Sixty-five feet beneath the ocean’s surface, just off Martinique’s south-west coast, the water was a deep emerald green. Kaleidoscopic wildlife flitted here and darted there, offering many distractions. And, in a welcome twist, all parties present – myself included – spoke the same language. Thumbs down meant ‘descend’, thumbs up meant ‘ascend’ and forming a ring with my thumb and index finger, meant I was ‘OK’. A fitting sign because, for the 52 minutes I spent scuba diving at Piscine de Salon with a small group of French divers, I really was OK.
Diving has always been my happy place – it’s my great escape from all the stressful realities of ‘adulting’. Under the waves, you get to be a humble guest, a silent observer of another world and there’s nothing more required of you than to hang back and respectfully take it all in. I’ll happily slip into my wetsuit, strap on a tank, and descend a few meters any day. But during my very first 100% solo trip it became a lifeline that made at least one of my three days incredibly amazing.
I should clarify that while I’ve always wanted to do a solo trip, Martinique was not the intended destination for that particular adventure. Tropical Storm-turned-Hurricane Matthew thwarted the departure of my travel buddy leaving me with two choices: (1) lose the money I spent on my flight, or (2) go it alone. I opted for the latter, but with little time to prepare (and learn French) I ended up in a foreign country where I knew no one and could not communicate effectively.
Martinique is without a doubt a beautiful island, but I didn’t see much of it beyond the glimpses I caught during (quite pricey) taxi rides. It might be that solo travel isn’t for me, period. Or just that this last minute journey-for-one was doomed because I wasn’t prepared. Either way, my time on the island wasn’t full of exploration and adventure as I had intended and I probably would have had to count it as a complete failure if it wasn’t for my time spent underwater with Alpha Plongee in Grand Anse d’Arlet.
Here’s how scuba diving salvaged my first solo trip.
It gave me something definite to do
Beyond reserving my room at La Pagerie in Trois Ilets and scheduling this dive, there was nothing on my agenda. I was unable to find a guide to take me around, so I aimlessly roaming the area around my hotel. I frequently wander alone in big cities, but navigating solo it’s trickier with a language barrier and limited public transportation options. Neither of those things were an issue on Dive Day however. I woke up with a purpose and felt grounded as I rode the taxi to the dive shop. I knew where I was going and what I was going to do. Upon arrival I was greeted with a hearty, ‘Ah! You must be Aisha?’ and I felt like I had come home.
It gave me a (temporary) crew
Maybe it’s me, but I think it applies to all divers: we click almost immediately with any dive group. When I say ‘click’ I don’t mean in the chat-it-up, lifelong-buddies kind of way (although that’s possible). I mean ‘click’ in the sense that we quickly get to a stage where we feel confident that we’ll all be looking out out for each other down there. Even though I spoke not a word of French, it was no different with this group. I exchanged a few (English) words of excitement with Jean Baptiste as we geared up, and shared wary laughter with Philippe when I discovered we would be swimming out to the boat. Bonus: I got company for lunch. A treat I truly appreciated because I discovered I’m not a fan of eating alone several meals in a row.
It allowed me to learn something new
Every boat dive I’ve ever done, we’ve boarded while standing in shallow water. This was the first dive where I had to don my gear and swim out (admittedly not very far) to the boat while holding my fins, gloves, and GoPro. Clearly, it wasn’t the most trying of tasks but it was something new, and a little unnerving. Philippe was amused but it initiated our first verbal exchange as he helped me board. He patiently showed me where to set up my tank and chuckled as I breathed heavily, till I finally admitted that it was the very first time I’d ever done that. This then launched us into a stilted conversation about how far we were from the dive site (5 – 8 minutes), how deep the dive was (20 meters) and what I could expect to see (lots of turtles – that turned out to be false).
It allowed me to communicate
Once we entered the water all talking ceased. Bruno, our guide, gave us the signal to descend and down we went. Every time I paused he would show me the ‘OK’ signal to make sure I was alright and I’d respond in the affirmative. Throughout the dive, Bruno signaled whenever he spotted an interesting animal – a giant lobster, a massive crab, dozens of barracuda and too many lion fish. I was just as excited by my ability to understand him, as I was to see these animals up close. He checked in regarding my mask that would occasionally allow water in, and I kept him updated on the status of my air supply. As we fooled around taking selfies during our safety stop, I felt less like the awkward, apologetic English-speaker, and more like a confident traveler, for the first time since arriving in Martinique.
It relaxed me
Diving is the closest I’ve come to experiencing true peace. The only sounds you hear are your own breathing and the motors of boats in the distance. There are no phone calls, no messages, no conversations. It’s just you, other divers seeking a similar escape, and animals that steer clear of you. As soon as we got to the bottom and I looked around, my breathing slowed considerably. Pretty blueheaded wrasse and chromis fish dipped in and out of colorful coral and I smiled to myself. They were on their own beat and so was I. I didn’t think about what I’d be doing later or where I’d be having lunch. It was enough to just existed in the moment. I kept an eye on our little group but set my own pace, grateful to be in excellent company (both human and animal) but appreciative of the voluntary solitude.
It gave me something to talk about
Without diving this trip would have been a waste of time and money. I would have spent three mundane days split between the beach, the hotel and restaurants, with nothing special to report. This dive, my first in Martinique, allowed me to discover a new site and add a new destination to my ‘Been There, Dived That’ list. It provided me with a list of several interesting firsts – first swim-out, first time using an aluminum tank, first time on a dive with people who didn’t speak my language – and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
My accidental solo trip wasn’t all I had hoped it would be, but there will be a do-over. It will be to an English-speaking destination and I will be much better prepared. Then I’ll really know if solo travel is my cup of tea or not. Even if it turns out that it isn’t though, at least I know I’ll have diving to break up the monotony of solitary beach days and lonely meals.
Have you ever traveled solo? What was that like? Would love to hear about it in the comments!
How brave of you to continue on by yourself and to a place where it wasn’t your language! Learning to dive is on my Bucket list so I so enjoyed your post.
Diving is such an amazing experience! I hope you get to do it some day soon! And thanks for the encouragement, it really was a tough decision to go on my own but I don’t regret it at all 🙂
I love how you make the point that while scuba diving everyone speaks the same language! It’s like, underwater we’re all the same. Only you’re flitting around gracefully and I’m freaking out and probably inhaling water. (Diving is not my jam, lol)
Personally, I enjoy traveling alone to places that AREN’T English speaking. 🙂
Lol @ freaking out and inhaling water but no worries, you’ll be fine. There’s a special Discover Dive experience all beginners go through that get you accustomed to the equipment and the feeling of being underwater before you actually venture into open water. You’ll be fine. I hope you try diving some day! Regarding places that don’t speak English, I can manage with Spanish but any other language and I’m like the clueless traveler apologizing every other minute for not understanding what’s being said lol
Love this! I scuba dove for the first time while vacationing in Thailand a few months ago and I’m so glad I did it. I was terrified but it was worth it! I hope this will encourage more people to get unda da sea.
Ahhh yes unda da sea is the best place to be! Thailand is absolutely on my dive bucket list. The visibility there looks AMAZING!
I only started diving last year when I started travelling with my boyfriend but it did make me think that I should’ve started it a lot earlier when I was travelling a lot by myself. Great article, I can feel you have a lot of passion for diving, keep it up 🙂
Thanks Sheena! I love diving and I love meeting other divers! It really is a good activity for solo travelers but also fun with companions as well.
I’m super-glad you chose to go on our trip – though it must have been a stressful revelation when you realized you’d be doing it solo instead of with your travel companion! I enjoy traveling solo, but like to mentally prepare for it. I haven’t been diving yet, but I can imagine the peace you must feel in the water. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Thanks Lindsay! It really was a surprise and not the ideal situation but the dive made it all worth it and I really do want to try flying solo again – this time intentionally lol
Love how sometimes one experience can do so much to change the tone of a trip, good or bad. Happy to learn that you were able to get something out of your solo trip, after all! A wonderful anecdote!
Thanks Lauren! I think that’s one of the best things about travel – anything can happen and things can turn out so amazing when you least expect it!
I’ve never traveled solo. I’m not sure if it would be for me. Something about having another set of eyes and ears is very comforting to me. I’m glad you were able to savage your trip!
I know exactly what you mean Carmen! I always think its so fun to share experiences with someone else, someone familiar who you can share the memories with years later. I’ll still give solo travel another go but I’m wary about what it will be like without a companion.
Wow you are so brave! I know it can be tough but you did it anyway. I’m thinking of doing this on my next trip. I might try going solo too. xx
You should definitely do it! I think everyone should try a solo trip at least once (intentionally of course lol). Just be sure to plan it out properly so you don’t feel isolated and stuck once you arrive. It also helps to be in a country where you speak the same language!
This looks like a beautiful place. Diving intrigues but scares me!
I hope you give it a try at least once Talia, it’s a BEAUTIFUL experience once you get past your fears 🙂 I actually started diving to conquer my fear of open water – it worked 100%! I can’t get enough of it now!
Isn’t it amazing how one experience can just turn this around? I’ve never travelled solo but it looks like you had so much fun scuba diving. It makes me want to plan a solo trip!
I think everyone should try solo travel at least once, but make sure you’ve got it planned out enough so you don’t feel isolated and stuck once you arrive 🙂
Love this story. You are so right about being on dive boats just being able to click with each other. It’s the best feeling especially if you’re new to a country and don’t know anyone else. Great article! Diving has taught me plenty as well.
Always great to hear from another diver Juliette! Dive groups always feel like coming home, even though it’s usually a group of strangers 🙂 I guess that’s the benefit of being part of such a small community!
One, kudos on the solo travel! Two, way to make the best of a difficult situation. Thanks for the inspiration!
Thanks Sara! At the end of the day I’m really glad I got something positive out of it 🙂
I’ve never dived before, but I can relate to this post. I also want to travel solo, but would be seriously terrified if I got flung into such a trip without warning. And as for the communication thing, being (what seems like) the only person not speaking the native language is tough. I struggled with this a lot in France, where I became the clueless tourist on more than one occasion. I can only imagine how blissful it must have felt to speak the same “language” below the surface and eliminate one of travel’s most difficult barriers. Your dive sounds wonderful, and I’m glad you have at least one positive memory of your *surprise* first solo trip!
Thanks Beth! Sounds like you had a similar experience in France! I kept calling myself the Apologetic English Speaker because I started every sentence with “Sorry I don’t speak French” lol It really was a great relief to have those few hours where the language didn’t matter much and I could connect with other human beings!
This post makes me want to go diving again! I’ve only ever been once in Fiji and being down there, underwater, it feels like you’re in a whole ‘nother world. I’ve never been game enough to travel solo before, so you’re very brave for doing so. I hope your second solo trip is much more enjoyable!
Thanks Tina! I hope so too! I also hope you get to try diving again, it really is an amazing experience!
It must have been thrilling & unique experience for you. Amazing. I loved this activity. I just wish to do it, but I really scare about it. At least once in my life I would definitely try. You are really brave. Thanks for sharing such a great experience!
Hey Aisha – I love the blog! This post reminded me of my first solo trip, when on a whim I bought a last-minute ticket to a Uruguay vs. Costa Rica World Cup match in Fortaleza, Brazil in 2014. Like you, I didn’t speak a word of the language and I spent the first night in the hotel wondering why I spent all my money and vacation days just to be lonely for a week. But then the next night, I stayed in a hostel, and even though the guests were crammed into the place like sardines, it turned out to be a great decision! I met a bunch of crazy Uruguayans and spent a few days with them, and the atmosphere in the city leading up to the game was electric. The game itself didn’t disappoint, either. So for your next solo trip, I’d recommend planning it around something like a sporting event or concert, so you’re sure to encounter people with a shared interest. I’d also recommend staying in hostels- you give up some of the amenities of a hotel, but you’re much more likely to make friends!
Thanks Danny! I haven’t stayed at a hostel since I was in college but it actually sounds like a great option for solo travel! Will definitely take it into consideration for my next trip 🙂 Wouldn’t mind planning a trip around a good football match either!