Monday, 7 September 2009

The Return Home

(written 07/09/09, posted 14/10/09)

My flight home is early. It’s an irony that the place I’m going on my VSO placement, India, is the place I have a stopover. Getting off in Mumbai is an experience in itself and the airport feels pretty chaotic even though we are pretty much herded through the airport as we’re all on the connecting flight to Heathrow. Seeing people asleep on airport benches and the cacophony of mobile ringtones gives me a brief insight into the Indian culture I’ll be living in for a year come November.

The flight is pretty uneventful and I pass time catching up on my journal and watching a cheesy movie I thought would be a waste of two hours of my life but turns out to be strangely enjoyable.

On the tube from Heathrow I see strange phenomena a few metres below me as I go over a bridge. Namely, a red London bus and a black taxi cab moving slowly in traffic. They appear tiny from my train where I am watching the world go by below. After 9 weeks away I am surprised at how odd they both look. People kept telling me that by going to Asia I would find myself. I don’t think this happened as I was never lost. What it did give me was a different perspective that time away does. It turns out it was also a practice run for what is going to be my new life for the next year as a VSO volunteer in New Delhi. And after my brief insight at the airport, this is something I can’t wait to now get started.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

One Last Buddha

(written 06/09/09, posted 14/10/09)

Get to Bangkok feeling frazzled and tired. I get on the internet to pass the time as it’s so early. I haven’t booked a hotel too so need to sort that out. I get a call from the hotel I’ve just booked online and they tell me the airport has moved. I was getting a bit suspicious as all the local buses were going to an airport with a different name. I recommend that the Rough Guide updates their last Thailand Edition as it is grossly out of date!

I end up booking a hotel on Khao San Road so at least I get a proper experience of Bangkok as I have been avoiding staying here throughout my travels in Thailand. I go for a walk and decide to jump the river boat down to Wat Pho to see the massive reclining Buddha. It was another tourist thing to do but it felt right to see one last temple and Buddha. Within two hours of being out and about I’m tired. The night bus trip last night is not conducive to being in a good mood and I find I want to swear at the tuk-tuk driver who tries to rip me off. In fact, I do and head off to have a nap in what feels like a bit of childish strop. In fact, it is. After bed I’m much better and go for a swim and shopping. The afternoon is about reflection and relaxation before tomorrow’s journey home.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Ao Nang Horseriding

(written on 05/09/09, posted on 13/10/09)

As I walk through town I wave goodbye to my landlady, the shop keepers I’ve ended up talking to, people at the dive shop. I feel almost like a local. The ferry across to Ao Nang is choppy. I must be tired as I pass out for the two hour journey. I get to Ao Nang and shopping and bad weather pretty much sums it up. Haggling with shopkeepers over the cost of rip-off designers handbags has become my entertainment. Everything is so much more touristy here compared to the island and I’m wondering whether this was a good idea. I end up having a couple of beers to unwind and watching TV and reading papers in my hotel room. These are actually luxuries seeing as I haven’t had access to either in a long time. Not that I’m particularly bothered. I’m left with the NY Times international edition which means I read stories slagging off China and strange reality TV shows. Humph.

The horse riding the next morning is much better. This is conducted on my own as the other people have all bottled out due to the weather. I would have done the same were I not going to Bangkok at 3pm. Horse riding is something I wanted to do whilst away so I’m determined. The stables owner humours me and send someone out to Spar to buy a disposable anorak so he can carry on with the ride.

I’m given Dollar who turns out to be a firecracker. I do a good job of controlling her. The best thing is as she is so lively I hardly need to do anything to get her into canter. This we do a lot over my rain drenched three hours on the beach and through rubber tree filled forests. I get given a lovely stir fry at the end and a lift back. The only thing I can do is use the hotel lobby shower after I’ve been out to get new clothes. Everything I’ve worn for horse riding has to be tied in a smell-proof bag and shoved in my rucksack to fester.

I get another night bus at 3pm. It’s tiring but I’m looking forward to a night in Bangkok perhaps in a hotel with a swimming pool if I can get one. I’m actually looking forward to going back home although it’s going to feel quite weird.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Dive Photography 101

(written on 03/09/09, posted on 13/10/09)

So I’m onto my fifth day of diving in a row. I’ve been assigned A as he’s the only one I’ve not been diving with so far. I’m doing the deep dives again today as I need (of course) to test out the new dive computer. For extra fun, well this is the end of my travels and we’re strictly into fun time now I know I have a VSO placement, I hire a camera.

A camera was a good move as on the first dive A takes a picture of me hovering above the sunken ship’s toilets. Well, it had to be done. I’m disappointed I didn’t catch the Cleaner fish who nibbled one side then the other. It looked like the fish had gone in one side then out the other when he turned his head. Throughout the day he seemed to have an uncanny ability to draw fish towards him so we named him the Mr Magoo of the fish world. On the second dive, we see a rare Bamboo Shark. A had to hang on to my tank so I could get close enough to get a great picture of it asleep inside a reef. It was only the third time he’d seen one in two years of diving here so it was a great spot. On the third dive we saw a weird slug thing, he’d also never seen before. I got more pics of the old common-by-now Leopard Shark and pretty fish. Then the end dive of the three was pretty hairy due to a very strong current. As I coped and erm...coped well I felt pretty proud of myself.

Another great day and I decide to go out on a high. I settle my dive bill which nearly makes me faint and grab my CD of diving pics. I go to the viewpoint to watch the sunset. There is a photo of the island from the same viewpoint just after the tsunami and it’s shocking to see the difference. After a bit of contemplation I head back to the guesthouse and book a ferry to Ao Nang for tomorrow and a horse riding trip for the day after. That’ll take me up nicely to the time I need to be back in Bangkok for my flight home.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Touche Turtle

(written on 02/09/09, posted on 13/10/09)

No-one else signed up for the wreck and they needed a minimum of 3 people. So I was stuck on local dives with the others. Well I say stuck but I actually prefer the local fun dives as you always see stuff and you can still see Sharks. This point is proved as on the first dive B, the instructor points out about 3 within the first 20 minutes. He said after the first half of the dive he stopped using the sign for Shark and just kept pointing so people could look if they were interested. Shark fatigue, I love it. One actually swam directly over my head too enabling me to watch its gills. I was in touching distance not that you’d actually reach out and touch unless you’d lost your sensible gene.

We see loads of other stuff too and as I’m not so focused on Shark spotting I see loads of other things of the smaller variety. This includes: Shrimps, Oriental Sweetlips, a Titan Triggerfish and a banded Sea Snake.

The second dive I’m told is going to be a Turtle dive. They aren’t wrong. We get some amazing views. The first Turtle is swimming alongside us a little way in front. The second is nibbling at rocks so the three of us grab a piece of dead rock to steady ourselves in the current and watch for a few minutes. It then proceeded to let go, circle back and swim directly over my head. The second thing to do that today too. If I didn’t have a regulator in my mouth and taking it out to speech would have made drowning an imminent prospect, I would have been rendered speechless.

I may have to leave soon as if I don’t someone will sign me up to do a Divemaster internship and I’ll never leave the island!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

More Shark Fun

(written on 01/09/09, posted on 13/10/09)

Wake up late, well...later than my recent 6am forays out of bed. I’d planned to have a day off and go up to the viewpoint. But it’s cloudy. The weather hasn’t been great since I got here. Everyday people tell me not to go to Koh Tao as the diving is better here. Some of the bigger dive sites are closed due to the season but it does seem great here and I’ve loved every day. Other divers tell me Koh Tao is dull. Apparently there is lots of sand and not a lot of coral or variety in the sites. If I want to leave it has to be soon although I’m being kept here by great diving and I can’t say I mind!

As it’s cloudy and I ordered a dive computer I go and book more dives in for this afternoon. I go back later and I’m rewarded. A new instructor, another B, tells us that if we find a Leopard Shark on the sea bed we’ll creep around behind it and do an army crawl slowly to get closer to its side. This is exactly what happens and we as we do this, we’re maybe 1m within touching distance. I can see everyone grinning. On our second dive, B points out a Black Tip. As I’m at the back this time I miss it. I keep turning around in case it heads back round the opposite reef. It does and I’m rewarded by a 6 foot Shark swimming past. I’m now beyond chuffed.

As I have my dive computer and don’t seem to be going anywhere fast, I stick myself down for the three deep dives tomorrow. As they say in this part of the world, ‘Why not?!’

Monday, 31 August 2009

3 out of 3 ain’t bad

(written 31/08/09, posted 13/10/09)

After 2 days diving with C and various other Divemasters along for our dives, I’m put with B ‘for a change around’. After our first dive the instructor with the newbies tells us he’s spotted a Black Tip Reef Shark. He adds the newbies didn’t notice anything he was pointing out as they were playing around with their masks and trying to get their buoyancy right. I tell B I’ve only seen a Leopard Shark so far here and can he find me a Black Tip and an Octopus. He promises me he will and I’m sceptical.

We get the opportunity to swim over to Phi Phi Lei (see pic) and walk to Maya Bay where The Beach was filmed. It’s stunning but sadly filled with tourists. On the second dive of the day, not long in, B points out a Leopard Shark lying on the sandy sea bed. They don’t seem to be bothered at all by divers. We’re later told it’s only if you get in front of them that they spot you and will swim away. They are much more frightened of us than we are of them. Another ten minutes or so into the dive and a Black Tip Reef Shark swims past just off the reef in the distance. It’s a great spot as they are so quick they’ve usually gone by the time someone spots one. I can see why the one I saw last year was a baby Reef Shark now as this one is much bigger and the colouring different.

So with about 20 minutes to go I’m thinking 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, according to Meatloaf anyway. I’m willing an Octopus to appear from the rocks but I haven’t seen one yet so I’m sceptical. I enjoy the surge that we’re diving in as it pulls us in one direction towards the reef under the cliff and pushes us out again with each surge. It’s a different experience to any I’ve had diving before although the girlfriend of an experienced diver with us is not liking it at all. As a consequence of struggling to fight the current she runs out of air much quicker and the couple are told to surface by B. Once he’s checked they’re on the boat safely he comes to join me and my buddy who have been waiting for him about 8m underwater watching the reefs intently for signs of anything unusual. The third group of five divers doing their Rescue Diver qualification are near us too and we have about ten minutes until the end of our dive. Suddenly we hear a tank-rapper from one of them and we swim over. And there it is...a beautiful big Octopus, undulating and twisting its way over the rocks on the sea bed and investigating the sea bed with its tentacles. I clap B and signal my excitement to him and my buddy. All 8 of us do our safety stop at 5m watching the Octopus slowly move away. It’s definitely the best finish to a dive I’ve had so far.

After a brilliant day, I’m back to the dive shop again at 6pm for my first night dive. I’m nervous but hold it together. It’s a completely different experience and really enjoyable. There is much more light than I’m expecting, perhaps because there are four of us and we’re not very deep. My favourite bit is when we find a sandy patch on the sea bed, empty our vests of air so we kneel on the sand. I swam in phosphorescence algae in Vietnam a few times but nothing that compares to this. Torches against our thighs so they don’t give off light we wave our other hands through the water and everything around us sparkles. It’s brilliant and I can feel my mask leak as I’m grinning so much. What an amazing end to another great day diving.