Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Running The Gauntlet

MY COORDINATION COMPLETELY and utterly gone, I staggered along the quayside in the blistering mid-afternoon heat. Dodging the tourists and hawkers, it was a real struggle to stay on my feet, a bigger one still not to vomit. My head pounded and my face burned, my brain fogged. I struggled to think straight. The ground tilted this way and that in front of me; my world a see-saw. I had never felt this horrendous in my life. It was like being horrifically drunk. Reaching the road, I paused to acclimatise to the noise and potential danger: in this state I could esily be hit by a car should I fall into the street. I hoisted my mesh bag of dive gear over my shoulder and headed for the bus stop. The half-hour journey ahead of me filled me with dread. Would I throw up on the bus? I prayed I wouldn't. I'm still not sure how I made it back to my hostal, Señor Mañana in San José del Cabo, but make it I did. The next two days would be spent sleeping, drinking endless litres of water and crawling across the floor between bed and bathroom until my equilibrium was back to normal. Before sleeping that first night, I made notes on what I'd eaten and gave details of my dive profile: I wasn't sure I'd see the dawn.

So a word of advice. If you're going diving, don't have ceviche for lunch and follow it with a double espresso. That, my friends, is the recipe for disaster. I'd come to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California purely to dive. There is no other reason to visit. I thought that Cancún was a characterless, gringo hellhole until I saw this place. If anyone regales you with tales of their Mexican holiday, and then tells you they stayed in Cabo, you can retort that they haven't really been to Mexico. Fact. My Grandad had more authentic Mexican experiences, and the closest that he got to Mexico was fighting the Japanese in 1940s Burma, and eating my Mum's enchiladas in Lancashire. It's beyond bad.

I'd stayed at the delightful and tranquil garden hostal in San José for a couple of nights, and the lovely owners had convinced me that it was better to stay there and just go to San Lucas on the bus to dive. They were right. On arrival in the town, I was horrified by the Señor Frogs, Wendy's, Starbucks and hotel chains which line the boulevard. I scuttled up a side street and walked several blocks to the seafood cafetería which would be responsible for my demise less than an hour later. The place was clean, the staff chatty and, I have to say, the fish was delicious. Steeling myself for the half-hour walk down the harbour to the dive shop I paid, tipped and left with the waiter's wishes of luck. He obviously knew something I didn't...

Stifling sniggers at the lobster-red behemoths strolling gingerly around the designer mall between the boulevard and the harbour, I exited to a scene from Dante's Inferno. Bars full of braying tourists slamming tequilas, wearing large Mexican hats and tee-shirts from the last bar they were in; loud, shouty people; Mexicans with gringo accents trying to sell you everything from a fishing trip to their wives; screaming kids bemoaning the fact that they hadn't been spoiled for 17 seconds; boats the size of mansions bobbing on the harbour's dirty water. Truly. Awful. Fucking. Place.

Unsure of the shop's location, I spied a chandlers and decided to ask for directions there. There were two Mexicans who smiled as I entered the air-conditioned shop.
"Buenos días" I said.
"Morning, Sir."
"Busco una tienda de buceo se llama Mantarraya...lo conoces, por favor?"
"You're looking to dive today, Sir?"
I sighed and gave up on the Spanish.
"Yeah, I'm looking for Manta Ray Divers?"
"We run excellent diving trips, Sir"
"Please...drop the 'Sir'"
He opened a glossy brochure and showed me fishing, diving and whale-watching options.
"But I'm already booked to dive with Manta."
He showed me PADI course prices.
"I'm already qualified."
He pointed out the PADI Advanced course.
"I'm an instructor."
They did trips for Advanced divers only.
"I need to find the shop in half an hour, the boat will leave without me."
He recommended a wakeboarding course.
I left.

There are pushy salesmen, and there are annoying, deranged bullies. I walked a little further up the harbour, and saw a tourist information booth. A fat man was eating tacos and reading a newspaper. He told me he'd never heard of Manta Divers, but could recommend a place to dive. He nonchalantly waved over his shoulder, spilling pieces of meat on it. Jesus. I spotted another stall and made my way over. There was a rotund, disinterested woman and a young lad with a lion cub over his shoulder. A fleshy tourist was trying to touch it: he wanted her to hold it and pose for a $20 photograph. I took advantage of a lull in their conversation to ask about Manta Divers. The kid gave me some directions, and I clarified them with him. The tourist was dumbfounded.

"Oh my speak Spanish?" she asked me.
"Yeah. I get by" I answered in my Northern drawl.
"Are you Spanish?'
The young kid raised his eyebrows at me and smirked.
"No" I said.
"Isn't the lion cute?" she asked "Don't you just want to hold it?"
"No, not belongs in the wild"
"Yeah, but where else are you gonna see a lion?"
"In Africa?" I offered, hopefully.
"Oh my gaaaawd...are you from Africa?"
Oh Christ.
"Do I look African? I'm English." I frowned.
"Oh my're English?"
I left.

I was halfway to the shop by now. It was a journey which would have tested Job.
"Water taxi, buddy?"
"Fishing trip, amigo?"
"Wanna sell your diving gear, my friend?"
"Not really, mate...could make my dive trip a little trickier."
"Cocaine? You want girls..?"
"Bit early, isn't it?"
I sped up a little, and avoided eye contact with the hawkers. Or just ignored can only be polite for so long. Another drifted out of the shade into the sun, and accosted a tall black man in front of me. 
"My fren, my fren...real Cuban cigars. Good price. From Havana."
The big fella waved him away with a wagging finger. As I passed the visitor I said "If those things are Cuban, then I'm Fidel Castro."
"An' I don't see no beard, man..." he grinned.

I reached the haven of the dive shop. They were efficient, and we were on the boat within 30 minutes. Diving out of season, I wasn't expecting too much...I'd earlier been advised that I'd arrived at the worst time of year to dive. Bloody fantastic. But it wasn't bad at all. Visibility was certainly limited, and the water was bloody cold, even with a thick 7mm wetsuit and a hood. But the fish here are huge, and it is no wonder sport fisherman the world over flock to these shores. Great schools of fish drifted around us, and I made a mental note to come back when conditions improve and the whales turn up. My buddy was getting low on air, and the guide signalled that he'd leave me alone for an extra ten minutes as it would have been a short dive, otherwise. I really appreciate that in a guide. I knew where the boat and shotline were, and simply hovered around the rocks that the fish were frequenting until I got too cold to hang about.

Back on the boat, we headed off on a short tour of the famous Arcos, the rocky outcrops of Lands End for which Cabo is famous. An impressive sight. But I couldn't really enjoy it, as I'd started to feel distinctly queasy and a little disoriented. Never being one to fall seasick, I was a little puzzled; I just didn't feel right in myself. Looking at land and the horizon didn't help. But, having paid £100 for two dives, there was no way I was aborting the second. Surely I'd feel better in the water? Wrong. Ten minutes in and I was feeling, for want of a better expression, absolutely fucking horrible. Nauseous. Head pounding. Cold...very cold. I managed half an hour of the dive and was thankful when my buddy indicated that he was low on air; I declined the guide's offer of another ten minutes solo this time...I felt like I was dying. De-kitting on the deck of the craft, my world was being turned, almost literally, upside-down. I staggered about, and began wondering if I'd got decompression sickness. Unlikely, but I was beginning to worry that there was a rogue bubble floating about my system somewhere. 

I voiced my concerns back at the shop, and the probable causes of my malaise. Dehydration due to the espresso was possible, but I'd been drinking plenty of water. Then the guide asked if I'd eaten any seafood recently, and I told him of my ceviche lunch. He shook his head and told me that 3/4 of the customers he guided who fell ill on the boat were usually victims of the local mariscos. Especially as, at this time of year, a layer of dead and decomposing bacteria known as the red tide polluted the catch. As I headed off unsteadily down the marina walkway, I was seriously considering going vegetarian.