"Adios amigos" I said through a false, fear induced smile to the greasy-haired Zapata moustache, "muchas gracias". The green VW sped off in a plume of black smoke, its engine loud even for an air-cooled beetle. He couldn't or wouldn't understand where we wanted to be dropped off and so on the third attempt we'd accepted being dropped in the vicinity. Now we just had to figure out where in Acapulco we were.
"Can I be of assistance? asked the respectable young looking man stood in the shop doorway. He introduced himself as Carlos and invited us into his grandfather’s shop. We explained that we were looking for a room and he offered assistance as interpreter and negotiator on our behalf. Deb stayed and chatted to the grandfather while Carlos and I went to find some accommodation.
Deb and I had both felt that Acapulco was a must see, despite our reservations that it would be a huge tourist rip-off. The one and only thing that held our fascination were the cliff divers. Inspired by “Fun in Acapulco”, the glamour and excitement that these people seemed to represent had stayed with me. Today in this age of new fangled adrenaline sports such as bungee jumping, white water rafting, zorbing etc. the cliff divers seem to hold a flame of purity; not a fad that comes into fashion and then fades away, and not an activity of perceived danger tamed by ropes and harnesses and full body protection. Naked but for a pair of trunks, these central American Tarzans leap into a narrow channel gouged out of the rock by the continual pounding of the Pacific ocean. They then swim its width through the white, frothing foam and then climb a vertical cliff, 35metres high, barefoot and on fingertip holds.
As if that was not feat enough, they then dive from the top into the 14 feet of water, punching the surface upon entry to avoid dislocations, and arch their body with severity so as to avoid the rocks that line the bottom of the channel. This is pure, untamed adrenaline - no protection, no gimmicks, no fear. This is the skill real heroes are made of.
So when Carlos invited us along to the 10.30 show as his guests we jumped at the chance. Our egos were soaring as Carlos led us past the ticket kiosk; found us a space overlooking the channel and cliff, told the marshals we were his friends and disappeared, only to return with three beers.
That night’s performance lived up to all expectations. The divers ran down the stairs with torches flaming, pushed through the crowd and dived into the turbulent pacific waters. Emerging dripping on the other side of the channel they climbed the rough jagged rock face; each seemingly following their own invisible route on holds tried and tested and polished by decades of thrill seeking crowd pleasers. After reaching the top each prayed at the shrine of the holy virgin before climbing a short way back down to a small flat ledge each. All except one who remained on the top. Then each in turn raised their arms above their head and with a huge effort launched themselves forward and out into the waters below. One chose to do a half somersault, another a full somersault landing feet first in the water while the third added a full twist to his half somersault.
That just left a solitary figure silhouetted on the top. The spotlights went out leaving everyone in momentary darkness until a cauldron of flame sprang to life. This in turn breathed fire into two torches held by the diver. After an initial intake of breath the crowd fell silent. The diver moved to the edge. He stood for what seemed like an eternity. Just when we thought he had lost his nerve he raised both flames above his head and leapt out in the most perfect swan dive. His arched body glistened in the light of the flickering torches. Then he was gone, engulfed by the foreboding black waters. The crowd remained silent for what seemed like an eternity then erupted into applause as a head broke the surface and two arms were raised in acceptance of the well-deserved appreciation. My heart began to beat again, I released the air I had been holding in my lungs and I sat in awed silence.
The wonder and appreciation on our faces was matched by the pride emanating from Carlos. He had dived for twelve years from the age of 16. When he stopped diving he continued to hang out with his diver friends. He is the first to point out the dangers. Carlos gave up diving after the ear problems he was suffering began to worsen. Not to mention the fact that through his career he dislocated his left arm nine times and his right seven. David, a young diver and friend of Carlos, had joined us and was describing his worst accident. He had misjudged the depth of the water and had struck his face on a rock on the channel floor, splitting it open from the bridge of his nose to his top lip. He said that his main worry was that he would be badly scarred and unattractive to women. He said he now realises how superficial that was and he has learnt that beauty is what one holds inside. He has a mature and still very handsome head on his relatively young shoulders.
As we chatted further we learnt that both had glimpsed fame. Carlos had dived for Anthony Quinn and received an $80 tip. David has appeared on a coca-cola advert. Both had performed for a host of major and minor celebrities and performed diving stunts for several films. Carlos had even competed in the world diving championships in Hawaii. I was sat with two very handsome and charming young men whose courage and celebrity status in Acapulco was shadowed by their immense modesty.
We returned the following day and watched David dive. It surprised me just how much more frightening it is when you know the diver! Later David joined Carlos, Deb and myself and asked if we would like to accompany himself and Carlos to the top of the cliff to see how it felt at the top. We felt honoured and gratefully accepted the invitation. We followed them through the hotel and along some narrow alleys and up a steep flight of steps cut into the side of the cliff. Emerging from a dark passage under a tree suddenly we out on the rocky promontory, high above the crowd. Walking past the shrine we peered over the edge looking down into the narrow channel below. From here the slope of the cliff is much more pronounced, explaining why the divers put so much effort into leaping out, otherwise they would be dashed on the rocks below. David explained that the divers must watch the swell in the channel, become one with its rhythm and dive so as to hit the water just as it reaches its peak. This gives them the maximum amount of water to dive into and so reduces the risk of hitting the rocks on the channel bed.
Suddenly a dripping diver climbed over the edge of the cliff followed by 3 more. While we had stood on the top the divers had been climbing the cliff face. My feelings of awkwardness and intrusion were soon allayed as we were introduced to “Mr Beer” and “the world champion” amongst others, who all greeted us with handshakes and warm smiles, seemingly not surprised to find two English people on top of their cliff. We stood to one side and enjoyed our privileged birds eye view as each “diver” leapt into the chasm below. The view from the top made the whole event look more frightening than it had from below. From here we were aware of everything at once; the slope of the cliff, the pounding Pacific Ocean, the intimidating black water far below and the strength of the wind at the top of the cliff. I am not sure what the audience made of us being up there; perhaps they thought we were part of the show.
By the following weekend we were home and back at work, Acapulco now almost a dream. But how cool did it feel when a friend innocently asked “what were you up to last weekend?”
“Oh, we spent it hanging out with the cliff divers in Acapulco” we smugly replied!