This is the final instalment of this tale, which has definitely not turned out how I thought it would when I started writing almost 2 years ago. As a glance over the previous instalments (here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) will reveal, it has been something of a wild ride and I think it fair to say we have had our fair share of challenges. I wanted to wait until I was back to teaching cave before I rounded off the account of our journey from serving in the Royal Navy to owning and running a dive centre in Mexico. It is still pretty hard going, as my broken back and resulting nerve damage (details in part 3) have left me at slightly less than 100% of my full strength and I have to stop myself hefting twinsets around and learn to ask for help, which is difficult especially when I am teaching or guiding. I have been slowly building up to bigger dives and my back is sufficiently strong to have managed a 2 and a half hour cave dive this week. Most importantly, I have been truly delighted to be back to teaching cave in the last month, so here is Part 4.
There have been a lot of developments since Part 3 of this story. The finishing touches to the build have been finished, including our pool, pizza oven/BBQ area and our Palapa bar.
These have been great for hosting social events and were designed with visiting groups and dive clubs in mind. We love the dynamic of a club trip and providing a really nice social hub (with some decent coffee or cold beer depending on the time of day) makes for a much more cohesive and fun trip. Although we also have a classroom, I tend to do most teaching in the comfortable palapa as the coffee machine and water cooler are close by.
We are really pleased with our apartments, which we have specifically designed for divers, based on what we wanted to have available on our numerous trips to Mexico as tourists. The 6 apartments are named after cenotes Carwash, Temple of Doom, Taj Maha, Minotauro, Caterpillar and Jailhouse, and I have taken a childish delight in decorating them with cave themed memorabilia. There is a cave map and a hugely enlarged photo in each, as well as assorted tat ranging from an Indiana Jones bullwhip, to a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and a model of the Taj Mahal. The cave themed decoration is an ongoing mission, and we would welcome any suggestions for other items or pictures. One of our friends is an artist, and has decorated our walls with a big Underworld logo and some great silhouettes of divers with strategically placed fire-extinguishers as cylinders.
I won’t bore anyone with further accounts of Mexican bureaucracy, but suffice to say that although we are a legally incorporated Mexican company, officials from the department of Gringo-fleecing are relentlessly enthusiastic in their demands for more cash.
It has been unbelievably frustrating being out of the water with a broken back, but doing a bit of straw-clutching, one benefit has been the opportunity to reflect on how we want to develop our diving operation. One thing we are absolutely not focussed on is making money at all costs. You see some horrible things in the caverns here, with large groups of people who have no business diving in the overhead at all being rushed through tours. We are deliberately not on the high street and try to provide a much more safe, relaxed and informative experience than the average dive centre. We only run one tour a day (most provide morning and afternoon), provide a nice lunch and have oxygen and a full first aid kit on our trucks. Our reputation and names on a certification card are far more important than short term gains and we have turned people away if they do not have the experience to dive certain highly decorated sites. We also do our very best to provide the highest quality training we can. Our recreational courses through RAID, BSAC, PADI, SDI or IANTD are a minimum of 4 days in length, which is still a short time to train a new diver but better than the standard 3 days that pretty much everyone else offers. I won’t take anyone into a cavern with equipment I would not be happy using in a cave myself and we provide Halcyon wings, Apeks regulators and Fourth Element wetsuits for all our recreational divers. I don’t like to advocate equipment just because we got it cheap or had some freebies! On the equipment theme, we were delighted to be to be approved as a Halcyon dealer, not to become a full time retail dive shop, but to be able to help out our students with choosing and obtaining equipment. I have seen courses where items like line markers, wetnotes and safety spools were not on hand, and it makes sense to keep these essential items at Underworld for the convenience of students. The other thing we are really pleased to be able to offer is the beautiful Quintana Roo Speleological Survey cave maps. I absolutely love these representations of the intricate Mexican caves as pieces of art in their own right, and we had a few adorning the walls of our house in the UK before we emigrated. It is also nice to give something back to the community with a proportion of the cost of each map going to support ongoing QRSS mapping and conversation efforts.
Some of the other significant developments since Living the Dream Part 3 include Claire qualifying as an IANTD Essentials and Advanced Nitrox Instructor. I was very proud of her for her first technical instructor qualification as well as being pleased to be able to offer these courses at the same time as I am teaching cave. Another, somewhat unexpected, aspect of life out here has been our animals. About a month after Parker, our first dog, died, we got Zorro who was the last of an unwanted litter and has grown from a frightened puppy to a big black thing who I suspect is half horse and half idiot. There are so many dogs here that are abandoned and uncared for, and we just can’t bring ourselves to leave them to die. Our first rescue was Phantom the cat, who turned up at the same time as Zorro. Just after I got back from hospital, Claire bought a tiny 1.5kg puppy home. She had a fungal infection, hardly any fur, all sorts of parasites and didn’t smell too good. And the puppy was in quite a bad way as well. We named her Lola, and although was pretty close to death through dehydration and malnutrition, she is now a wonderful, healthy and affectionate dog. Our next waif and stray was Snorker, a sausage-type dog just over a year old, who was similarly ill, but now has all his fur back and is very gentle and friendly. It was all getting a bit much with animals and we were trying to get Snorker adopted, when a couple of tiny puppies were left in a box a couple of blocks over. We couldn’t leave them to fate and they are staying with us until we can find permanent homes. There is one dark one and one light one, so we named them Appleton and Kraken in a semi-nautical rum reference. There are also a couple of nice street dogs who live outside the gate, except when they sneak in. We feed Yellow Dog and Slim Dusty and they tag along when we go for walks, but we are already at capacity and can’t adopt them properly. We also have had their balls chopped off to try and ameliorate the continuing round of unwanted puppies. And one of them looked at me funny.
We also quite like humans, and it is always nice to meet other people from TDF, and so far we have had Jason and Georgina Brown, Clare and Al Pooley, Digger and GLOC over here diving with us. We have identified some dates in 2016 for a TDF trip and hope to see some more of you then. I am always happy to talk about Mexico or cave diving, so please do get in touch if you are thinking of a trip. Although this is a cave divers’ paradise, the cavern diving here is a great way for any open water diver to experience the beautiful formations in a safe and fun way. Details of the TDF Mexico trip will be out shortly.
So, here we are! After an exciting, challenging and at times painful couple of years we are almost back on track with where we wanted to be. It has been quite an incredible experience, probably harder work than we thought (especially for Claire who had to do everything whilst I was malingering), but ultimately unbelievably rewarding. We have built something that we are genuinely proud of, and that we think offers great training, guiding and accommodation in one of the best dive locations in the world.