This past summer I organized a mission trip in Puerto Rico for a few adults and a bunch of teenagers through our church. We had a great week teaching children, caring for the elderly and reaching out to people throughout several communities of the island. Then on the day before we were to leave one of the host church’s members said: “Do you wanna go to the beach? Do you wanna see something cool?”
Put like that, who would say no right? So all 11 of us got in our little van and we followed this car full of recent high school and college graduate young men from the host church. We were all pretty excited because all week we had caught distant glimpses of the ocean but hadn’t yet had time to actually go see it up close. Now was our chance.
So we weaved in and out several side streets for about twenty minutes slowly descending in elevation, as we got closer to the water. We passed a place where people were surfing. We passed numerous multi-colored houses. We passed a Tsunami warning sign and after awhile we started passing beach after beach. Where were we blindly going again?
Finally, we came to a dirt road and the car in front of us pulled off and the guys got out and directed us to park in a muddy parking spot. Simultaneously, dark clouds began to roll in over nearby ridge as our guides led us down a narrow path –the end of which we couldn’t see. As we walked we passed an ocean mural on the wall until finally we saw a glimpse of where we would descend down to the ocean.
It was a little beach, a fairly secluded cove where only a few people we present. The waves were breaking pretty far out on what appeared to be a natural barrier encasing the area. Way out I could see a man who was snorkeling and spearfishing come up with a large parrotfish. What was this place?
While most of our youth went over to get close to the water with the other guides and our adults, the clouds began to open up and rain began to falling steadily causing everyone to quickly hide their towels as soon as possible.
As that was happening, the young man who had originally convinced us to come on this adventure came over and said to me and another leader “follow me”. Since we had been following him all week we didn’t think much of it.
He led us out onto a compacted coral landing that extended out into the water. We followed him out about a hundred feet and then he sternly cautioned us. “Watch out for the sea urchin.” One of the other Puerto Rican guys quickly called over “Hey be careful! Remember that girl had to go to the hospital?” The hospital? What!?! Where were we going? “What Happened?” – I asked.
“Oh she had a sea urchin spike go all the way through her hand because she wasn’t paying attention. We had to take her to the hospital because it was swollen really bad. So just be careful. Try to avoid all of those black things – the are the urchins. Trust me they hurt if you step on them.”
Myself and the other adult leader turned and looked at each other like “are you kidding me?!?” only to look down and see that we were surrounded by black urchins. Everywhere. We were pretty freaked out.
The guide said – don’t worry just follow me. So, beginning to really wonder what we had gotten ourselves into we trekked through the now knee deep water. Soon we saw our guide jump off of a ledge and start swimming. Then he popped back up on to another ledge into knee deep water again. “Watch out for the urchins here, they are particularly bad in this spot” he said.
By this time we gotten pretty far away from shore and I was starting to have second thoughts. The clouds were really coming in quickly now and it was getting really dark. Not to mention that we are surrounded by urchins that you can’t really see well because of the rippling of the water. To make things worse for the last 100 ft. or so the terrain was getting increasingly difficult to stand upright on making the possibility of falling over onto an urchin pretty high. Looking ahead at our guide who is now pretty far out in front of us. We jump off of the edge and start swimming.
Just as we jump off of the ledge though the sky rips out a thunderclap and lightning strikes off way in the distance… then it started to downpour. We couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t tell how deep the water was that we were in or where we could stand up or not. I couldn’t see if there were urchins under us or around us. I couldn’t even see where the next ledge was. And we were way out in the cove now. It had taken us a long time to get there.
“How much further?” I asked.
“Oh we are almost half way now” The guide replied.
WHAT?!? So I am swimming in the ocean where I can’t see around me, in a lightning storm surrounded by instant-trip-to-the-hospital-sea-urchins, far enough from shore that I am not even sure if I could get back, on my way to some unknown
place that is “cool”. We started to freak. The other leader said “I’m not sure if I can do this now”. Maybe we should turn back.
I didn’t know what to do. It seemed so bad. It was so bad that I just started laughing out loud. Funny, thing about that – I’ve been in ministry long enough now that, over time, really bad things are bound to confront you. Sometimes all you can do is just laugh the ridiculousness of the situation away and press on. So that’s what I did, and then contagiously, so did my other trip leader.
We just started to, as carefully as possible swim forward in our relative blindness. We crept up and over platform after platform of crushed coral covered with urchins trying not to misstep or worse fall over. Slowly the rain then began to die down. “Over there” – The guide pointed ahead. We could see in the distance the natural ridge that the crushed coral made off where the waves were breaking.
We continued on finally swimming to a huge platform of crushed coral that protruded above the water. The surface was sharp but you could walk on it without cutting yourself. We walked over to the breaking waves where our guide was and then he said“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” I said.
“Just do what I do.” He replied.
So then he walks over to a place where there is a 3 ½ ft hole in the coral and he gets into it. Then he disappears! What!?! “Where’d he go?” I asked. The other leader looks at me and his eyes get real big. We hurry over to the hole that is filled to the top with water and our guide is GONE! Thirty seconds go buy and no guide. A minute goes buy and no guide. Then a minute and a half, then two minutes. Where’d he go? Did he drown? Are we trapped out in the ocean by ourselves with a dead guy?!?
Then we hear a yell from behind us! Over here! We see the guide out in the ocean behind us? He yells over “now you do it!”
“Do what?” I say. “What just happened?”
Come to find out it’s an underwater ocean cave. “Just get into that hole and swim through” – he says.
“Oh yeah” I’m thinking – “Because the sea urchins and the lightning haven’t been enough danger for one day”.
Anyway I go over to this hole in the coral platform and look into it and I can’t see the bottom. He continues to encourage me to just get in but I don’t know what’s in there. Maybe Nessie lives in there for all I know – maybe Aquatic Bigfoot or something. I’ve about had it. But at this point I’m tired of fighting so into the abyss I go.
He then tells me to dive down a couple of feet and look through and I’ll be able to see the other side. Sure enough I can. I can see a faint glow of light off in the distance leading to the open ocean. But this underwater cave has NO AIR. I am not a fish. I am not Michael Phelps. I am a mediocre swimmer at best and I can feel the water from the ocean pushing in a way that I would be swimming against it. The cave is totally dark and it’s really not wide enough to turn around in. Once you start swimming you have to be committed. And there is no telling if Aqua Bigfoot of JAWS’ grandbaby JAWS-ette is lurking down there and is going to get you half way through. Not to mention it just seems pretty far. I wasn’t fully convinced that I could hold my breath while swimming and simultaneously panicking at the same time.
I had to psyche myself up for this. I could die in there. But, I some point I just stopped thinking and dove down and started through. I went from freestyle to breaststroke almost immediately because the ceiling of the cave made it hard to bring your arms around over your head. As I swam my hand brushed up along the coral sides of the cave which, I would later discover, would slice my hands finely like little razors. It didn’t hurt at the time though because I was scared and my adrenaline was really pumping. About half way through I wondered if I would actually make it. I could feel the water from the waves in front of me pushing through the cave. It was then that I remember thinking to myself that I was either going to make it or I wasn’t so I might as well enjoy the experience. Heck, I would hold my breath until I passed out if I had to. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. I made it and I felt really invigorated. I had just swam through an underwater saltwater cave. Not too many people get to say that they have done that. Just like the guide said. It was cool… it was better than that it was awesome.
The other leader, I found out later is a pretty good swimmer but he was still scared to go. I told him that it’d be OK but only to go if he really believed he could make it. I am sure that the fact that I actually made it probably helped his decision. My averageness tends to be an excellent marker for other people’s success. He went through and came up in jubilation. It was kinda a bonding moment for us. The guide had really delivered.
Not only that but when we turned in despair wondering how in the world we would get back through sea-urchin city – the guide showed us that we could just swim right back to shore – no coral involved. We were elated. He said the other way always makes things seem a little more adventurous. He had that right too.
In hindsight, sometimes our Christian walk seems to be a lot like my Puerto Rico Cave diving experience. You start out following someone that you just met into seemingly dangerous waters that you can’t navigate by yourself. Then, at times, you are asked to go forward with seemingly insurmountable tasks that you can’t always see the benefit of until you actually do them. It’s scary; it even feels dangerous at times. But if you can muster the courage to follow even when you are afraid -you will be changed and you will never for a second regret any of it.