HAVANA - I really can’t remember how many times I’ve come to Cuba. I’m here a lot on business but always find time to indulge in the sweet pleasures of this sugar cane island — pleasures like exploring the narrow streets of Old Havana or enjoying a mojito at Ernest Hemmingway’s favoutite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, or engaging with the friendly locals who laugh when I try to play their homemade musical instruments.
In many ways, I feel Cuba is my second home and understand what Hemmingway meant when he said: “I love this country and I feel like home — and the place where a man feels like home, besides the place where he was born, that is the place where he belongs.”
Being a diver, I belong in Cuba. The waters off her coast are teaming with tropical delights that I never get tired of exploring.
However, as I walk along the sea wall that protects beautiful Havana from the Atlantic and look out on the foaming surf, I’m reminded of a terrifying incident that I experienced while diving on one of my earliest visits here.
On a rare rainy day I was persuaded to go diving — not unusual considering it’s usually calmer under the sea on most rainy days. While heading to the dive spot, though, a gale force wind unexpectedly appeared and churned up some huge waves.
Left: Under the Cuban surf lies a colourful world of fish and reefs.
Our tiny boat was suddenly a cork on the ocean. Some of the holiday drivers began vomiting violently. We were too far out to turn back. Faces were awash with fear.
I was the first to jump into the water at the dive sight, hoping the water would be calmer under the waves, which it was at first. But that didn’t last long and within minutes I began to feel dizzy and my stomach was churning as much as the ocean.
“Calm down — breath slowly,” I kept telling myself while trying to remember what to do if I vomited into my regulator — all part of a driver’s training.
I managed to reach the surface without being sick but was starting to feel the effects of hypothermia — the waters off Cuba aren’t as warm as you think.
I couldn’t wait to climb out of the angry surf but the dive boat was nowhere in sight.
I was instantly gripped by fear as huge waves slapped my face and kept trying to push me back under. The relentless rain was making it hard for me to breath and the air in my tank had run out.
The dive instructor then came to the surface and gasped when he realized the boat was not waiting.
“The boat, where is it? Where is it?” he shouts.
The instructor and I had gone off on a different route from the others onboard and now we feared the captain had forgotten us in his count.
Left: Where Hemmingway hung out is all part of a trip to Cuba. Right: Diving into colonial Havana.
Even though we could see the shore in the distance, it would take a herculean effort to reach it and we were both exhausted.
Thoughts of death were now running through my head as the instructor tied himself to me so we wouldn’t sink.
“Don’t panic, don’t panic — they’ll find us,” he kept reassuring me.
We bobbed on the surface for at least 40 minutes when in the distance we heard an engine.
The instructor quickly took off his bright yellow fins and started frantically waving them in the air.
We were both yelling at the top of our lungs while spitting out rain water. The huge waves prevented the captain from seeing us at first but our cries finally lured him to our location and we were rescued.
That mishap almost made me quit diving.
I left Cuba with the intention of never returning.
For months afterwards, I was haunted by the events of that day in my dreams. But I knew I had to face my demons and decided to return to Cuba where I went diving every day — sometimes twice a day — until I overcame my fear.
I have slipped beneath the waves in many places in the world since that day but I keep coming back to Cuba because this is where Hemmingway and I belong.