Travel. In short, it’s all about exploring new worlds and developing yourself along the way. When I left Medellin and set off for Northern Colombia, I had no idea that I was going to put this statement into overdrive, and that I would soon be overcoming my fears of claustrophobia and the deep ocean waters, and exploring a whole new magical world under the sea. One week later I would be a certified PADI open water diver.
“Holly, the only regret I have is that I didn’t do it sooner.” These words of a trusted friend ran through my mind as I flipped through the pages of my Lonely Planet guide to South America. I had come upon Taganga, Colombia, and was learning that this formerly small coastal fishing town had become one of the best and most inexpensive places to learn how to scuba dive. I figured now was my chance. I might as well go for it.
Upon arrival in Taganga, I was shocked. The dry and dusty town looked absolutely run down and mostly deserted. I immediately wanted to abort my plan, and head back to Santa Marta and the Dreamer Hostel, where I had just left my friendly new travel acquaintances. But, as always, I stuck it out. I didn’t let my doubts
get the best of me. I had a kind Couch Surfing host lined up for 4 days in this town, and the least I could do was meet him and take a walk around Taganga.
It turned out that my host also had a hostel, Casa Tara
, and with that he had dozens of connections all around town. Shortly after I set down my massive backpack, we set off to explore Taganga. That’s when I heard the first explosion, a loud crack in the sky that made me duck down for cover. I looked around with panic in my eyes, and my face clearly asked the question that was running through my mind: What’s going on??
“Let me explain,” said my host. As we walked down the dirt roads towards the Main Street we heard half a dozen more “fireworks” being released into the sky. Apparently I had come on a holiday weekend. It was Friday, and Monday was the day of Saint Carmen, the important saint who helps and protects the people and fisherman of Taganga. It was going to be a weekend of celebration.
After popping in to a handful of dive centers which lined the streets of Taganga I decided to go with Octopus Dive Center
. My Couch Surfing host had formed a relationship with them years before, and when I really couldn’t tell a difference between one place or another I decided a first hand recommendation was my best option. Plus, the woman at the front desk had the name Ada, which is the name of my home town, and she made me feel at ease from the moment I entered the office. I ended up getting started that same day, watching 4 hours of PADI preparation videos to familiarize myself with everything I needed to know about scuba diving before I took to the water.
The next morning I woke up, did a bit of yoga and meditation, and set off for Octopus. At 8am, the office was bustling with clients. I met my dive instructor, Chopper, and he set me up with a wetsuit and shoes, and we hopped into the boat, where he started explaining to me about my oxygen tank and how to set it up. Around 8:30 we hit the sea. There were approximately 20 people in the boat, a mix of experienced divers, beginners, and instructors, and we all braced ourselves against the splash of the waves as we set off for the waters of Tayrona National Park.
Once we arrived, everyone started splashing into the water. Chopper went over the list of activities we would need to perform that day: I would practice putting the regulator breathing device in and out of my mouth, I would practice sharing the “octopus arm” extra breathing regulator, I would fill my mask with water and clear it, and I would take off my mask completely and breath for an entire minute without it, and he would also simulate what it was like to not have air by closing the valve of my oxygen tank.
As soon as I put my face mask on I felt nervous and claustrophobic, and by the time I hit the water I was considering backing out, but before I knew it, I had strapped myself into the equipment and Chopper was in the water with me, signaling for me to deflate my BCD (buoyancy control device) and to let myself sink below the water. It wasn’t so bad at first. I was breathing under water. But then we immediately started going into the exercises. I panicked and kicked up to the surface, starting to hyperventilate. Chopper emerged right after me.
“What happened?” he asked, with a kind of coach-like jostling.
“I panicked!” I said, as I started to tremble. I was seriously thinking to myself, Screw this, I will just snorkel for the rest of my life. Chopper could tell I was really scared, so he swam me to the shallow area, and let me calm down, then we tried again. This time I didn’t have a problem. Taking my mouthpiece in and out, using the coordinating hand signals, even clearing my mask of water were all ok tasks, but when it came time to take off my mask and breath for an entire minute under water without it I freaked out. Chopper quickly plugged my nose for me, and then I regained my sensibility that I could indeed breath through my regulator, and that I wasn’t doomed just because I didn’t have my mask on.
My next task was to shut off the air and experience what it felt like to be out of air. I again became unreasonably scared. Until that day, I had no idea I was capable of crying under water, but apparently I am. Chopper swam me around, showed me some fish, and after a few minutes I was ready to do it…and it wasn’t even that bad. All these tasks are vital to experience if you’re going to be a diver, I just needed to warm myself up to them.
By the end of our first diving session, I was so grateful to be done and out of the water. Everyone was taken to a nearby beach for a snack break, and it was there I met a girl from Costa Rica who spoke highly of diving at a place which had always called my attention: Isla del Caño. This made me realize that there was so much I could continue to explore if I became certified as an open water diver. The rest of the day I did my swimming tests, and when we got back to mainland around 1pm, I started to study the exam material.
I spent the late afternoon doing yoga on the Taganga beach, where I met a wonderful local woman who invited me to do a sort of acroyoga using cloths and hanging from the sky. This had always intrigued yet intimidated me, but I figured why not accept her invitation and give it a try. In a matter of minutes I was climbing the sheets like a pro. This helped remind me that you will never learn a new skill if you don’t give it a try. By sunset, I was feeling really good. I was happy for overcoming two sets of fears in the same day, and I was excited to approach scuba diving again the next morning, determined to overcome my fears. I watched the sun sink in the sky as the boats came in for the evening to unload and sell their catch of the day. The massive fish were impressive, and I was excited to see them alive and in their natural environment the coming day.
Day two was more fun right from the start. We went deeper, practiced using our own breaths to float in place, and we practiced sharing air as well as navigating with a compass. I was very lucky that I started at a time where I happened to have my instructor all to myself. Chopper was encouraging and attentive, and literally held my hand as I overcame my fears of being deep underwater. I was in awe as we swam over yellow sea worms, through schools of fish, and between coral mounds, admiring the world under the sea.
After our scuba sessions that day, I decided to take the exam. That way the next day I could dive at peace, and enjoy the festival for Saint Carmen with the rest of the Octopus crew. I ended up scoring 100%, and left the office with pats on the back from all the instructors.
Day three of diving was full of excitement and exploration. I went on a “fun dive” with a large family group, as Chopper had two new beginner students. We found lobsters, eels, an octopus and hundreds of colorful fish ranging from the size of my pinky finger to the length of my torso. My second dive I completed with Chopper, and at 18m deep he proudly scribbled, “Congratulations! Open Diver Certified!” on his underwater clipboard, and shook my hand.
As we retuned to the diver center, it was time to celebrate. Anyone and everyone with access to a boat was taking them up two towns, to party and dance and float about in the sea. They invited me along for the ride, and off we went, laughing and splashing and smiling as the sun sparkled on the waves in the sea. It was a celebration unlike any I have ever experienced. There were hundreds of boats on the water, and soon people took out buckets and started throwing water onto the passengers of the other boats. From time to time all the boats would come to a stop, and people would jump out and swim, or climb and roll down a sand dune, or hop from one boat to another. They were some of the wildest hours of my life, and I was without a doubt the only foreigner in the midst of all the madness.
As the boat ride came to an end, the party took to the streets. Taganga is typically a party town at night, but this night was beyond all the rest. Everyone was out drinking and dancing in the streets. It was really special to be with people who had lived their whole life in Taganga, and to go from person to person meeting them and hearing a bit of their life story in between rounds of dancing.
As my time in Taganga came to a close, I was amazed as I reflected on everything I had experienced in my long weekend there. I had devoted my energy to developing myself, and in the process I had overcome tremendous fears, earned myself a PADI Open Water Diver certification, and I had gotten to know the people of the town on a personal level. The small fishing town which had originally felt so foreign now felt a bit more like home. As I set off on my next adventure, exploring Tayrona National Park, I knew that Taganga would always have a special place in my heart, and that every time I embark on a dive in the future, I will always remember my time with Chopper, and be grateful to my wonderful Couch Surfing host for introducing me to the Octopus Dive Center.
*Scuba pictures courtesy of Octopus Dive Center. All others taken by me.