Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Diving in Koh Tao

April 12th 2009

I spent most of the first week of April on Koh Tao island doing my Open Water Diving (OWD) certification followed by the Advanced certification. Koh Tao is the smallest and northernmost of the three main islands in Thailand's Andaman Sea. I arrived there on March 31st after a brief stint of rock-climbing in Koh Railay across the Thai peninsula. Dave, my climbing partner, had just come from Koh Tao and recommended Big Blue Diving. That was good enough for me.

Koh Tao is a major diving mecca so the process is very much streamlined. Prices are also standard across the island so the only real differentiation are the equipment and instructors provided by the different schools. Having done no homework on the situation I was lucky to fall into the Big Blue family as they had some of the better boats and experienced instructors around. Shame about their regulators, though (I'll get there). Big Blue is a combination hotel/dive school/restaurant/bar right on idyllic Sairee Beach, so once I arrived and settled I was in a very comfortable situation. Sairee Beach itself faces due west so every evening is a classic sunset, not a bad way to end a long day of diving.

The open water course lasts four days: Day 1 is an afternoon of introductory academics, Day 2 is morning academics and an afternoon confined water training dive, Day 3 is morning academics and certification test and two afternoon dives, and on Day 4 are the final two morning dives. Big Blue is, as described, a fairly big school so they can start new OWD courses every day. They even offer courses in several languages – English, Japanese and German being the big three. My OWD group was fairly large at 11 students so we were split into two groups, boys and girls. Enter the fun cast of characters who encompassed my new social circle: from the girl's group were the charmingly British Helen and Clare. Helen ended up being our group photographer, so you can thank her for the forthcoming photo links. Not in either group but still in the mix were Katie and Jess, two 18-year-olds from Scotland. Don't let their age fool you: these girls were way ahead of the curve. They'd already been through Eastern Africa (that's the dangerous bit) and India, at an age when I was just figuring out the whole travel thing was cool. In the boys group there was Joe, the 19-year-old Brit, Tom, the surfer-cum-sensei Aussie, and Frosty and Luke, a pair of proper English chaps. Also in the boys group, oddly, was Meghan the Canuck, who was placed in the boy group to her great confusion and somewhat chagrin. No one ever explained why she was an exception. The separation along the sexual divide seemed archaic at first but was quickly made apparent as a product of our instructors' idiosyncrasies. The girl's group got Rich the affable beach bum – he easily charmed the girls with his lazy grin and relaxed style. The boy's group, however, received the aptly named Germanator: our instructor Yvonne was discipline incarnate. While the girl's group laughed their way through academics, us boys dotted every “I” and crossed every “T”. We were, in short, put in our place. We also had Tina, another German, performing the part of Yvonne's assistant/protege, nick-named the Assistanator. Tina brought up our rear and caught anything Yvonne missed (which wasn't much), but who, when Yvonne wasn't looking, had a tendency to cut us some slack. But not too much.

Yvonne might have been intense, but I can't say it bothered me much. When a single mistake can cause serious harm, Yvonne is exactly the kind of instructor you want watching your every move. She understood that her particular style was often misinterpreted as aggressive. Well, it was aggressive: she wasn't an Alpha Female or an Alpha Male – she was just Alpha. Aggressiveness was merely a by-product of doing her job well. She was self-aware enough to understand that her style went down better with guys than girls and so she took over our boy's group.

When we finally got in the water on Day 2 I realized how addictive scuba diving could be. Breathing underwater is itself a crazy first-time experience. It's one thing to understand objectively that the regulator will give you the air you need – it's quite another to jump the mental hurdle that blocks you from inhaling underwater. When you do you're rewarded with that giddy sense of discovery you haven't felt since you were a child. The world is new again. I think this feeling alone made the whole course worthwhile. And then you get to do the really cool stuff.

The first dive is all about training. It's called a confined dive for a reason: standing in a circle in waist deep water we practiced basic skills necessary for diving. My least favorite was and still is mask-clearing; that is, what you need to do if you ever get water in your mask or if you lose it completely. I've always had a fear of opening my eyes underwater, let alone in salt-water, and the first time I had to do the full mask clear I just about panicked and started to breathe through my noise... this, of course, made things significantly worse. The Germanator, bless her heart, held me down until I got things under control and cleared the damn mask, eyes and sinuses stinging like hell.

We trained for about 2 hours in the water before we finished the first day. The second day we did our first real dives at two different dive sites: Japanese Garden and White Rock. We were around some real coral and aquatic life for the first time but since it was our first real dive we might as well have been drunk children in a zoo – we were keen to look around and see everything but we all had a distorted sense of depth and balance. We attempted to follow Yvonne's lead while working out our buoyancy and air-usage with varying degrees of success. Despite the difficulties, I think it's safe to say were all blown away.

Poor Luke and Frosty received the brunt of Yvonne's frustration. Basically you can't communicate underwater except through gesture and if you made a mistake Yvonne would gesture you with life-threatening intensity. I'm surprised her mask didn't have two pin holes in it because when she trained her pupils on you they burned with hellfire. I was their unlucky recipient two or three times myself and each time I staggered like a deer confronted by the wolf. Luke and Frosty might as well have invested stock in brimstone; bumping into people, changing depths, ascending too quickly (this causes decompression sickness, aka the bends), and a host of other diving no-nos. After Luke repeatedly failed to properly execute a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (in case you need to go up without a buddy) she saved her frustration for a proper lecture on the surface.

In short the OWD course was awesome. There are so many firsts and etc that to put them all down would be an exercise in futility. The experience is unforgettable but hard to convey on the written page. We saw some cool stuff, and I'd say my favorite was a massive school of barracuda several meters high and several hundred fish deep that felt like I'd stepped into the Discovery Channel. There also, of course, is the modest short story of how America saved Australia, again.

I had enough fun during the OWD course that when Yvonne made the pitch for the Advanced course I was pretty much sold. Other takers included Tom, Luke, and Frosty. This was nice because we had the advantage of continuity from the original group. Yvonne relaxed a bit now that we had proved our mettle in the OWD and we saw some of the softer side. By now her countenance was something of a fond joke amongst us so it was all good. Anyway, we had five dives for the advanced course:

1)Deep-water Dive: the limit on the OWD was 18m, and here we got to do 30m. Hello nitrogen narcosis.
2)Nitrox: increased oxygen for increased dive time. Too bad I suffered a small panic attack and sucked down air at an accelerated rate. Oh well.
3)Computer skills, Navigation skills, Nunchuck skills, Bowstaff skills: girls only want boys who have great skills.
4)Navigation and Point Perfect Buoyancy: learning how to navigate underwater and learning how to balance yourself.
5)Night dive: because, really, we're all here to live out our James Bond fantasies.

So we had just started out the night dive, very much keen to check out all the nocturnal wildlife, when after six minutes under and 12m down there was a boom like a gunshot. I had been swimming in the rear and spun around to see where it had come from. Sound travels four times faster underwater, I recalled from the textbook, and loud noises often disoriented divers. This thought occurred to me briefly as, not seeing anything unusual behind or above me, I turned back around to see my buddy Tom in a state of emergency.

Recreational divers always use the buddy system in case of emergencies. Every diver has a primary regulator in their mouths and an alternate strapped to their chest, just in case your buddy runs into trouble. A tube on Tom's regulator had burst and he got about two quick breaths before his air went dead. That, my dear readers, is an absolutely horrifying feeling. I swam over to him as quickly as my little fins would take me and he clawed the alternate off my chest while I turned his tank off. After an all-clear check we did an emergency ascent and took a moment to rest on the surface and assess his near-brush with mortality. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

One burst regulator is an unfortunate accident, but two would have to be fateful coincidence. As it happens, the previous day my own regulator had burst, but thankfully it was during the buddy check while we were still on the boat deck. The same loud crack blew right in my right ear, deafening Tom and I briefly while I proceeded to hop around the deck yelling “Get it off! Get it off!”. Had we not had that experience, however, the sense of panic and confusion might have been significantly worse when it actually happened underwater... and that would have been extremely dangerous. At any rate, we reacted with calm and composure to the emergency and everyone surfaced safely. And that, I believe, is the final word on good diving instruction: I wouldn't trade the Germanator's discipline for anything.

And what better way to celebrate a life saved than to get rip-roaring drunk and dance the night away. A short walk down the beach from Big Blue is the loud and proud Lotus Bar, playing all your remixed favorites for the dance-crazy divers of Koh Tao. The party extended from the bar down the beach and into the sandbar. We had good cause to celebrate and I made sure to tell anyone who hesitated long enough the harrowing tale of my humble life-saving ordeal. I would accept no praise – I merely performed my sworn duties, sacrosanct since the ancient times of buddy system – but if they would buy me a drink, I would be obliged to indulge. Needless to say, the night was an epic one for the living.

You can find Helen's photos posted on my Facebook profile which is unfortunately inaccessible unless you're my official Facebook friend... but then, why wouldn't you be my official Facebook friend? Hop to it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Monkey of a Day

February 17th, 2009

I had a great time in Hoi An but it seems most of the adventure in my trip occurs while moving from A to B, and the journey from Hoi An, Vietnam, to Vientiane, Laos, was one of epic proportions.

I got picked up by a van in Hoi An and was put in the back seat with what looked like two locals. They made no friendly advances so I just sat in silence for a while and was about to pull out my ipod when they started chatting in fluent English. North American accents to boot. Turns out the guy next to me was Seth, a Vietnamese-American, and the next guy over was Bryan, a Vietnamese-Singaporean. Score one point for not making assumptions about people. I ended up having quite a long chat with these guys over the next four hours back to Hue, but first something even more startling happened.

I'd been making the foundational traveler small talk with Seth for about ten minutes when I realized he was cradling a cardboard box with a monkey in it. I thought my eyes were fooling me the first few times I saw bobbing movement, but when monkey made a quick peep outside, I could not suppress my curiosity any longer.

"...and so that's when we were going to leave Saigon --"

"Excuse me, Seth, but do you have a monkey in that box?"


"I thought so."

"So we were leaving Saigon..."

Total deadpan. Monkey-in-the-box was, apparently, the most natural thing in the world. I got the whole story later on: turns out Seth and Bryan met "a man" in Saigon who told the sad story of monkey's mother's death. Baby monkey was alone in the world with no one to care for him. If Seth and Bryan didn't step up, who would? On top of this they had bought motorbikes off two Spaniards in Saigon and had driven halfway to Hanoi with monkey. In Hoi An, however, they had to ship the bikes up and take the bus. Why? Because monkey was tired and scared of motorbikes (he apparently loved the first two days, at least). This might sound crazy to you, and it did to me, but whatever you think of monkeys on motorbikes these guys ultimately did change course entirely to make monkey comfortable.

To further put all of this in context, these two guys were not your average travelers. Seth had been on the road and settling down sporadically for nine years, Bryan for five. They had met somewhere along the way and become good mates. They were on their way up to Sapa to start a sustainable mini-community. Bryan had been the owner of a monkey previously, but had to leave that monkey with friends when he left Thailand, so he had some monkey-care experience. And the longer I observed the odd trio, the more I became comfortable with the whole thing. Monkey seemed especially comfortable with them, at least, if not with the rest of us. When he finally got out of his box he fell peacefully asleep on their laps. Truly happy to be off the motorbikes. Monkey might have a new fear, though, that of small blonde girls, because the 5-year-old Swedish girl who got to play with monkey for a bit had the eyes nearly bugging out of her head with excitement and happiness. Monkey was less amused. No joke, though, this girl's elder brother turns around from front of the van and asks, "Excuse me, can my sister play with your monkey?"


I wanted to shout, scream, ululate from the mountain tops to the rice paddies: "That's what she said!"

But I didn't. I was handed monkey and then handed monkey onward. It was the only time I handled monkey, despite my growing affinity. Monkey hadn't had his shots and I have strict reservations about unnecessary trips to the hospital. By all allowances monkey wasn't a biter, but who is to say monkey wouldn't become violently jealous of my rugged good looks? I took no chances.

Also on this van ride, I'll make quick mention, was one of two psychedelic Vietnam moments: when we got out of Hoi An proper and onto the road, the driver turned on the music and cranked up Creedance Clearwater Revival. I don't think anything says Vietnam War to the average American quite like CCR's "Fortunate Son", and to actually hear it full blast on the road not 20 km from the DMZ was quite the mind-bender.

The other psychedelic moment was a similar situation at a cafe in Hanoi where the staff was blasting the best of CCR for a couple hours on loop. Maybe I just have a thing for CCR. But then, who doesn't?

That van ride to Hue was the first of three legs to Vientiane. The second leg was a relatively painless bus ride from Hue to Vinh. Most people on the bus were headed all the way to Hanoi, so I was put in the very front seat so I could get off without hassle. Unfortunately this meant I was very much aware of imminent death every time the driver made an ill-timed attempt at overtaking the vehicle in front of us. After Ghana, I have a tendency to wet my pants when drivers get too aggressive.

At Vinh I was dropped at a rest stop to meet the bus to Vientiane. I had a premonition that I was probably going to get screwed on this bus, as tends to happen when you don't get on from the point of departure. I just didn't realize how very screwed I was going to be.

Now I told you about my hostel in HK. Worst ever. Hands down. But this bus ride gives HK a run for its money, and might have even been worse than my ride from Accra to middle-of-nowheresville (you know the one, Lee). The bus was already overrun when I got on, even the aisle was packed full. Sacks of rice and wheat, boxes of this and that, and limbs of all assortments graced every nook and cranny. I shoved my way about halfway into the back and sat down on a box. This was 10:30 pm. I would be stuck like this until about 6 am without reprieve. In the interim babies cried, people climbed over me, Vietnamese pop songs blasted full volume, police were bribed, people used my aisle/seat as their garbage can, the kid next to me stretched out for his comfort and my gross discomfort... he even took over my backpack/pillow when I momentarily lifted my head... and then, yes, ten minutes later he screamed over me down the bus, plastic bags were sent his way, and as soon as he got he began to vomit violently, mere inches from my face. Vomit fumes filled the air and he went back to sleep... vomit bag held precariously between sleeping, slipping fingers. It was around this time, about 3 am, the driver stopped off at his house for a shag and a nap. Taking the keys with him, we were deprived of the air-con, the only narrow sliver of respite afforded to the luckless passengers. The bus, already assaulting my olfactory senses with the aroma of stinky feet and sweaty flesh, now baked this powerful perfume to such an enhanced degree as to induce a comatose state... had I only been so lucky. Sleep was not my friend that night.

At 6 am the border opened and we could get off the purgatory-on-wheels. The disorganized border turned into a shoving match and things were beginning to wear on my frayed nerves. Anyone who knows me well enough can tell you that without an appropriate eight hours sleep I can be a bit crabby, to say the least. This border crossing was truly trial by fire... I emerged without my proverbial eye brows but sane enough to see. At 8 am we were back on the road, me on my box, for another long haul drive until we reached Vientiane at around 3:30 pm. It was tough, my backside still feels it, but I'm alive and in Laos, one of the hi-light destinations of my trip. More to come as the story progresses.

For the curious and conscientious, my number here is (0)20-730-3959, country code +856. I think. The first zero probably gets dropped. If it doesn't work and you must have your Kevin, the Google should provide. Talk to ya'll soon.