When I first tried to sell the idea of this trip to Peta, it's just possible that I might have mentioned the tropics a little bit too much, because if there's one thing she hates, it's cold weather. 'How do you fancy a year in the tropics?' I'd say. 'Don't worry, we can skip southern Chile and Argentina, let's just stick to, you know, all those tropical paradises. The ones with all that warm, tropical weather. Sounds good, doesn't it? Being tropical and toasty all the time? Anyway, turn the fire up, would you, it's freezing out there...'
And it does sound good, but there's one thing about tropical weather that I didn't press home, and that's how insanely wet it is. The tropics are hot and steamy for a reason: it rains biblically. If you want hot and dry, you need the desert zones of Africa or Asia, but you probably want to steer clear of the blustery end of the hurricane season in the Caribbean, because when it rains, it absolutely buckets down.
'Never mind,' we thought as the first few sunny days of our trip sank into dark skies and thunderstorms so severe that they turned roads into rivers and hopeful restaurant owners into resigned hermits. 'We're going to be on a scuba course when the weather turns sour,' and indeed we were, though Mexico's stubbornly wet season would turn out to be too wet, even for scuba. Which I didn't even think was possible...
Learning to Dive... Again
Learning to scuba dive in the azure Caribbean Sea was another carrot I dangled in front of Peta, though to be honest I think I probably had her at, 'How do you fancy a whole year of tropical weather?' So before leaving home we tracked down a reputable dive operator who offered the PADI Open Water course and booked a place for Peta; in the end we chose a company called Dive Mex based on their excellent ratings, and they turned out to be a good choice. We also booked me on a refresher course, as it's been some 16 years since I last did a scuba dive, and despite owning my own dust-laden scuba gear (which we didn't bring because there's no way we're lugging that around), I've forgotten everything I ever knew about diving.
The first day of the course consisted of a long afternoon in the pool, but the driving rains from the night before were so heavy that one pool was closed because there was too much water, and the backup pool was so full of water from the surrounding roofs that visibility was about a foot. This would have freaked me out if I was scuba diving for the first time, as it took me a good two days to get through the PADI course's three pool dives when I learned to dive back in New Zealand; I've always been scared by water, so I had a whole suitcase of phobias to overcome when I did it, though thanks to a patient instructor in a one-on-one environment, I got through it in the end. Not so Peta, who used to go snorkelling for hours at a time when she was a kid; she burned her way through the exercises, from breathing underwater to clearing flooded masks, and all this in a swimming pool with the visibility of lemon barley water. By the end, when we'd stirred up the bottom sediment into a whirl of milky mess, we couldn't make out the instructors at all, but if you can learn to dive in murky water then the sea is going to be a breeze, so the instructors happily signed her off. Rain didn't quite stop play, but it was a close call.
Unfortunately the next day it was genuinely too wet to scuba dive, as the crazy weather had stirred up the sea into a tidal frenzy that was too much for the dive boats, so with a ban on all diving in place for the next 24 hours, we finished off the written exams (or rather Peta did, as I'd already ticked those boxes back in 1997) and waited for her first sea dive the following day.
Peta, of course, did brilliantly. We set off in a small dive boat with another group who were doing the nitrox course (nitrox allows you to stay underwater longer, but you need special training to use it safely), and after they rolled backwards off the boat into their dive, we bumped our way along the coast to our dive spot, where Peta managed all her practical exercises with ease ('You're a natural,' said her instructor for the day, which was patently true).
I didn't fare quite so well. I've always had a tumultuous relationship with the sea, not least because of the long-term seasickness I suffered when I sailed non-stop to French Polynesia back in 1997. These days the problem is partly pavlovian: I know I get seasick, so I start to worry about it, and because seasickness is all in the mind, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I deal with this by studiously avoiding the sea unless it's absolutely necessary, but it's a bit hard to avoid dive boats if you want to go diving, and given that over the next few months we're skirting round one of the top areas for diving on the planet, it's an issue that's at least worth trying to tackle.
By the time we got to the dive site, I was having to concentrate on the horizon a little to avidly; we'd dithered about for a while while dropping off the nitrox gang, and the exhaust fumes from the boat's twin engines had blown up my nose and directly into the memory centre of my brain, where the peculiarly nautical smell of marine diesel brought back memories of me cowering in the bottom of an ocean-going yacht, sobbing uncontrollably after hurling my dinner over the side yet again. Luckily a quick and effective way to stop seasickness in its tracks is to get into the sea, so I scrambled into my scuba gear as quickly as my trembling muscles would allow, and we all sank gently into the tropical seas.
All of a sudden the scuba took over, and my brain was too occupied with the mind-bending experience of breathing underwater, equalising your ears every few seconds, drifting with the current, controlling your breathing to rise up and down over the reef, and all the other aspects of scuba that are freakish at first, but which soon become second nature. I did have a bit of a moment where I burped some 30 feet down and it turned out to contain a little bit more of my breakfast than I'd anticipated, but even that didn't bring on the seasickness; I just removed my regulator, spat it all out and popped it back in as if nothing had happened. 'Like a pro,' I thought as we headed back to the surface.
Ah, the surface. As my head broke into the sunlight, the fumes from the engine blew into my face, and boom, up came coffee and orange juice in a brown slick that propelled me to the front bow, where I had one more heave before feeling well enough to get back on the boat. There I threw myself over the side and emptied my guts with the nonchalant air of the well practised professional. 'God, are you OK?' asked the instructor, surprised at how violent my breakfast was proving to be, and I just smiled and said I was fine. Hell, there was nothing left, so I figured we might as well head off for the second dive, which Peta passed with flying colours and an iron stomach.
Back on dry land I sank into a funk of dehydation and severe weakness that finally passed after an hour of gingerly supping Coke and nibbling on salty cheese biscuits. Peta, it turned out, didn't get off without her own injuries; at the end of her first dive she'd come out with blood streaming down her left forearm, and by the end of the second dive her whole arm had come up in little red welts that felt like she'd had a fight with a kettle and lost. We fled to the hotel to nurse our wounds, and as we relaxed into the stability of Mother Earth, the sore throat that had been nagging me since the pool dives – which I'd assumed was a simple result of breathing dry tank air and sleeping with the air-conditioning on – broke into a full-on head cold that blocked my nose and effectively put my scuba career on hold, as you can't dive with congestion (with a blocked nose it isn't possible to equalise the pressure in your ears as you descend, which can lead to excruciating pain and pretty serious damage to your ear canal).
So I spent the next day playing hide and seek with the thunderstorms on the beach while Peta successfully finished off her final two sea dives, where she earned a big thumbs up from the instructor for using the same amount of air as he did, which is no mean feat as most novice divers (me included) plough through the air far more quickly than seasoned professionals. That said, she also came back looking like she'd been in a fight with a creature from the depths: her welted arm still hurts, caused, it turns out, by brushing against some all but invisible fire weed on the guide rope on the way down to our first dive; she has bruises on her chin and shoulder from a face-plant into the boat when it unexpectedly hit a wave; there are a couple of evil-looking rope burns on her forearm, and a painful bruise on the underside of her foot from a bizarre ladder-related accident when climbing back into the boat; her right ear is swollen and suffering from a painful case of swimmer's ear; and she has a small but bright red bruise on her elbow from when she had to remove her scuba kit during one of the exercises and the tank hit her. She may have been first in her class of one, but she had to fight her way to the top, and she's got the scars to prove it.
We're now both ready to go diving in the Caribbean, though, and after seasickness, painful welts, congested sinuses and rain stopping play, I suspect that things can only get better. This is the tropics, after all, and I made a promise, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed...