Dawdling At Length Through the Portal of the Gods


Dawdling At Length

Through the Portal of the Gods

On Shark Attacks and Looking Good

Merely the fourth most dangerous in the world.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico
5th June, 2001

So that was the end of Cuba. It was fascinating, and it was murder. A Communist state mambo-ing in the middle of the Carribean. Food shortages in the lush tropics. Revolutionary slogans shouting defiance, and everyone wants to marry me because my passport is as purple as my sun-burnt head. I�ve tried to describe some of the things I�ve seen but I won�t draw any conclusions. After all, what do I know? One of my landladies, hearing that I was from Northern Ireland, said to me with a serious frown, "The England people chase you around shooting machine guns from helicopters. I have seen this on TV. Is it true?" Not quite, I replied, not all the time. But I couldn�t explain. Can�t just sum up an entire people, history and culture in a few choice phrases.

I was very happy to come back to Mexico. I deserved a rest. Some decent meals and relaxation. After all, all this gratuitous holiday-making and life enhancing experience is hard work. The last few days in Cuba included a fifteen hour coach journey back to Havana, and a three day gut-crunching diet of cheese pizzas and omelettes. I needed to retire to a secure position for a few days where I could slowly rehabilitate my body, carefully reintroduce food types I hadn�t seen for a while.

Needless to say, the first night back I stuffed myself to bursting with steak, fruit and fresh vegetables, and spent the next day glued to the toilet, moaning and thinking of Jesus.

Spot the Barracuda

I�m staying in Playa del Carmen, a beach town in the Yucatan. I�m doing a series of dives in the reefs off Cozumel, one of the world�s great scuba diving sites. It deserves the reputation. Yesterday, we descended 12 metres to a drift dive, lounging motionless alongside the multi-coloured reef a couple of feet above the floor, and allowed the current to sweep us along. A Spotted Eagle Ray wandered past like an underwater UFO, uncaring. We drifted on. A grouper, mouth larger than my head, came up and inspected us solemnly. We drifted on. A barracuda lay still in the current, jaws agape to show off his needle sharp teeth. We drifted on, a little quicker.

There is intense competition for tourist dollars. In Cuba, there were perhaps four or five places to access the internet in the whole country. There are twenty cybercafes in this little town alone. The competition among dive shops is almost disastrous. I chose the shop that seemed the most strict, and therefore safe, rather than the cheapest. As our boat was returning from our dive we came across one of the cheaper options. A divemaster was floating alone in the middle of the ocean, having lost both the family he was guiding, and his boat. We rescued him, circled around till we found the family (who, to their credit, were more concerned about him than themselves), and finally located his boat, the captain of which was having a quiet siesta.

The town of Playa is itself largely geared towards tourists. The Mexican waiters vie for attention with cries of "Two beers for one!", or "Ninety-seven percent off!" As I shook my head yet again at one more outrageous good deal, the shopkeeper shouted to my retreating back, "But I need your money in my wallet!" I�m staying in Mom�s Hotel, together with a small collection of Americans, permanent residents in Playa, and a dozen British soldiers, up for a lark from Belize. The soldiers fix helicopters for the Army. I refrained from asking about machine gunning from the airs over Northern Ireland, and instead wondered about the current level of loud shouting, one thing which discouraged me from a military career. "Not too bad!", they screamed, adding "You get used to it" in a yell.

No Mako

The Americans include a couple of dive instructors, who proceeded to instruct me on the various types of shark to be found in these waters. "You got the Bull, but he�s only number four." Meaning the fourth most dangerous in the world. I felt a fourth of my body grow numb with anxiety. "But he�ll bump up to you before he attacks, and most of his attacks are in 3-6 feet of water."

The next day found me standing two feet deep in the sea, staring out to the menace of the deep. All around me children splashed and cavorted. "Those bloody swine" I muttered, thinking of the Americans, but couldn�t move towards the darkness ahead. Something brushed against my leg, and I immediately yelped and leapt out of the water. A piece of seaweed. Suddenly aware that pretty girls might be watching, I ended my squeal with a manly "Hoohaa!" and did a playful backwards bellyflop. Unfortunately the sea chose to run backwards and I merely splatted straight into the sand like a distressed porpoise. "Swine", I would have added again, but fortunately this time the sea ran in again, to cover my shame, and my curses, with a thin gurgling sound.



Yucab Reef (L.C. Cardenas)


Palancar Reef (L.C. Cardenas)


Swimthrough (David M. Read)


No Mako


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
Playa del Carmen: Mom's Hotel. Clean, pleasant rooms, not expensive. Good fun in the bar. A little far from the beach.

How I got around: Cozumel Ferries