Camila Jaber is Chasing a Dream and Finding Peace in the Journey
Sometimes it feels as if the stress of life surrounds us like millions of liters of water, suffocating us with no sight of the surface.
Camila Jaber has a mantra she likes to say when things get too difficult below water. It’s a quote that binds her to feelings of empowerment and freedom and champions the Mexican blood that races through her veins.
Frida Kahlo in 1953 wrote in her journal, “Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar.” A year later the famed writer and artist would die after a long battle with declining health and extreme pain.
“Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar,” Jaber says to herself as she slowly descends into the depths, no longer relying on breaths of oxygen but instead enjoying the freedom of diving thanks to years of practice and the expertise of someone who knows their body’s ability.
“Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar,” any doubt leaves the mind, the mammalian diving reflex takes over and Jaber’s veins constrict, blood flows to her vital organs and she is able to descend even further.
“Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar,” she continues to embrace these words as comfort.
“Feet,” the iconic Kahlo quote begins. “Why do I need you for if I have wings to fly?”
Jaber explains why she often relies on this quote as an ongoing mantra when she dives. “It's one that resonates a lot because underwater I feel like flying, and it also brings me back to how proud I am of being Mexican.”
Into the Deep
Jaber is a free diver, which means she plunges into the water without the aid of a breathing apparatus. It’s a sport designed around isolation, but most certainly necessitates the help of outside individuals.
The 24-year-old is at a crossroads. And it’s a precarious position when that crossroads comes a couple of dozen meters below water.
She is working towards her master's degree but is putting that on hold for what will be a pivotal moment for her athletic career.
Jaber currently holds the national record and has reached a depth of 56 meters without fins and 70 meters using a guide rope.
She has her sights set on breaking her record by the end of October, a moment that she hopes will bring more attention to water conservation.
Her passion remains the water. She was born in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, a little island in the Gulf of Mexico and raised in Puerto Aventuras, Quintana Roo, a location just near the tourist hot spots of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, near the gateway of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
She continues to work with organizations dedicated to conservation such as the Proyecto Gran Acuífero Maya and Mexico Azul. And by next year she plans on continuing her master's in the integrated management of water program at the Mexican Institute for Water Technologies.
But first is an attempt at her personal best, an event that she is planning herself. It’s no small feat as competitions have been shuttered due to Covid-19 restrictions.
This has been a truly disorienting year for all of us. While Jaber has done all she can on dry land, you can’t keep a sirena from the ocean. And the event itself holds the greater meaning to Jaber.
“My idea is to have this event as a message that we have to finish the year looking back on what we've done wrong and how are we going to move forwards and just raising the eye and having the attention on conservation, “Jaber said.
Out of Her Control
The point in free diving is that you are very much in control. The body and mind become synchronized as the mammalian dive reflex takes over. The heart slows, oxygen is conserved, blood is transported on to the most vital of organs.
It takes calm and a yoga master’s sensitivity to emotion and physical awareness. You have to remain present in the moment if you're going to succeed and come away safely from such remarkable depths.
But 2020 has proved for so many of us that control isn’t always a given. Jaber has had to grapple with an excruciating season of cancellations, health issues and a mother and sister who tested positive for Covid-19.
“This season has been especially hard because we've been hit with a lot of pandemic restrictions,” Jaber said.
“I've been doing a lot of base training, so a lot of dry training. And it's one of the hardest ways of training because you don't have the ease that the water gives to the sport now. So you have to be holding your breath dry is much harder than holding it in the water.”
The mammalian dive reflex is evolution’s way of allowing mammals to stay a bit longer than they might underwater. The moment our face comes into contact with water, a set of reactions take place in our bodies to help us hold our breaths.
Free divers can certainly train on land, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate most of the conditions that would trigger the reflex.
And aside from the reflex, there is the fact that someone like Jaber relies so much on the consistency you get from plunging into the water.
“I enjoy the feel of the water,” she said. “I enjoy the feel of the water and the silence of the water. So, doing dry you [don’t] have a lot of factors, taking into [account] that you are in a quiet space, in a comfortable space, a good temperature space. It just makes everything else complicated.”
Adding to the complications was a nagging bout with an ear infection that returned a couple of times, negating time that Jaber could spend in the water.
The scariest moment of an already tumultuous year was discovering that her mother and sister tested positive for Covid-19. While Jaber was negative, she was still hit with the realization that she wouldn’t be able to offer the care she normally would.
“It was my worst nightmare,” she said. “My sister and my mom going through this and me not being able to do anything.”
Both mom and sister are doing fine now, but the situation reinforced Jaber’s personal pandemic restrictions. It’s been hard but she doesn’t hang out with friends and limits time with family. While some are perplexed by such adherence to strict guidelines, it’s not even a question to Jaber who has a dream.
“[Being] fully focused on training is teaching me how much of a sacrifice you have to do,” Jaber explained. “Everything focuses on one goal and it's about sacrifices. The biggest challenge is that most people that are not in this sports environment don't understand why you have to be so strict.”
Jaber’s dream is not only contingent upon finding funding and people that will gauge her descent and maintain her safety, she is fully reliant on her lung capacity and health.
With so much uncertainty in the world, the only thing this record-breaking free diver can control is how much contact she has with the outside world.
And as she tries to send a message that will help save that world, she is committed to doing it largely in isolation.
This is not an ideal year to go after a record, but Jaber remains undeterred. The motivation comes from the feeling that she can always do just a little bit more to raise awareness for water conservation.
We discuss fracking and its inherent issues with sending loads of water containing various chemicals into the ground, chemicals that eventually make their way to the water system. We talk about fossil fuels and the depletion of oil reserves.
And the very nature of water on this planet, a resource we often take for granted. Thanks to pollution and misuse, it’s become clearer in the last decade that water, as abundant as it seems, is not an unlimited resource.
“This is what I want to end the year with,” Jaber said. “We have to prioritize. And it's not something that we leave for next year. We have to do it now.”
But always in the background is her personal life, a life that is pulling Jaber in myriad directions.
“It’s definitely kind of a turning point in my career, I'm going to have to balance between how much can I focus on training and also in my professional life as I’m going for my masters.”
If there is a silver lining to this year it’s the strength and clarity it’s afforded this free diver as she moves towards breaking her previous record.
“I think this year has made me more mature in the way of realizing that we don't have control of a lot of things,” she said. “You only can control the way you react to stuff.”
With illness and pandemic setbacks, Jaber has reacted with a calm cool. “I tried to stay very gentle with myself,” she explained.
“I also think that, OK, when I achieve my goal and when I get this message out, then when it resonates with other people, it's going to be even more fulfilling after I've been through these very hard periods. I think that's a way to keep going.”
Jaber remains present, letting go of what she can’t control and reveling in the power of her own mind, her own physical ability.
That’s where the freedom comes from, even here on terra firma. She has the liberty of a diver swimming deep within an ancient cenote.
Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar.