Sorry for the lull in blog posts: it’s rough here. I couldn’t really find time for computer-world, with the packed schedule I’ve been adhering to:

  • Wake up
  • Eat delicious Thai food
  • Go diving
  • Sunbathe
  • Eat more delicious Thai food
  • Socialize
  • Sleep
  • Repeat

It’s been tough. Finally, I’ve been able to pull myself away from the beaches on this tropical paradise outside and get a couple minutes of screen-time.

* * *

“Ok mates, so now, just take a big step and just walk off the boat into the water. Hold your face mask with these two fingers, and your regulator with your thumb; your left hand should be on your weight belt. Once you’re in the water, inflate your BC and you’ll be fine. Like this.” (instructor jumps off boat into ocean)

I was standing at the edge of the boat, terrified. Why is no one asking questions? They’re all just putting on their fins and walking to the edge. How am I supposed to inflate my BC when he just told me where my two hands should be–and neither hand is supposed to be on that red button. This guy just had me strap 4 bars of lead to my hips and an enormous tank on my back, and he wants me to just jump in the water? How the fuck am I going to breathe? What if I sink? I’m going to drown.

I was already starting to freak out and I hadn’t been in the water yet. Let’s be clear: I am not the kind of person who ever liked to participate in “who can hold their breath longest” competitions in the pool with neighborhood chums. Drowning is second on my list of ways I don’t want to die (second, of course, to “car accident”), but as I was standing on the edge of the boat, I started wondering why it wasn’t first. I had always wanted to explore the ocean world, but it never really occurred to me that scuba diving was an option for me, and I guess I never pictured it being so scary. It seemed like something I just wouldn’t ever do. That was for other people to do, and for them to take pictures for others, like me, to enjoy. It wasn’t until I arrived on the island that I decided to get certified, and that hasty decision was followed three hours later by an orientation class on lung over-expansion injuries and decompression illness. Now I realized that the learning to dive component was what would be most challenging. I needed to learn how to breathe underwater and avoid dying of a brain embolism, and staring at the water below me with all this crazy crap on my back, I started feeling the fear.

I was not comfortable with the whole thing, that’s really all there is to it. The course description had said “pool training,” and we most certainly never went in a pool. We had been taken to a shallow dive site to start our training, and while the other three guys thought this was “awesome,” to start training in the ocean, I was pissing in my wet suit. The idea of going under water, many meters from the surface, with a couple of atmospheres of pressure bearing down on you, while breathing out of a tank and a little hose honestly horrified me.
Jacko could see that I was afraid, and he assured me that the 50 extra pounds I was carrying wouldn’t sink me. “Your body is all water, mate! And you’ve got a tank of air on ya! Don’t mind the weights! Just inflate your BC.”
I stepped off the boat.

* * *

It wasn’t all that bad, the first day. Minus the 3-minute panic attack I had when we were practicing what to do if we run out of air, I’d say the day went smoothly. It was embarrassing  though, when I completely lost my shit and started gulping in ocean water. I grabbed for Jacko’s regulator (the thing you breathe out of), stole a breath, and continued panicking, while I kicked to the surface (something you should not do when panicking, for risk of over-expansion or decompression problems).

“What happened?!” he said, after following me up. “You know how to do the sweep and find your second-stage regulator! You’ve got to think!” he paused, seeing that I was still rattled, coughing up heaps of water. “I know you don’t think when you’re in a state of panic. It’s ok. Come down, we’ll try again.”

On the next try, my partner, Patrick, came over, tapped me on the shoulder, and signaled “I’m out of air” by slashing his palm face-down across his neck. Then the “can I have your air” signal, touching his fingers to his mouth and then motioning them back and forth towards his face, like how you say “thank you” in ASL. I gave him my air, and, this time, calmly exhaled, while reaching for my  alternate second-stage regulator. Phew. We gave the “OK” signal, and Jacko gave the signal that the scenario was over. We could take back our regulators, and breathe our own precious air.

Being under water, or rather, breathing underwater, is such a strange experience. It took some getting used to, but once you realize you just have to keep on breathing, it becomes normal and actually quite calming. We reviewed all of our skills while kneeling on the bottom of the ocean, like clearing the regulator and face mask under water, and retrieving your regulator hose if it gets kicked off or falls out of your mouth. I found the underwater, sign-language classroom to be quite nice and quietly focused.

On my first dive, I was in another world. Hands clasped together, kicking with my feet, I swam with the fishes. I saw, for the first time, the marine world that I’ve seen only in movies. I was just swimming among these creatures, and they didn’t seem to care one way or the other that I was there. Fascinated, I swam right up to them, as they ignored my existence entirely. I practiced my buoyancy as I hovered above an enormous, crawling caterpillar-like sea cucumber. I had to force myself to remember to keep with my buddy, as my attention became locked on the anemones and clown fish. It was magical. Later, when logging our dives in our logbook, I asked our instructor to name some of the things we saw; “heaps of cool fish,” is what he told me. So reads my log book, “10/12/12–Saw: heaps of cool fish.”

Diving is incredible. I can see how people get hooked on it pretty quickly. I came and decided to do Open Water certification, with 5 dives.  Here I am 6 days later, 10 dives down, and holding an advanced certification card.  Here on Ko Tao, the diving schools are the least expensive ones in the world. The typical story of the Westerner-turned-local here is, “I came for a week, and here I am four years later.” It’s taking every ounce of determination for me to get my ass off this island and keep travelling; it’s quite tempting just to stay…

I met an American girl named Shay, through Roctopus dive school, where I took my courses. She is hard to describe in words, but is perhaps one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. She is here doing her Dive Master course, and has been on the island for three months. From a farm in Louisiana  Shay is down to Earth but also eccentric. She challenges mainstream beliefs and ideology, and develops her own unique sense of the world. On top of all that, she speaks with a bluntness that only an American can posses and when my moped ran out of gas at 3 in the morning, she took me to a gas station where the attendant was sleeping on a cot and woke him up with a loud, “Hey! Can I get a bottle? She outa gas.” Hopefully Shay will join me in the coming months in some of my travels. That’s the plan, anyway.

I have met great friends here, including a wonderful Spanish guy that I met through a mutual friend, Selma, and another great Spaniard who is hosting me from Couchsurfing. My diving team was fantastic, a group of two Dutchmen, an Englishman, myself and our Aussie instructor. It seems every place I go, I meet incredibly interesting people. It’s one of the most lovely perks to such a trip. When I arrived here, I was lonely and quiet, having realized that loneliness is quite easy to come by on this long road; in days, I met yet another fantastic group of people, and roamed the streets of Ko Tao with friends.

My final dives were amazing–a wreck dive, where we swam through a sunk U.S. navy ship, and a “deep” dive, where we reached the recreational diving limit of 30 meters and tossed around an egg yolk like a volleyball under the immense pressure. Perhaps the coolest, though, was my last dive: the night dive. Fighting my fears and apprehensions, I stepped off the boat into the pitch black unknown of the open ocean, clutching my “torch” with unprecedented caution. I could see only what was directly in front of my stream of light, and it was disorienting not being able to see the surface above. But I loved the way the night dive made me feel like an explorer, diving in the deep dark ocean and discovering strange creatures. I liked the uncomfortable sense that something might be following me in the darkness, ready to take a bite out of my leg and shit me out. I liked turning off my torch and seeing bio-luminescent phytoplankton swirling in the blackness. The crustaceans and stingrays come out in crowds to scavenge in the dark. It was all so lovely. After diving for six days straight here, I feel a little closer to the 70% of the Earth’s surface that is covered in water and a lot more in love with it.

Ko Tao is a place I will return to one day to live, just for a bit. There are layers of culture here, from “ladyboy” cabarets, to an overwhelmingly large population of workers from Myanmar. From the local “high bar,” where the “punishable by death” rule for drugs somehow does not apply, to the quiet hillside bungalows where the sounds of crickets and cicadas lull you to sleep, it’s a romantic little island with a vibe that elicits relaxation. Although the tourism here is very heavy, there are ways to escape that madness, and the people who have come to live here are living a life of exemplary happiness. I will come back here, that is for certain, even though it is not in any way an appropriate representative of Thai culture. Tomorrow, I will head to Ko Samui, an island South of here that people on Ko Tao refer to as a “shithole.” I have high hopes for this shithole, and hopefully I won’t regret leaving this lovely little island behind.

The view from my bungalow