Diving into the Dark

Everyone else was on their way to dinner. The boats had come in for the day. Today’s catch was about to land on someone’s dinner plate. The beach had cleared out. But we, well we, were headed toward it, wet suits on, fins in hand. The sun was setting as we climbed aboard our boat and headed out to sea.

When we first learned to dive in the Perhentian Islands last August, I was nervous, not at all certain that I was going to like being meters under the sea, my only oxygen supply attached to my back. But I took to it quickly, finding the experience to be one of tranquility and amazement. I tried to remember that feeling as we skipped over the waves and toward our diving destination. I couldn’t quite convince myself, however, that this experience would be the same. We were going diving in the dark for goodness sakes. And that just seemed insane.

When the motor was killed, my sense of dread grew a bit. This was it. I leaned over the boat to rinse my googles and was greeted by pitch black seas. Usually, when we dive, I can see straight down to where we’re going to be, the clear water providing a preview of the dive. Not this time. Anything could be under the surface. I tried to stifle my overactive imagination, at least remind myself that dangerous sharks don’t populate these waters. I checked my flashlight. It cast a bright beam out over the water. I reminded Jeff that once we were in the water he needed to stay within my reach at all times. I reminded him again. And again.

And then I put on my BCD, tightened the straps, put the regulator in my mouth, perched on the edge of the boat, and backrolled into the dark, dark water. I was in. This was it. We were going night diving. In an instant, Jeff was in along with the other divers. I shined my flashlight toward the bottom and watched as a swath of sea was illuminated. Next thing I knew I was sinking down through the water, following my beam of light toward the bottom. If I turned my head to the side, I saw nothing. The ocean was black as sin. Only where I shined my light or others shined theirs, could I see anything. I was prepared to be completely freaked out. But somehow I wasn’t. My heart was certainly beating faster than on a regular dive. I could literally feel the adrenalin pumping through my veins. But more than frightening, this night dive was exciting.

The sights weren’t bad either. Before we’ve even gotten to our bottom depth, I’m trying to get Jeff’s attention. I’ve spotted an octopus. A giant lobster has come out to feed. A puffer fish floats right into us, blowing up into a giant balloon immediately upon contact, then floating back and forth like a helium balloon that’s been punctured. A squid flashes past us, hardly more than a flash of light in the dark. The best part, however, is when we find a sandy patch where we all sink to our knees. Then we turn out our lights. It’s dark. Completely, utterly, totally dark. But then our instructor begins to splash his hands. Tiny lights fill the water. We join in, each of us splashing the water in front of us. The ocean fills with bioluminescence. It’s amazing. Wondrous. A bit like being in a dark field lit only by lightening bugs. Even at night, the ocean proves to be tranquil.

When our tanks run low, we reluctantly rise to the surface. As soon as our regulators are out of our mouths, we’re talking a hundred miles a minute about how great the dive was. Trepidation has been completely replaced with awe.

I float for a moment in the dark ocean and stare up at the stars and back toward the town. Sometime while we were underwater, 7:03 pm on March 10, had come and gone. I had turned 29 while on my first ever night dive. The last year of my 20s had begun with a bang. I make a silent wish that every year will bring such adventure, that no matter how old I get I won’t quit trying new things, that life will always be filled with wonder.


While in Colombia, we did our Advanced Diver Certification with Aquantis Dive School. The course consisted of two mandatory dives—a navigation dive and a deep (30 meters) dive—as well as three dives of our choice—a night dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, and a photography dive. The photos below were taken on the deep dive and the photography dive. It was our first time using the underwater casing for our Canon point & shoot. The camera and case worked splendidly. We, as underwater photographers, could use some more practice. Trying to keep steady is tricky. Other factors that influenced the photography include the fact that at 30 m colors begin to disappear. Red is, in fact, completely absent. As part of the dive, we were shown a roma tomato and asked to identify it. None of us could because it was gray! Additionally, and unfortunately, on the photography dive, we faced a somewhat strong current, which made it hard to stay in one place long enough to get a good photo. I should also say that the diving in Colombia, while good, pales in comparison to that in SE Asia. But all in all, we had a fabulous time and are glad we did the course and got to dive Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

King Beds and Jacuzzi Tubs

Staying in the biggest room at one of Kentucky’s most famous inns (Old Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg), complete with four-poster King bed and two-person Jacuzzi tub, is pretty nice. Except, when it’s just you in that big ol’ bed, it’s pretty lonely too. I know, sob, sob. My life is hard.

Anyhow, yes, we have been MIA. Big time. Our apologies. But you see, research for the Kentucky book I’m working on has completely consumed my life, stolen every second and every ounce of energy I have. As for Jeff, well, I took the external hard drive with me to Kentucky, so he doesn’t have access to any of our photos. Oops. Plus he’s been pretty busy himself planting our garden, cutting down overgrown bushes, giving some semblance of organization to the mess that is our front bedroom, and you know, going to work every day.

But I’m going to make every effort to finish up posting about Colombia here in the next week or so. Because soon we’re going to have more stories to share. We’re off to Yellowstone in three weeks!

Strolling Through Cartagena

Cartagena is, by leagues, the most touristed city in Colombia. Huge cruise ships spill their passengers out into the city every week. Those wanting an appetizer-sized taste of Colombia before ordering the entire entree book a mini-vacation in Cartagena. Domestic tourists also flock there.

Cartagena is popular for many reasons. It’s sunny nearly all the time (and, I might mention, insanely humid). It has fantastic restaurants, from the plate of the day places where an entire meal is just a few bucks to the Anthony Bourdain approved ceviche restaurant, where appetizers start at about $15. As for hotels, take your pick. They’re everywhere and come in every style and every price range.

Of course, there’s also plenty to do. Choose from a variety of museums—the San Pedro Claver museum, which tells the story of the priest turned saint who was a savior to the slaves; the Inquisition Museum, which terrifies you with descriptions of all the ways in which non-believers were tortured during this crazy time in history; or the Gold Museum, which houses all kinds of amazing gold objects in a blessedly frigid building.

Museumed out? Then head to the beach. Though the sand and surf don’t compare to the beaches elsewhere in Colombia, the beachfront is the swanky area of town, home to towering high rise condos and hotels, and plenty of men and women willing to sell you use of a beach chair, give you a massage, or make you a drink.

You must spend at least some time at the fort, which rises over the old city and allows you a panoramic view of Cartagena. It’s only from up high that you realize that the old town is almost entirely surrounded by water, thus explaining the wall built to keep pirates out and the fort intended to ward off attacks.

You can’t help but laugh at the way the canons now point at the new beachfront development, wondering whether that is at all intentional.

And when you pass by the statue honoring the native Colombians who lived here long before the Spanish set up shop, you can’t help but wonder what the city, the country, the world was like back then.

You can also check out the market, a short bus ride away, and like markets throughout the world, ripe with the smells of fish, fruit, raw meat, and body odor.

During the four days we spent in Cartagena, we did all of that and more. But what we enjoyed most was simply wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, and admiring the well-preserved colonial architecture.

After entering the old town through the tower clock gate, we’d climb up on the wall and circle the city, passing lovey-dovey couples who have found new purposes for former canon cutouts and catching bits of soccer games played between the wall and the ocean.

We’d then go on an art treasure hunt of sorts, the city full of statues depicting heros, as well as ordinary people engaged in ordinary acts.

In some instances, art literally imitated life.

In other instances, life was simply accidentally artsy.

What was best about Cartagena, however, was that most of the time art and life weren’t separate things. That, I think, is a cool thing. After all, life is pretty darn beautiful.

Coming to America

While in Salento, the coffee region town where we toured Don Elias’s farm, we also went for a hike in the Valle de Cocora, home to enormous palm trees as well as rushing waterfalls, ten-mile views, and jewel-toned hummingbirds. At a nature preserve within the valley, we put our photography skills to the test trying to capture these beautiful but frenetic birds in our viewfinder. More often than not, the image that appears on our screen is of an empty branch or a lone birdfeeder. On occasion a blur of color acts as proof that there was indeed a hummingbird in the vicinity. We are, for certain, not going to win any awards for our wildlife photography.

We are, however, able to snap a photo of the three youngest members of the family that runs the preserve. The kids are happy to smile in exchange for a look at the image of themselves that we have captured. Though I don’t know for certain, it seems that this family spends nearly every day and every night on this preserve, tucked away in the clouds. As we pass the camera around for the kids to view, the matriarch of the family, an elderly woman whom I assume to be the grandmother if not the great-grandmother, comes over to take a look. She’d been talking to Jeff earlier, asking him about us and telling him about the preserve and its efforts to preserve the region’s water source. She peers hard at the viewfinder and smiles. She then turns to the children and with a big grin exclaims to them, “Now you’re going to America!” They look bewildered. I, at first, have no idea what she’s talking about. But then, as she hands back the camera, the image of the three kids staring back at us from the screen, I realize what she means, and I laugh. She beams at us, proud of her joke. And with that, we say our goodbyes, waving back at the same three smiling kids that we were taking with us to America.

Photoblog: On a Coffee Plantation in Colombia

For the second half of our trip, we headed south from Cartagena (a town we’ll return to in a future post), stopping briefly in Medellin before immersing ourselves in the coffee region. This lush, mountainous area of Colombia would quickly win the award for our favorite spot. We easily could have spent our entire trip in the area and have already decided that it’s a must on any future Colombia itineraries.

While in the area, we decided that, despite the fact that we’re not coffee drinkers ourselves, we had to visit a farm to see where the world’s best cup of joe comes from. On a recommendation from Enrique, the extremely helpful owner (?) of Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe, the place we are staying, we set off on an hour’s walk to the family farm of Don Elias. At four hectares, it’s a small farm, typical of the region, with the coffee, as well as other produce grown alongside the coffee–pineapples, oranges, lemons, sugar cane–sold via a co-op. Upon arriving, we’re greeted by the grizzled but friendly Don Elias himself, our own Juan Valdez.

He straps a basket around his waist, then in his reliable galoshes, leads us around the farm, his steps sure even on the steep incline.

He shows us the beans, which are red or yellow when ripe, depending on the variety of plant. He plucks and pulls, filling the bottom of the basket. The growing season is from May to November and during that period, the workers on the farm (his family plus a few hired hands) go out every two weeks, with each man gathering about 30 kilos per harvest.

Once we’ve picked enough beans, we return to the farmhouse, where Don Elias demonstrates the machine that shells the coffee, shows us how the beans are dried, and then, over a primitive stove, roasts up a pan full of beans. The coffee is sold to the co-op after it has been shelled and dried, at which point it weighs about half of what it did when it was picked.

Until the coffee was put on the stove, it had none of the distinctive smell we associate with coffee. As soon as it begin to heat up, however, the air filled with the aroma. Once properly roasted, the beans were transferred to another machine, where they were ground.

After the coffee was ground, the only task remaining was to brew it. Then it was time to enjoy a cup, which with a few heaping spoonfuls of sugar, Jeff and I were able to do. We’re definitely not converts, but we did buy a bag of the local coffee, which sits and waits for any coffee drinkers lucky enough to visit.