The buzz today for those of us just entering the workforce is that “Cliff’s Notes” do not apply to the job ladder, but that you have to pay your dues as generations before us did by suffering miserably for 20 to 30 years in menial jobs, grabbing coffee and working long hours in a cubicle.
For some this path is inevitable, yet for many of us, we would rather travel, waitress, or move from job to job. My generation, sometimes termed “The Millennial Generation,” seemingly lacks patience. Maybe the culprit is a cocktail of The Real World, 90210, and Saved by the Bell, all of which were conveniently featured back-to-back on a weekday afternoon. But let’s face it: despite our asphyxiation from television, we are a generation that was exposed to greater travel, the Internet age, and rapid globalization, and have thus created a new vision from that of our parents’ as to what life ought to be.
Starting from my adoption from Korea in 1985 at the age of 15 months, I have been a traveling maniac. I admit it. I have a problem. I am a travelaholic. Complacency, permanence, and boredom are my worst enemies. I dread nine to five jobs, shudder at the thought of financial responsibility, and am foreign to the notion of health insurance. I admit that I am living fearlessly to a point of naïveté, but at this point I would rather spend my earnings on the here and now instead of saving or investing in what I cannot foresee.
And so it happened that I spent the year after graduating perusing reef walls for tiny organisms, rather than the classifieds for job security. I call it my “super super senior year.”
Graduating with a BFA in photography from Parsons School of Design and a BA in social and historical inquiry from Eugene Lang College in New York (both of which took five years to complete), I realize that the only subsequent lifestyle that appeals to me is a year of unplanned and unpredictable living. Pessimistically, I always look at plane tickets as bookends, but this ticket, one to unconventional living, has only a book beginning.
I decide to move to Roatan, Honduras, an island floating in the midst of Caribbean blue waters and extensive coral reefs that attracts an expatriate population filled with eccentric lifestyles and discontent for the norm. Being a vast contradiction to my fast paced, materialistic existence of New York, my peers and especially my family question my choice of destination as well as my ability to adapt to a minimalist lifestyle. Cut off from dad without savings, I plunge into an extremely poor country with my overweight luggage, cameras, and a college classmate equally as reluctant to begin a lucrative career.
I chose Honduras because when I was seventeen and a newly certified Open Water Diver I researched Divemaster certifications and found the Bay Islands to be not only cheap but also credible within the dive community. During college, whilst spending hours in caustic dark rooms, tiny apartments, and frigid winters, I would daydream about living on an island where I could dive everyday.
My interest in photography stems from a snorkeling trip to Hawaii that I took with my parents during fifth grade. As I snorkeled around Molokini, I grew jealous of the divers below, especially after my father sent his lunch over the starboard side of the boat. Though I realistically decided to focus on more useful subject matters in school (documentary and portraiture), I figure that I should give my childhood dream of underwater photography a go. The fact that my friends and family have never heard of Roatan is also appealing, for I am exploring “dangerous” territory…
I choose Native Sons dive shop to do my Divemaster training. Native Sons is owned by a member of a very powerful family on the island descended from the Jackson family, whose legacy of pirating dates back to the heyday of Caribbean piracy. Though my instructors are topped with sun-bleach, renegade coiffures, no shoes, and smoke cigarettes during class, my course feels like real school. Physics, physiology, and decompression tables: in short, math and science, my two nemeses. Not only does my training feel like school, it feels like military school; my scholarly requirements are intermixed with hefting dozens of forty-pound tanks for large groups of middle-aged tourists sporting fancy gear they only use once a year.
One morning after sampling copious amounts of Flor de Caña rum the night before, I sleepily get onto the nine o’clock morning boat, hoping that my fatigue is not alarming the nervous diver next to me. As we are heading towards our dive site, we see a swirling boil of tuna being swarmed by birds above. Our boat captain races towards the commotion, and my instructor and I dive into the mayhem where we fall upon a slick, white-spotted whale shark. The shear magnitude of the truck-size creature throws pangs of alarm into my senses, but I remind myself that they are filter feeders. Still, I can picture myself being accidentally sucked up during their plankton-seeking processes. The creature is curious about our boat, and even manages to hit its head on the bottom. A large, middle-aged gentleman puts his mask on and sticks his face into the water to get a peek at the animal. As he leans over the side of the boat, his weight moves him forward, and he goes tumbling into the water, right onto the whale shark. He flails about anxiously trying to get back on the boat. To think, this gentle creature scared the living daylights out of this large, professionally successful, somewhat intimidating man. This ten minute display of the world’s magnificence and comedy remedied my hangover quite splendidly.
At night, after schlepping tanks for overzealous customers (a bit of robbery in my opinion seeing as how I too am a paying customer), I go to work at Mavis and Dixie’s, a seafood restaurant owned by another well-known family on the island. Having declared from an early age that I would never be a waitress, my lack of skills means that I essentially have to make things up as I go, creating my own recipes for mango margaritas, mojitos, and vodka tonics. I hide my inabilities as a bartender by smoozing with tourists, telling them which dive sites they must see, where to go on days when they are not diving, and what the typical bar hopping flow is for each evening. I am a servant of tourism, often luring my divers by day to be my drink guinea pigs by night.
After my Divemaster training ends, I begin diving for photography purposes. Finally.
Since bringing my underwater system along when guiding inexperienced divers is frowned upon, my camera remained dry throughout the rainy season while I completed my Divemaster training. At first every dive is exhilarating. I am photographing fire worms, small Peterson cleaning shrimp, turtles, and much more. After about twenty dives, the curse of my millennial status hits me: I am bored. The reef off of Roatan is being eaten away by the negligence of development and tourism, and the fish are turning their noses at the destruction and are heading elsewhere.
One day on my way to photograph secret caves on the other side of the island, I enter deep conversation with a quirky expat named Karl Stanley. Karl is famous for building “homemade” submarines, the first of which he began construction on at age fifteen. Karl and I have been friends for a while, and I have listened to him regale stories of his duty to the local animal population, which consists of putting miserable horses, dogs, pigs, cows, etc. out of their misery and honoring them by using them as shark bait. Karl is a stubborn and frugal man who, at thirty-four years of age, is still known as “the kid with the sub” as was recently quoted in “Lonely Planet.”
Karl agrees to do a submarine/photo project with the intention of doing multiple dives in order to photograph the animals of the deep. As the weather mellows, the tourist fizzle out, and disputes become heated between Karl and the Vice Mayor over docking issues, we descend for my first time into the dark abyss below. The deepest dive on compressed air that I have completed is to 198 feet (which, by PADI standards, might as well get me banned from diving), but this is nothing by submarine standards. The vessel that shields me from crushing pressures is nowhere close to being within US, British, or really any regulation. Nevertheless, the port door is shut; I am in, and there is no turning back.
Fortunately I am a “five-foot nothin’” (as NBA star Antwan Jamison once referred to me) Korean girl with decent flexibility and short legs. The sub is, needless to say, cramped. Measured in capacity in terms of weight, Karl says that two people can fit comfortably in the viewing area. I say that two people, one of whom has a neck curving towards the right and the other towards the left, can fit uncomfortably in his domed-shaped bubble of a viewing space.
To add to the discomfort, the submarine in which I am diving for six to eight hours does not have toilet facilities. Cruising along during one dive, I suddenly hear the sounds of running water, and realize that Karl, using his male capabilities, is recycling Gatorade bottles as toilet bowls. During our last dive (an eight hour tour), I finally muster up the courage (no choice) to use one of his handy urine bags while standing in the driver position, covering my humiliation with a towel. Karl has made one emergency ascent: when a friend, no names mentioned, had a hearty breakfast of something islandy, and well, had to go where not a Gatorade bottle or urine bag would allow.
As if not being able to comfortably use the bathroom was hard enough, now factor in cold. Below the surface, as the sun disappears into absolute darkness, photosynthetic processes cease to exist, so does heat. Inside of the sub, the temperature drops into the forties, transforming into a moisture-laden freezer. When Karl suggests that we start doing ten hour-long trips, I decide that photographs are not worth my sanity.
All negatives aside, what you see in these extreme ocean depths is remarkable. Being foreign to the species of the deep, animal life appears outlandish and huge while the terrain looks deceptively surface-like. Rolling deserts, staggering cliffs, and brightly colored bushes, one could easily believe that we are merely glimpsing at a reflected version of our world, albeit one saturated with salt water. I snap photographs of fish hanging vertically with their noses pointed downwards, giant brightly-colored siphonophores, dinner plate jelly fish, polka-dotted anglerfish, and more. My technique for shooting involves me stuffing myself between the bench and the viewing dome, which ultimately contributes to my discomfort as my clothes get wet from touching the sides of the wet sub. Ignoring my uncomfortable state, I continue to shoot as alien sea life emerges from blackness. Adrenaline rushes over me as I comprehend the rarity of what I am capturing.
One Thursday morning, as I am milling around my tiny studio apartment located under a bridge, I get a call from Karl seeing if I am up for a dive. Karl has been told that he is not allowed to do any more dives with customers because he does not have a business license, a minor detail in his opinion seeing as how this has not been an issue for him during his thousand-plus previous dives. He did, however, manage to get permission to take me and an expat named Barry, whom Karl has been training for the last two years to drive the sub.
Karl’s affairs with the municipality, particularly with the Vice-Mayor and her husband, are getting out of control. Karl’s ambitious determination combined with his equally high level of stubbornness have exacerbated the issue. I tell Karl that his life (and for that matter, mine) are not worth the contested dock space, but it seems that he would rather be remembered as a dead person who was not taken advantage of by corruption rather than as an expat who bowed down to the local government’s exploitation of power. Karl’s present state of frustration is not a good condition under which to operate a submarine. However, it is only after we are already submerged in the submarine that he begins to unveil the details of his dispute. I am already locked in as I learn of his volatility. My life is in the hands of a crazed submarine driver.
As the last trace of surface light flickers out like a dying candle, he says to me, “Wanna go to 2,500 ft.?” Knowing that he has never been past 2,400 ft., I jump at the opportunity to set what I know is some sort of record, and say, “Sure! Let’s do it!” My mouth and my head are obviously not wired together, or perhaps the signals have been fused as a result of the copious amounts of Flor de Caña rum that I had consumed the previous night. A mutual friend and owner of the local watering hole called Sundowners went down with his pregnant wife to 2,400 ft. where the glass of the dome cracked. Every time I told someone that I was heading over to the sub dock for a dive, they would recount this story and tell me that I am crazy. I simply tell them to call my mother if I do not return.
As the depth meter creeps past 2,400 ft., I can see Karl starting to get antsy. Barry is driving, and Karl and I get to experience the new depth together in the viewing area. Karl points to an area right below the domed glass, and says that it is the weakest point in the submarine. Great. So not only will we be compressed to the size of Barbie dolls, but we will also be mutilated in the process by contracting steel and thousands of pounds of pressure. Karl does not express fear very often, and normally explains dangerous situations with a very blasé tone, yet I can see the harping of his nerves in the movement of his eyes. I tell him that I can’t die at this moment, because I have unfinished business at the surface. He does not give me a definitive response. At 2,500 ft. below the ocean’s surface, I begin to realize how stupid I am. Only now does it dawn on me that I am in a homemade submarine that does not have any form of communication to the surface, safety standards, nor experience at this kind of depth.
I nervously pick up my camera, trembling a bit, and trying very carefully not to touch anything for fear of triggering an implosion. I photograph the depth meter. I look at Karl whose face brightens up at the site of a small, clear cucumber slug doing what looks like crunches in the water. All fear is released from my stomach, as I crouch down into my little position between the glass and the seat and begin shooting. Small, clear objects are the most difficult subjects to photograph through the four inch thick glass of Karl’s submarine, and often turn out blurry, but at the moment, it was the perfect fear-breaker. We descended to 2,520 feet before the dive ends.
I step out of the submarine into the humid night air of Roatan, feeling grateful to be alive. I also feel a sensation of accomplishment, of living in the moment, and hunger pangs that remind me that my stomach is attacking my insides. I have to pinch myself as I bask in the knowledge that I am living and working on an island in the Caribbean. Everything about my existence is right here and right now. All I have is this moment, the ocean around me, the island breeze in my hair, and a camera with newly shot images.
A lack of financial security does irk me at times, but honestly I have learned to stretch a few eggs, some hot sauce and a loaf of bread to nearly a weeks worth of meals. In terms of my quest for adventure and rejection of conventionality, and that of many of my peers, I do not believe that our choices are symptomatic of a spoiled generation. Considering the divorce rate, my personal opinion is that this time of discovery of the self and of the world is not such a bad indicator of the health of society. Let us live, let us get our restlessness out of us. One day, possibly, responsibility will kick us in the rear and we will ideally find our niche. If not, at least there are memories had, and not ones that are being put off until sixty-five. If nothing else, we have exercised our resourcefulness, peered to the other side of the rules, and fashioned a personal acceptance of external ideas, individuals from all over the world, and most importantly, ourselves.