enter the inside of
the ship through a hatch.
What could happen, I asked myself. I can lose my mouthpiece or my mask or both.
But I know how to respond to that, I decided. With the circle motion of the right arm, I can
retrieve my mouthpiece and without my mask, well who needs a mask? Just keep the eyes
open and go. And in case the mouthpiece is ripped off, Arturo will come to the rescue and
we both would share his breathing device.

So I went through the hatch and of course, none of the bad stuff happened. The instructors
had bright flashlights and they lit up the interior of the ship. But to be honest, I preferred
the beautiful landscape outside the ship over the rusty bulkheads of the interior. The
others felt the same and soon we were outside again.

We would leave Cuba on Saturday, which made Friday the last possibility for a dive.
Arturo had saved a special trip for this last day he told us. We would visit a subterranean
corridor at a depth of 38 meters and a length of 100 meters.
“If some of you don’t want to go in, the other instructor will keep you company, otherwise
we’ll all pass through and enjoy the spectacle,” Arturo said.

It was a forty-minute boat trip, much further than the other diving locations, and I have to
admit that my heartbeat was unusually high, still not sure that I would have the nerves for
the stunt.
The routine of strapping our diving gear was done in significant silence. We went
overboard one by one and slowly descended to great depth.

At last, it could be seen: the entrance of the passageway.
Again, I contemplated the possible unwanted events that could disturb the routine
(apparently, I considered myself a seasoned diver now) and endanger the adventure.
And again, I decided that I could overcome every trivial accident. So I followed Arturo
and went in, me being last in line.

Unlike the colorless environment of the coaster’s cargo hold, there were plenty of colors in
this tunnel. Admittedly, they were less bright than ‘outside’, but still.
The row of divers progressed slowly and I felt the temperature descending rapidly. As a
result, my diving mask fogged up worse and worse, until I no longer could see through it.
I lifted a tiny part of the rubber at the right side, to make a little water flow into the mask
for wiping out the fog. But with full force, the water filled the mask entirely, causing me to
inhale a large amount of seawater through the nose. I choked and began to cough so hard
that the mouthpiece popped out of my mouth. Disaster!

So here I was. An untrained, unlicensed beginner in a underground underwater corridor,
almost 40 meters below the surface of the Caribbean. And here I lost my mouthpiece and
here I had made my mask useless.
At the same time, I was coughing my lungs out.
What for heaven’s sake was I doing down here?

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Arturo had given us a mantra earlier. A little phrase
that we had to repeat over and over when diving. This phrase: Don’t panic.

Half panicking, I made my circular motion, found the mouthpiece, and put it back. I
swallowed all the seawater in my mouth in one mighty gulp and continued breathing and
coughing at the same time. After a short while, I stopped coughing and I could expel the
water in the mask by forcefully exhaling through the nose. And again. And again.
After the water was gone, the glass was clean. No condensation left.

I could continue and I caught up with the group. They hadn’t noticed a thing!
The rest of the trip was uneventful, which was ok with me. I certainly did not need any
further excitement.

Back at the boat, after a few boring decompression stops, I compared my pressure gauge
with the others. About equal, so aside from the panic minutes, my oxygen consumption
had been modest enough.

When the hour of our departure came, Arturo and I shook hands for the last time.
That morning he and the other instructor had been diving to hunt and catch some
monstrous sea devil. They had to go to a depth of 100 meters for this delicacy, they told us.
Maybe they were bragging, but I tended to believe them.

A day earlier we were off-loading our gear into the boat after our dive, and the young girl
in our group dropped accidentally her weight belt which immediately sank to the bottom
at a depth of 25 meters.
Arturo, who was always the first at putting his gear in the boat, didn’t bother to take it out
again. He swam calmly to the bottom and came back with the belt.

Anyway, the big fish the divers brought us was intended as the afternoon meal for the
departing group. It was our parting present, grilled and served on a bed of fresh
vegetables and herbs.

So Arturo and I shook hands and I expressed my gratitude for his unwavering care.
I did well, he told me and I had certainly earned my diving license, but he was short on
documents now, so by leaving my address I could be sure that it would appear in my
mailbox shortly after.

I am still waiting, but of course, I knew that upfront.

An old but still functional touring car brought the vacationers to the airport. Halfway we
overtook an ancient truck, its open cargo space packed with people. I saw an elderly
woman, standing at the edge and desperately clinging to an iron bar.

At the same time, a lady in the row next to ours complained about the seat not being to her

Back to the civilized world.


Eef, 2023-05