Where it all starts again

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Penh.

Walk to the gate. I buy something – an attestation of my western upbringing. Wait for boarding. I check to see who I will sit beside. I always do, and always hope its someone interesting. It rarely is. I sleep.

Open my eyes. There’s still light just before we land, and I gaze out the window, onto the country I have chosen to live in. It looks… Asian, from this altitude. It looks scarcely populated. It looks like Ireland with palm trees and paddy fields and tiny golden temples.

The plane lands. Get bags. Get visa. Get ready. I walk out to a blast of humid air and eager locals calling out the single most heard words by white people in Cambodia. I am instantly privvy to something one must placidly accept and constantly shut down while living in Asia; the tuk tuk drivers. After getting asked an approximate 100,000 times if I want a tuk tuk, I meet my man Sarun, a lovely, slightly heavyset man made of smiles. Sarun speaks good English, loves to ask questions, and to this day is seemingly delighted to see me every time we meet. He is my first Khmer friend.

Phnom Penh airport is about 40 minutes out of Phnom Penh, and my friend Aimee’s place is the same distance out on the other side of town, so my introductory drive is long. Night has fallen, and my first impression of the city is based on the little I can see and the plenty I can smell. The first thing I pick up on is the rubbish. There’s a lot of it on the side of the road, strewn here and there by the shops they front, and by people walking by. The novelty of fairylight-covered shacks lining the streets, selling exotic fruits, ornate wooden furniture and delicately prepared flower arrangements, disguises the inherent poverty of the country more visible by day. The strong stenches occasionaly molesting my nose do not. To be blunt, there is shit and rot by the road, and they remind you where you are.

I find myself in Sarun’s funky, rickety tuk tuk, contemplating what I sense as we reach the half-way mark of our trip, and am struck by a second, equally frightening realisation. All around me are bicycles, mopeds, tuk tuks, rundown trucks and vans… and the biggest Toyotas and Lexus and Audis and Volkswagons money can buy. It doesn’t hit me immedietely; Having lived in the US and Europe all my life, my eyes are accustomed to huge, gas-gusseling SUVs, getting bigger by the year. Seeing them in such striking abundance in a developing country, however, hits me like a right smack across the cheek. What are they doing here? How can they be afforded? Is that a PORSCHE CAYENNE?? Yes. Yes it is. I later find out that as there are ostensibly no rules of the road in Cambodia, save one; the larger your vehicle, the more right of way you have. This makes driving a “moto” or moped hilariously tough here. People also drive on EITHER side of the road, but that’s all for another post. So is the reason for these vehicles being here in the first place.

We arrive at Aimee and Fred’s sequestered little home, and I thank Sarun for the long drive. In Cambodia, tuk tuks are a little different to Bangkok’s three-seater go-karts. Here, Khmers simply construct a rickshaw-like contraption and attach it to a moto. I can only imagine how rough an hour and a half-long drive can be for Sarun.

Aimee’s place is stunning. A wide open space, made entirely of dark wood, it has an spacious feel, complete with big bay doors, wide steps down to a garden and a beautiful swimming pool, and a big lovable puppy called Ella. It’s great to see them again, and we quickly catch up, get talking about the Nina and Marc Cambodian plan, and wash the night down with homemade Sidecars. It’s an early night, for in the morning my brilliant Nina arrives. It’s been 12 days since I’ve seen her, the longest time we’ve been apart in the two years we’ve been together. Needless to say I can’t wait to have her goofy ways with me again.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

How to breathe underwater

The next three days are pure diving, complete with the best and toughest experiences.
Every day we wake up at 7am, have healthy breakfasts right by the beach, outdoors and in the shade. Then we head to meet our divemaster Paco, talk shop, go diving all day, head for showers and dinner straight upon returning to the island, and watch our course videos in the evening. At the end of the three days we feel accomplished, healthy, well rested and proud of ourselves and each other to have passed our Open Water course, with flying colours.
Day one is in spent with Paco teaching us underwater hand signals for communication, and in shallow water; essentially, you walk out onto the beach, and just head into the water right there and then. The water is warm (26 degrees celsius!) and crystal clear, and inviting. In what turns out to be one of the funniest moments of the trip, Paco proceeds to teach us how to communicate underwater to each other, but with his strong Italian accent and massive blubber-like lips, it comes out as pure comedy.
"Ok boys, today we are going to learn how to communicate underwater, ok? And we are going to take out our first stage, ok? (that's the piece that you breathe out of/goes into your mouth) and put it back in, all the while making the sound blblblbblblblblblblblblblblbl... OK?". Watching Paco do the blblblblbl bit is priceless. If you ever watched Men in Black 2, you might remember the beatbox scene in the post office. It kind of looked like that when he did it, like his face was about the explode.
"Then, if you have to go to the surface very fast in an emergency, you have to breathe out all the way up, OK? and say Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh....". I swear I thought he'd never stop the first time he did that. "Put your hand in the air and say Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh...". Priceless.
After picking ourselves up from the floor from laughter, we head out to sea. The first day is a breeze in the shallow water. Having gone diving in Brussels at Nemo 33 with my friend Rodrigo many many times, I feel confident in my gear, but still get the obvious shock from transferring my experience from a swimming pool to the incomparable ocean. Steve and Brandon, with zero experience, are natural divers; They take to the equipment in a heartbeat and after the initial "wtf, I'm breathing underwater" feeling, they are perfectly comfortable with their surroundings. We do our exercises proficiently, each of us having our own discrepancies (mine being the inability to remove my mask in sea water, which begrudges me for the rest of the course), but it's obvious we're all comfortable and content underwater.
Day two and we're out to sea. Starting at 8am after a good breakfast, we head to the beach hut to pick up our equipment and make sure everything is dandy. Everything gets lugged onto the boat, and we head south towards Phi Phi Lay, to our first dive spot, named Bida Nok.
The experience is incredible as we start by dropping down to 8 metres, do a few exercises and then head off on a little excursion along the coral. We track several different types of fish, including 2 lion fish, a scorpion fish, a seahorse - which was very cool - some moray eels and a trevally.

Everything seems to be going well, but I'm going through air quicker than Steve or Brandon, while Steve keeps going up and down and Brandon gets to far from his "buddy" a few times. We're 30 minutes in and all of a sudden it gets a little tough for me to breathe. We've been asking each other regularly how much air we all have, and having been asked not one minute before, I am happy in the knowledge that I have 50bar left (about 10 minutes or so). Then, all of a sudden, at 10 feet under sea level, I run out of air. I suck and suck and get nothing, and I'm at least 5 feet behind everyone, having stopped to check out some underwater plant-life. I'm shocked. I react automatically, checking my equipment. Getting low on air is worrying, but easily fixed while still breathing. Running out of air entirely is pretty shocking, and the fear of drowning immediately pops into your mind. I swim fast to Paco after realising there are no valve issues, and let him know I need his second stage (the secondary, emergency breathing piece which comes with your equipment). I breathe heavy to get some air back in my lungs, and we start to head for the surface. In the end I'm happy this happens to me so early on in my diving career; Now I know what it is like, and I also know that I didn't panic, I consider myself pre-disastered : )

The second dive of the day reverberates the asphyxiating experience of the first one, and I find it hard to enjoy. On top of it, my nervous temperament is amplified, a direct result of stressful living in Brussels, and my mind wanders and ponders in an accentuated tense way. I vow to allow myself to relax, and take on the next day with ease and calm on my mind.
Day three opens exactly how I want it to. We're all very happy and relaxed, having refrained from going out during our diving days, all the while getting up early and eating healthily. My mind is more at ease, having loosened up from yesterdays fright and having meditated the previous evening.
The day comes with more challenges, but our best dives yet. With intermittent problems of Brandon's seal braking, my high-pressure valve bursting, and the fact that we have nowhere to dive in because there are so many jellyfish (at one point we couldn't actually see the water. All you could see were jellyfish, hundreds, thousands of them), we have the greatest experiences of our trip. All of us our very relaxed, I'm breathing regularly, and we stick together, showing each other the wonders we're surrounded by. At one point we come to a feeding turtle, and spend some time with him as he swims around us. We come to an octopus, clinging to the coral. We see seasnakes, Clownfish, Yellow Snapper, porcelain crabs, barracudas, and nearing the end of our dive we see 5 blacktip sharks all but 10 feet away from us! It was the best finale to a great diving experience.

We wrap up affairs on Phi Phi Don, spending our last evening with Paco, with our Open Water certificates gladly handed to us with high commendations. We head out to Krabi the next day, and hop onto a taxi boat out to a secluded beach off of Ao Nang called Railay Beach, and spend our final hours relaxing at one of the most beautiful places on earth. At one point we even let our guard down and leave our stuff on the beach to swim out to a nearby island, and spend most of our time in the water, our new natural habitat.
The Thailand adventure is coming to an end, and we know it. Reluctantly, we once again travel, this time to back to Bangkok, where we will part ways. It's been the trip of a lifetime, but now other realities have to set in. Brandon has to get ready for his upcoming wedding, Steve needs to get back to it in the little town of Chico, and I have to start my new life in Phnom Penh Cambodia...