A Summer at The Diveshack
A Mediterranean travel tale based in Malta.
I left home with a stack of resumes still warm from the printer, freshly updated to tailor to seasonal positions for the Mediterranean’s summer.
Moving to Malta was only the first step of my journey and there was a long road ahead.
My mission? To find a summer position that would extend my visa in Europe. Intending to hand out resumes to any employer who would take one, I set off on foot around the island.
“It was a long afternoon.”
A lot of rejection.
I even managed to leave a resume with a French bakery. I wasn’t French or a baker, only desperate. The poor shift manager was so confused.
I probably left upward of thirty resumes in the hands of people who had no intentions of ever contacting me. No, I wasn’t naive or feeling entitled — just running out of time in Europe and I’d do anything to extend my stay with a work visa.
Then, I found it. The perfect solution. The Diveshack.
It was a PADI scuba diving shop on the coastal road of Malta’s most popular city. I didn’t have any experience diving, but something told me I had found my answer. The neon sign that hung from the wide-open window which said “Diveshack” looked like it had seen better days.
The door chimed as I stepped inside. No one was in sight. I waited at the front, but I wouldn’t dare ring the cheeky service bell on the desk.
I waited longer and finally took a seat, peering out the window. There was a group in wetsuits stepping out of the Med onto the beach across the street. They all had big smiles on their face as if they’d just achieved something great, and, for a brief moment, I imagined a summer under the sea and gleefully smiled.
A small man came hurtling across the street and flung open the door to more chimes. “Well, hello!” he practically yelled, “You look like you want to sign-up for a dive.”
“Actually, not exactly. I’m looking for a job,” I said.
He shuffled his feet looking certainly sad he had to inform me, “We aren’t currently hiring, unfortunately.”
“Look, I’m not looking for a paid job — just something that will keep me on the island,” I attested.
He looked endearing, pointing at my leftover resumes in hand, “It seems like you’ve had a long day.”
“It was a long afternoon,” I assured him.
“Well, you can wait for the owner to return from her meeting. It should be within a half-hour. You can speak with her. Are you a divemaster?”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“So, you’ve never dived before?” he asked with a slight chuckle.
“No, but I’d like to.”
The small man with the foreign accent nodded and his nod told me this wasn’t the answer. I waited anyway.
“It’s better to get on her good side.”
Somehow, I managed to convince the owner of the dive shop hiring me for marketing purposes would pay off in the short-term. I don’t know how I persuaded her because I wasn’t entirely sure what marketing entailed. I knew how to use social media, and, in today’s age, that seems to be enough for many business owners.
I could talk a big game, now I only needed to follow through. Though, The Diveshack couldn’t ask for miraculous results because they weren’t even paying me. Instead, they were providing me with the one service they offered — free diving courses.
Everything was going well for the first few weeks of summer. Despite the fact that the owner had labeled me her ‘intern’ and treated me like the boy who fetched coffee, I was doing well for the company.
I had brought in a few client leads, started scavenging age-old files for better promotional content, and I was genuinely doing what I could with the budget they gave me. My only goal was to make the deal as worth it for them as it was for me. . . and maybe dive a few times.
As I grew more comfortable around the shop, I became a helping hand for a lot of things and the dive instructors generally seemed to like me. They’d go out for lunch in-between dives or beers at the end of the day while I finished cleaning the equipment, mopping, and closing down the store.
The owner, Rita, had gotten good at assigning me tasks that weren’t to do with marketing at all. I couldn’t be frustrated, though, I remained in Europe because of that job!
One day, she ordered me to her office where she had a large stack of client files dating back to 1988 when the shop first opened. The stack actually took the space of four large crates in her tiny office.
“Re-organize these. I don’t care how you do it — you can do it by year — just make them orderly,” she demanded.
Doing as I was told, I dragged the crates to the workroom and began re-filing. I laid the papers out across the room in order to get a better visual.
Not more than thirty minutes later, Rita stormed into the room with instructor Jason behind her. “What is this?” she yelled in her thick Maltese accent. “I told you to re-organize, not make another mess for me to clean!” She began picking the papers off the floor.
“I had to get a better idea of what I was working with,” I rebutted.
“What, were you going to take all day doing it?” she asked arrogantly. “Look, if you’re going to cause more problems than solutions, we can’t have you here, okay? But if you want your visa, you are going to have to do better than this.”
Rita stormed away just as quickly as she had arrived. She constantly used her leverage of my visa. I rolled my eyes and looked at Jason as if to say, ‘Am I in the wrong here?’
Jason shrugged his shoulders, “It’s better to get on her good side.”
He left for lunch with the group while I continued to slave at this monotonous, brain-numbing chore. Rita made me work a twelve-hour day until I finished organizing every last client’s file in the history of the company.
I wasn’t just working for a bad boss — I had made a real adversary.
“Deeper than what meets the eye.”
At the time, I’d been in Malta for eight months — much longer than I, or anybody else, anticipated. I came to study and the time became so much more than a semester abroad.
When I chose to go to study in the Mediterranean, I didn’t know the island would change my life as it did. It was my first time abroad and I quickly found out how much there was to learn of the world. I felt like I was breaking new grounds — a pioneer of my little Kansas town. I was the first I knew who spent substantial time in foreign lands and I felt closer to Europe than a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower.
For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable and excited about where I was. It was all brand new and I felt like a kid experiencing life for the first time.
Day-by-day, my friendships with young people from all parts of Europe grew. I learned not only Maltese culture (the laid-back island vibe) but also various aspects of lifestyles all over the continent.
I learned how Belgians do dinner parties. How serious Poles take their traditions. How tender the Portuguese are. How complex Berliners are about music. How hospitable Austrians can be. How Slovakians drink everyone under the table. How romantic the French language is even when translated. How business-oriented Italians can be despite what movies say. I learned how loyal Greeks are. How heart-breaking Spaniards can be. I even learned how wrong the world has the Muslim religion.
Most of all, I learned I was inspired by all of it. The whole experience. I felt myself living and that’s a sensation I no longer take for granted.
Malta introduced me to my whole life. As cliché as it is, I truly found myself like never before. Engulfed by a crowd of internationals, I found a 15-mile-wide island of unlimited inspirations.
Every morning, I woke up expecting to learn something new or pick up a new interest. New friends came like the flood, all with a different accent and difficult to communicate with at first, all with the same will to find what it is they were looking for.
If the island could talk, it’d welcome anyone and everyone and it gave us all that we were looking for. With all of its flaws, what makes you fall in love with Malta is deeper than what meets the eye.
Eight months couldn’t have gone by quicker and I felt like I had hardly scratched the surface. As a new wave of internationals eager to study on the island swooped in, I knew one semester wasn’t good enough. The job at Diveshack was my ticket to remain in paradise.
“A paradise surrounded by war.”
From the front desk, I spent most of the days staring out the window. Watching the waves crash upon the shore. In bad weather conditions, the waves would crash and splash fifteen feet in the air to flood the street in front of The Diveshack.
On most other days, I’d watch from the window as evening turned to dusk and the sun would set to soft but warm colors in the sky. Pinks and blues and a lot of evenings with oranges and burning yellows — I watched the sunset almost every night from that window.
Working in the scuba diving business means late hours. It means rising early to meet clients eager to explore the Mediterranean and closing the shop after a full day of the same shit.
The routine was hardly different for me in the early days of summer. My alarm would sound at 5:30 in the morning. I’d take the half-hour coastal walk with a beautiful view of the capital city, Valletta, across the harbor.
As I strolled past the tourist stands on the promenade, I broke the spirits of vendors hopeful to make a sale to the first passing visitor. I saw the same faces at those stands every morning and, still, they couldn’t remember I was not a tourist. I was simply on my way to The Diveshack.
Turning the corner to the open sea, I saw my first glimpse of the vast, blue Med, and it was always delightful. It always made me feel as if today was the day the job would turn into the paradise it was on paper.
However, to my demise, I’d arrive at The Diveshack to the same-old-same-old. The customer would be sitting on the bench facing the sea across the street, waiting to get into the store and fitted for his dive. Rita was always late to open her own store. ‘It’s island culture,’ she’d say, ‘Let the customer deal with it.’
Where I’m from, business isn’t done like that. I’d cross the street and try to make light of the situation with the customer by cracking the same-old corny joke. “I guess the island life got the best of boss-lady this morning. I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” I’d say with a tee-hee. I knew it wasn’t funny and the customer never responded like it was.
When Rita finally arrived, sometimes as much as a half-an-hour late, I’d fit the customer with his gear, put in the safety video, and mop the floor while the customer(s) watched.
Our agreement to become The Diveshack marketing professional seemed light-years away. I was cheap labor in Rita’s eyes, doing the duties of an unpaid intern, and she was taking full advantage of that.
On top of it all, I wasn’t diving like agreed on! In nearly two months, I had dived only a few times. Though it takes some time getting used to breathing underwater and swimming side-by-side marine life like you’re inside a Discovery Channel series, those dives were like nothing I’d ever done before.
I felt like a true explorer — an explorer of ocean depths with all the World War II shipwrecks Malta’s Mediterranean is famous for. I’d swim along sea walls and lose track if I was swimming deeper or toward the surface — I was helplessly lost and attracted to life under the sea.
It’s a new world as a scuba diver. A calm, slow world where time doesn’t seem real. One hour under the Med felt like a half-day at work.
I used hand signals to communicate and floated upside down. Everything on those dives was like seeing life from a different perspective. I quickly fell in love with the hobby and needed more. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like a priority to Rita. I spent hours a day trapped in the shop. The first few months at The Diveshack seemed to go like this.
But my luck was about to change.
One morning, I received a call at the front desk. It was a Dutch school booking a Mediterranean adventure for their students. Eighty children, all coming for an introductory course in diving. I assisted the teacher chaperon in booking the enormous order online and was thrilled to deliver the news to Rita. It was the biggest client call of the summer. Maybe she would finally see I was worth more than slave labor.
“Are you kidding?” she asked in a tone suggesting she was not as thrilled as I imagined. “Eighty introductory students in one weekend?”
I nodded my head.
“We don’t have the staff to handle that kind of order. What were you thinking?” But her mind changed when she saw the pay-out it would bring. Suddenly, she was less focused on my wrong-doings and more focused on the logistics of the weekend.
“Okay, I need you to find three dive instructors in the island directory. Call other shops and recruit help for the weekend. I will also need someone from one of their staffs who can manage a massive snorkel group to keep the kids busy when they aren’t diving. I’ll have to pay that person now which I don’t have the budget for but there’s no other way. I can’t have my dive instructors worried about the supervision of kids when they’re not even underwater. This is about to be a paradise surrounded by war.”
I thought and thought twice about volunteering for the position. “Well, I can do that, Rita,” I suggested. She glared in my direction. How dare I suggest I ever leave the confines of the shop in this paradise.
Rita shrugged. “Can you be reliable?” she asked. I wanted to ask her when I had ever been unreliable in the two months which I had been working there, but refrained. Instead, I only nodded.
She thought about it as if I was asking to teach them how to play with fire, but, finally, she warily agreed. “But if you mess this up, I will find someone new for your position at The Diveshack entirely,” she warned.
“I owe you an apology.”
The weekend came. I remember seeing the massive student group rolling down the promenade the morning of their first class. The view from the window had never looked so horrifying. The Diveshack wasn’t even large enough to fit eighty students, much less fit them for gear, brief them on dives, and teach them diver’s safety.
The others were in a meeting in Rita’s office going over the well-thought-out plan of attack. I wasn’t included in that. Instead, it was my responsibility to start fitting the students in an orderly fashion.
From that moment on, I was out to prove Rita wrong. The other dive instructors saw my potential and I knew they were on my side of this battle, but Rita would take convincing. I was more than just cheap labor and I took the mission seriously.
I led a van full of students across the island to a dive location I’d never been to. It was chosen because it was easy to dive from shore and the least likely to occur rough sea conditions. The forecast was gray, but the storms looked to hold up.
When we arrived, the kids (all middle-school-aged) went straight to the shoreline. I yelled at them from the van as I unloaded gear. They were horse-playing by the rocky cliffs just as adolescents do. I envisioned a tragic fall and as I did the other vans full of students arrived.
I played babysitter, pulling students away from the shore. And trust me when I say, rounding-up eighty 13-year-old students is not an easy chore. Some listened, some didn’t. Those that did were rewarded with being first to dive. Others had a long day of waiting.
While the instructors took groups to the dive zone one at a time, I chaperoned from the shore. I lead a group of forty-or-so students who were diving in the afternoon session in an organized manner to snorkel for a half-hour period.
Sounds easy, but when you’re in charge of keeping an eye on that many kids in the open sea, everyone looks like they might be drowning at one point or another. My heart raced the entire half-hour. The first group was about as unorganized as I imagined it might be.
Luckily, Rita wasn’t there to see. She was back at the shop but would be on site for the afternoon dive. Somehow, I had to make sure it went better than the morning round. Suddenly, I felt I was taking on a lot of responsibility for an unpaid intern.
Not only that, but the sky got worse. A dark-gray cloud rolled over the island and it seemed it wouldn’t leave anytime soon. I was overcome with the eerie feeling you get when inclement weather is nearing. The kids oo-ed and ahh-ed as the wind picked up and the mid-afternoon seemingly turned to nightfall underneath the dark clouds.
Rita arrived and Jason consulted her about postponing the dive. The students were going back to the Netherlands the next day. Either the second round of diving was going to happen or a giant refund would need to be issued for half the day. There was no rescheduling in Rita’s mind.
The sea seemed calm. Perhaps, it was ‘calm before the storm’. Rita made the call to proceed.
Instructors took the second wave of students out to sea and soon they were submerging themselves under. Almost instantly, the sea started to come alive. I had just entered the water with my group and Rita looked on.
I kept looking back at her waiting for her to call us in.
It started to get worse. The kids were taking a beating and I wasn’t doing much better. Shortly, the students started drifting apart and I did my best to pull them back together but the waves were already taking a toll on me. I stretched my legs but we were just deep enough that I couldn’t reach the seafloor.
I checked the shore one more time, hoping to see Rita signaling us to come back. She wasn’t there. I had to make the call myself.
“Head back to land!” I started yelling. There was a sense of urgency in my voice and the kids understood. Though they were as tired as I, their legs kicked ferociously.
A few students further out at sea struggled to make it back in. I fought against the waves to get them with the few flotation devices strung to the line I’d prepared before the day began. The last student and I had to share just to stay afloat. I was worn to my limit. We both kicked until we were able to reach the floor.
“Is everyone out?” I hollered ahead. Nobody seemed to be missing their friend. I did a quick but useless headcount.
As soon as everyone was out of the water, Rita’s red SUV pulled into the parking lot and she was telling me in a panic through the window to be ready to assist the instructors.
Conditions under the sea are never as bad as they are near the surface during a bad storm. The first sound of thunder cracked. The instructors had no idea what awaited them.
Still trying to catch my breath, I waited for bubbles in the designated diving zone — a sure sign the group would be surfacing soon.
Each instructor pushed the students to shore as quickly as they could with little struggle except for the fact students were losing gear left and right as they flailed their limbs for shore.
Mostly loose fins as the straps came undone in the flurry. I scanned the sea for bright-colored fins and dove into the Med like the Coast Guard on a rescue mission. My arms and legs were already exhausted.
I gathered four or five individual fins and kicked my way back to shore with arms full. Once in arm’s distance, I launched them to shore. An instructor was just surfacing with his group. Fins were still floating all around the dive zone, getting further apart by the second.
I went to fetch more, completely out of breath and energy. I gathered three or four fins and repeated the process once more.
When I returned to shore for the third time, I couldn’t go back out. I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. Some instructors helped pull me up the rocks of the shore as I had no energy to climb.
My entire snorkel group was accounted for and I had rescued 12 loose fins (or six pairs) and a loose snorkel and mask. Over 250 Euros worth of gear.
“I owe you an apology,” Rita said to the team. During this mess, she was of little help and she knew it. As I saw it, it was the first time she showed any sort of humility since the summer started. I respected that and she seemed to show me more respect as well.
The summer went on and I dove almost every other day. During the nights, I learned Europeans don’t take themselves too seriously on the dance floor, and letting loose can be fun.
I earned a certification as a Rescue Diver and began the dives to obtain a Divemaster certification. I hiked across Malta’s diverse landscape every weekend where I continued to meet friends from across the continent and learned more of the beauty of where I called home.
My relationship with Rita improved and other interns were hired to do jobs unrelated to marketing. I was able to focus my energy purely on diving and marketing just as I had envisioned at the beginning of the summer.
I owe the best summer of my life to that island and those people. I hope my friends took home as much from our time together as I took from them.
If you found this article engaging, hit the clapper button to help me out.
Connect with Me:
** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **