On a diving trip in Honduras, Dale Bridges nearly loses his life, but finds a favorite beer.
The most satisfying beer I ever tasted was a light, wheaty lager called Imperial, which I consumed at a bar/dive shop approximately 45 minutes after I almost drowned in the Caribbean Sea.
This happened in Honduras, a country committed to the concept of social Darwinism. Want to climb into an enclosed arena and wave a red cape in front of an angry bull? Go for it. Have a yearning to jump off a cliff while strapped to a large kite made out of toilet paper and bamboo? God bless. Compared to the overprotective nanny culture of the United States, Honduras is more like the alcoholic uncle who sneaks his underage nephew vodka and then tells him to drive to the store for cigarettes and porn. My Spanish is shabby, but I assume Honduras’ national motto is something along the lines of I Double Dare You or Don’t Be Such a Wuss.
The bar/dive shop where this foolhardy adventure took place was called The Deep End, located on Utila, an island just off the eastern coastline. It was balanced on top of a rickety wooden dock that stuck out about 20 feet into the ocean. At the end of the dock there was a bicycle ramp. It was a Deep End tradition that, on special occasions—birthdays, honeymoons, Tuesdays—the staff would get incredibly drunk, pull a rusty BMX bike from behind the bar, ride the bike three times around the dock while everyone cheered, and then jump it off the ramp into the ocean. Like I said: social Darwinism.
The Deep End served exactly three types of beer. There was a light, bitter brew called Salva Vida that just wasn’t trying very hard to stand out, and a smooth, bubbly brew named Barena, which was all the rage among the younger generation. Central American beers are fine to drink while lounging on the beach but nothing to write home about. However, the Imperial managed to grab my attention with its crisp flavor and fruity aftertaste, and so I adopted it as my official beer while I was in Honduras.
The near-death experience occurred when I decided to take The Deep End’s three-day dive-training class. Now, you might be asking yourself, “Is three days enough time to properly learn how to survive several hundred yards below the surface of the ocean?” No. No, it is not.
However, I was 25 years old and thought I was immortal. Plus, I’d recently developed an infatuation with William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, two writers who equate stupidity with beauty and bravery, and so I was determined to tip-toe up to the very edge of Existential Canyon and stare down at the great, dark maw. In other words, I was an idiot.
Our “dive master” was a ginger-haired Irish doughboy named Daffy. His personal mantra was, “Anything you can do sober, I can do just as well drunk.” This included diving. Every morning he would show up hung over from the previous night’s binge and lecture us in a thick brogue that sounded something like this: “Bollocks bollocks bollocks leprechauns boyo whiskey bollocks bollocks.” Which meant that, basically, I had no idea what the man teaching me how to breathe underwater was saying.
And so, on day three of diving class, while I was approximately half a football field below the surface of the ocean looking at all the pretty fish, I accidentally inhaled a mouthful of seawater and started to die.
If you’ve ever choked on a glass of water while trapped inside a saltwater fish tank, you have some idea what the experience felt like. Fifty yards might not seem like much, but I was certain that I was going to suffocate before I reached fresh air. My lungs burned, my throat ached, and my head felt like a water balloon being squeezed in a vice.
Since I’m telling this story from the land of the living, we know that I did not expire on that sunny spring day, and I will save you the pseudo-spiritual psychoblather that Burroughs and Kerouac might have gleaned from the experience. My life did not pass before my eyes. I did not behold a bright light. If I learned anything at all from the experience, it was this: Never participate in risky activities with an intoxicated Irishman. It’s not exactly something I’d put in the Torah, but, hey, it’s sound advice.
I reached the surface of the water, sputtering and gagging and crying, but alive. A minute later Daffy emerged at my side and said, “What’re ya doing up here, boyo? Get your arse back in that water.”
Frightened as I was of drowning, I was more afraid of disappointing a foreigner, so like a moron, I returned to the scene of my near demise. The rest of the dive went off without a hitch, and afterward, safe on dry land, Daffy presented me with a card that said I was officially certified to dive anywhere in the world. He slapped me on the arse and bought me a beer.
I peeled off the rubber diving suit and sat down to drink the wonderful Imperial, my bare legs dangling off the end of the dock. My hands were still trembling, and my mouth was filled with the acidic, salty taste of seawater and vomit. I did not feel heroic or courageous.
But the Imperial cleaned my palate and renewed my confidence—it really was a great beer—and after I’d drained the last of it, Daffy handed me another and said, “We’re goin’ back out tomorrow, boyo. Are you in?”
I accepted the cold, sweaty bottle and said, “I almost died, you crazy drunken bastard. I’m never doing something that stupid again.”
I then walked behind the bar and grabbed the BMX bike. I hopped on it, rode the rusty deathtrap around the dock three times while Daffy cheered, and then I jumped it into the ocean.
Writer Dale Bridges lives in Boulder, Colo., where he’s penning short stories and a book of autobiographical essays. Follow him at dalebridges.org.[Illustration: Ted McGrath]