The story of The Scuba Geek begins in a graveyard.
Like silken spider webs spinning in the wind, rays of cold English sunlight sliver through the tree-tops to dance upon rows of headstones, each bearing centuries-old etches denoting their denizens interred below. The weighty silence—much sought-after amidst the cacophony of London—bears the burden of my self-reflection. I am bundled under multiple layers of fabric, a far cry from the no shirt, board shorts and flip flops I called “business casual” a few weeks prior. As another sharp wind gust entices my nasal cavities to discharge their contents, I ponder why I ever left Roatan.
The notebook lay open before me, a page of graph paper reflecting the bitter white light of the overcast sky. For me, there are no lines. The paper is a swirl of colors and images, shapes and forms; my mental projection of ideas that, like bubbles in a slowly boiling pot of tea, aggregate, rise, and burst into my consciousness. I focus on a form—a circle—and will it into existence with my pen.
A good buddy and talented artist told me he didn’t “draw,” he just traced what he saw. What I see is a conundrum. How can I marry my passion for the underwater world with my talents? Who am I?
And so I sketch.
When I was young I would talk to myself. A lot.
Kids thought I was weird. Teachers didn’t quite know what to do. Neither did the shrink, but I sure had a lot of fun freaking him out. I’m thankful my parents did their best to understand. I fear that should I ever reproduce, I will be blessed with a little hellion just like me.
The kids, teachers, parents and shrink couldn’t see the colors. They couldn’t hear the stories. They couldn’t meet the characters that inhabited the world inside my head. At recess, while my peers cavorted around the monkey bars and tetherball poles, I retreated into a fantastic imaginary world where the colors and sounds merged into complete narratives. I, entranced, just watched.
Then some bully would usually make fun of me, so I’d punch him the face and get carted off to the principal’s office again.
Weary of my over-active imagination and disciplinary issues, my parents sat me down in front of a computer. If I wanted to live in an imaginary would, I would learn how to tell others about it through writing. Bathed in the blue glow of Word Perfect 2.0, my little fingers hunt-and-pecked at keys, transmogrifying my magical internal world into obnoxiously orange Courier characters. With the dogged tenacity that only curious children can command, I gradually taught myself how to type and write.
Something else happened as well. In learning to navigate the primitive user interface on my DOS-based PC (well before the days of Windows), I learned how to use computers. I discovered a basic paint program and began doodling. The colors and shapes in my head now took solid form, albeit a digital one rendered in the splendor of 8-bit VGA.
I had found an outlet for the world within.
Circles within circles.
Near-symmetrical, but deliberately skewed. A mask. Regulator. Bubbles.
The sketch takes form.
Circles within circles.
The bubbles cascade from my mouth in tightly-grouped rings. A steady stream of air leaks from my mouth. I blow few more bubble rings, just for the hell of it, and put the reg back in my mouth, clamping down on my custom mouthpiece with a grin on my face. My customers are laughing at my antics. Three minutes have longs since passed, but we’re in no hurry to leave the safety stop. A black grouper glides under my fins, eyeing me with puppy-like curiosity. Sergeant majors and chubbs dart overhead, plucking their diet of miniscule nutrients from the surface. I love my life.
I have been in the water for at least as long as I have memories. My parents put me in the pool at the local YMCA before I could walk. As soon as I gained the necessary dexterity in my legs, I used them to toddle down the diving board and into the deep end. It took an Act of God (or at least threats of spankings) to get me out.
Baseball, soccer, basketball—I tried them all. Swimming was the only sport that stuck. I have always been a bit ungainly on land, but in the water I am graceful and powerful. When a premature bought of puberty left me at my current height and shoe size (6’0”, US 13) by twelve, my swimming career exploded. Apparently having an extra foot of reach helps.
By thirteen I was swimming competitively year-round. At fourteen I was waking up at 4:30 AM, the most unholy of hours, so I could put in a quick six-kilometer practice before school. Ten practices a week, fifty weeks a year. During one particularly hellacious stretch of training, I calculated having swum– at a very fast pace– 102 miles over the course of two weeks.
What started as little evening jaunts to local community pools to race the neighboring country club’s swim team became full-blown, weekend-long swim meets all across the United States. I can proudly say that, at the age of seventeen, I (like so many others) personally lost to Michael Phelps (at the time a 6’4” gangly fourteen-year-old). Before I knew it, I was nineteen and racing at the ACC Championship, representing the Red Legend Pride of the North Carolina State Wolfpack at the NCAA Division I level.
(I don’t know how my parents endured the extremely dull hours of heat, humidity, and chlorine to watch me race for a mere 46.5 seconds. Parental love is a crazy thing, and it’s a crazy thing I love.)
Fatigue and burn-out from seven years of non-stop training lead to my retirement from the sport after my freshman year. It was good timing, too: my left rotator cuff had been gradually wearing itself into a tangle of tendons and nerves, eventually leading a long run of physical therapy just to regain feeling in my pinky finger. But I couldn’t just stay dry.
As a high school graduation gift and reward for graduating Valedictorian of my class, my parents took me to Cozumel to finish our open water scuba diving certification. Drifting along the kaleidoscope of undulating reef walls, vibrant corals, graceful turtles, and gliding eagle rays, I connected with the water like never before. No more screaming coaches; no more lactic acid numbing my tongue; no more pressure to out-touch my speedo-clad competitors—just the tranquil white noise of marine life metered by the metronome of my breathing cycle, composing a symphony of silence.
The silence is golden.
I fold the notebook shut, stuffing the incomplete sketch in my backpack. Huddling under my jacket hood, I stroll around the silent graveyard and peruse the encyclopedia of lives-once-lived engraved in weathered stone—1821, 1934, 1887, 1952, 1988.
I am thankful that the eyes of the departed have long returned to dust, for what a sight I am: my tanned skin goose-bumped from the chill, my long curly blonde afro rippling like a flag in the wind, my mismatched winter clothes hanging uncomfortably from my lean Caribbean frame. An island boy in London.
What am I doing with my life? After a year and a half of living on the Caribbean paradise island of Roatan, the blindness of youthful love has splashed me in a very different pond—across it, to be more specific. As I am quickly realizing, it was a very naïve move.
I settle onto a bench slightly sheltered from the wind. Drawing out the notebook, I thumb to the page with circles. The colors and forms masquerade before my eyes, but they are out of focus and fleeting. I sketch, scribble, erase, throw away. Tears well in my eyes, though I know not whether they come from the frigid wind or my searing frustration.
Head bowed, I retreat into my internal world. Focus. Think. Who am I?
Bill had a web page and I hated him for it.
First it was the neighbors. They got this funny device that, after a distinctive melody of whines, beeps and chirps, would miraculously connect to this thing called the world wide web. AOL 2.0 opened the chat channels. Random strings like “lol”, “wtf”, “a/s/l” and “gg” had new meanings. It was fun and mostly harmless. Then Bill got a web page.
I wanted a web page. I also knew nothing about how to make one. Viewing the source of Bill’s web page revealed a mess of meaningless symbols juxtaposed around text. How the hell had he figured out how to make this?
Trial and error. The Notepad file slowly filled with my best attempts to reverse engineer Bill’s black magic. I saved, held my breath, and clicked the refresh button. Turdboy’s Crappy Webpage, complete with awful animated GIFs stolen from Nintendo’s website, was born. At age fourteen, I had programmed for the first time.
As my experimentation progressed, the meaningless jumble of words and symbols became a well-ordered structure of HTML tags and text. Here was a new canvas upon which I could paint with my digital drawings and stories. It was a canvas the whole world could see (though why anyone would desire to see a fourteen-year-old’s crude Microsoft Paint sketch of The World’s Largest Turd is beyond me—but whatever, it was funny). And I was one of the few kids I knew who could do it, which, in the mind of a fourteen-year-old, meant I was pretty much the coolest thing ever and definitely way smarter than Bill.
I pursued programming into university, using the four-year, all-expenses-paid academic Park Scholarship to earn both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Computer Science. Cramming six years of education into four isn’t easy. Sleepless nights became the norm. Tylenol PM became my best friend. My formerly-lean swimmer’s body bulged with the burden of sitting sessile for endless hours of coding. My internal world was a blur of numbers, formulas, classes and code. My mental health suffered.
Amidst this gauntlet of exams, projects, and presentations, something incredible was happening: I could mentally “paint” my canvas with code. The shapes, colors, and forms still swirled in my mind’s eye, but now there was an internal logic that dictated how these mental projections manifested. I could look at a web page and “see”—as if magically overlaid by some internal heads-up display– the code required to make it work.
After my first three years of university work, the magic of programming was waning on me. I was overweight, pale, and notoriously uptight. I needed a break before I completely broke down.
What happened next changed my life forever.
I run my hands through the curls on my head and pull the pen out from behind my ear. She hates the hair– the curls worked on the island, fine, but in London they’re not proper. I suspect the time will come when she hates me for more than just that.
The pen clicks open. Lines sweep out across and over the circles. Near-symmetry is the key. I remind myself it doesn’t have to be perfect—that’s what Adobe Photoshop is for. Perfectionism, unfortunately, is an untreatable mental disorder.
And there I have it. The image floats on the page, no longer a projection of my mind, but real ink-on-parchment. Simple, clean, with sweeps of hair extending to both sides. I like it. It’s me.
But who am I?
Eyes big as quarters stared at me.
The lady-boy leaned over a bit too closely and ladled a sauce over the grilled whole squid on the plate before me. My professor just finished delivering his lecture of the day from a hammock suspended between two palm trees. The following day’s agenda: more scuba diving, all in the name of education. As my knife cut through the squid’s rubbery tentacle, I had a strangle sensation that somehow my future was inexorably bound to the sand beneath my bare feet.
With just a year left to finish graduate school, I had a crisis of conscience. I needed something more fulfilling than another summer of lifeguarding in boring ol’ Mooresville, North Carolina. The solution was traveling with NC State professor Philipp Tavakoli and a handful of students on the Four Worlds program, taking three months to do a cross-cultural study of Southeast Asia, Central Europe, the Middle East, and Central America. After three weeks of an excruciating but jaw-dropping trek through the Himalayas in Nepal to Mount Everest Base Camp, we spent a week in the Perhentian Islands of Mayasia scuba diving. It was here that my life was changed forever.
For one week, I watched how a dive shop operated. For one week, I went diving on a daily basis. For one week, I could relax and truly be in my element. For one week, I saw what life could be.
When I returned to university in August, I decided that upon finishing my Master’s degree, I would take a detour in life and work in the Caribbean as a dive instructor. I was still an open water diver with about forty dives at this point, but there was no question in my mind that this was the direction I wanted to take my life. My girlfriend at the time wasn’t so enthused. Oh well.
I did my PADI Divemaster in a frigid, murky rock quarry in North Carolina. The viz was crap, there was nothing to see but deliberately sunken boats, cars, and construction material, and certainly no women waltzing around in bikinis. The skills I learned, however, have proven invaluable. The fact that I find comfort in small, dark, low-viz environments– an unusual trait for most Caribbean instructors—has saved my butt on a number of occasions.
I earned my PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor certification in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on an Instructor Development Course that, in retrospect, was a great warm-up for my life on Roatan. The twenty-four students on my course worked hard and played harder. After four years of privately slaving away behind a computer, I was liberated to find a diverse group of people with whom I had an instant bond due to our mutual love of the water. Oh, and we all loved to party our asses off.
During the Instructor Development Course, one particular friend told me about this little island in the western Caribbean where she was working on a marine project. It had only recently been discovered by the cruise ship market and, while largely undeveloped, featured a fantastic community of divers. When we parted ways at the end of the course, I gave her my resume and asked her to please let me know if anything turned up.
A week afterwards, I got an email: “there’s a job down here for you.” I sold most of my stuff in the following week. One week later I was on the island of Roatan.
A year and a half later.
I am sitting in a graveyard in London. My fingers are numb from holding the pen. The page flutters in the wind. The sketch stares at me, begging the question: if this is me, who am I?
The image of a Turkish rugs salesman smoking a hookah floats through my mind. I am transported back to that evening in Istanbul. The sweet scent of apple-flavored tobacco complemented by sugary sips of apple tea. The piranha pacing in the fish tank. The multihued tapestries illuminated by candlelight adorning the walls. A self-taught polyglot and self-proclaimed philosopher, the rug salesman speaks slowly between puffs of shisha, occasionally issuing utterances he considers significant. I remember his words:
“Walk with confidence in the direction you choose, knowing that where your feet fall will be the right path.”
I stand and fold the notebook. I know what I must do. I know why the sketch, part-geek and part-diver, hair protruding wildly over bubbles reflected in the mask, emerged from the nebulous netherworld of my subconscious. I know who I am.
I am The Scuba Geek.
I left London not long after my sketch in the graveyard. Broke and emotionally scarred, I returned to the US for a year and a half to recover my losses and develop my programming abilities. I was fortunate enough to land a sweet job with Icarus Studios, a video game company, as it had been my dream during high school and early college to work in the highly-competitive video game industry. The job was stimulating, challenging, and rewarding—hey, I got to play video games as a small part of my job—but I constantly pined for the white sand and clear water of the Caribbean. Sorry, but the suburban hell of Cary, North Carolina, is no substitute for Roatan’s beaches. Money is nice, but living is better.
I returned to Roatan over a year and a half ago to pursue the chance to develop the island’s online presence. As a developing tourism market, Roatan has a huge amount of growth potential. My vision is to help the island through this turbulent time of development by promoting responsible businesses to the outside world. Promoting the significance of online marketing in a place where electricity is unreliable and cell phones only appeared two years ago is, to say the least, difficult. It hasn’t been easy—as of this writing, I’m paycheck-to-paycheck, investing as much time as possible of myself into this dream. It’s a long, slow process to establish oneself, but I know unequivocally that it’s working. And if I have to work, I might as well make my office at a bar on the beach.
Of course, I’m here to teach scuba diving as well. There is nothing like seeing the spark in a student’s eyes when they first descend upon the reef. It is the same spark that I felt nine years ago drifting along the Cozumel walls. It’s the first spark of a flame than burns within, scorching our insides with the relentless need to dive. I love to blow on the embers, stoking the flame into a wildfire that consumes one’s life. Such are the dangers of an addiction like scuba diving.
In closing: the American national pastime is complaining. On Roatan, it’s laughing. Life may be short, but life does not suck, even if it’s just another crappy day in paradise.