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Published: October 13th 2006
It was time for the one part of my PADI Open Water Scuba Diving course I'd been quietly dreading... At a depth of 18m in the big blue sea, I had to take my face-mask all the way off, briefly exposing my nose to the water and running the risk of breathing some in. This may sound easy enough to avoid, but practising this skill in the shallow section of the pool the day before, that's exactly what I'd done. Despite concentrating hard on breathing only through the regulator in my mouth, I'd taken a bit of water into my nose too and had had to rise, spluttering and coughing, to the surface. There'd be no chance of that here - you have to rise slowly from that depth or run the fairly serious risks of decompression sickness, ('the bends'). Focusing hard, I took a couple of deep breaths, gathered my thoughts and then pulled the mask slowly away from my face. Cold seawater rushed in, and I had to close my eyes against the stinging saltiness. So far so good - but as I pulled the face-mask all the way off my head, I somehow knocked the regulator (the part
you breathe with) out of my mouth. So there I was, my nose and mouth both exposed to the water, eyes tightly closed against the salt, clutching my face-mask in one hand, feeling around for my regulator with the other, 18 metres down...
I'd been wanting to do the PADI Open Water diving course for a long time, knowing it would be like acquiring a whole new passport with which to explore an entirely different world. Quite a few of last term's students had done the course, but I held off, awaiting the visit of a good mate from back home who wanted to do it too - Jason 'Bruce' Lee. (A nickname earned due to the fact he was pretty much my only Aussie mate during my student exchange in Sweden a few years ago, rather than his undoubted martial arts prowess.) I'd known Jason since high school and then studied Environmental Engineering with him at my home university but it was in Sweden, (he came over on exchange when I was half-way through mine), that I really got to know him. We had a chance to take some interesting trips together - Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands -
and it was always an adventure to travel with Jason/Bruce. For one thing, we shared a similar mentality regarding accommodation standards - when our Belgian friend's room was too full, it was Jason & I who volunteered to sleep out on his rooftop, (a more sensible idea than it sounds in print). And when we arrived late one night on Gotland, (a beautiful island off the east coast of Sweden), Jason was the one who opted to save a few kronor
with me, sleeping out under the stars in a random field near the harbour. Last year, Jason went ahead and did what I had avoided like the plague; he graduated, and then found a job. I'd been looking forward to his visit ever since he let me know work might give him some time off and that he was up for some Thai adventures. Bangkok
In a strange twist, Jason arrived the night before last term's exchange students flew back to the U.S. Picking him up from the airport, I barely gave him time for a shower before we were back out the door, heading downtown to join the others for the tail-end of the night. It was
First day (Jen's photo)
Looking like I'm about to drown in the pool
a great night out, at Bangkok's famous Q-Bar, but tinged with sadness as everyone prepared to go their separate ways after an amazing term together. It was especially hard for Jen and I, as she was scheduled to fly home to Korea just a few hours after the others' group flight, and we didn't know when we'd be seeing each other again. I really hadn't known Jen for all that long, but we'd become close very quickly and I knew how much I would miss her, (or I thought I did - in reality it was much harder than I'd expected).
It was a long night - as everyone finished packing, cleaned their rooms, swapped photo CD's & home addresses, and reminisced & laughed about some of the best times over one last Beer Chang - but before we knew it, it was time to leave for the airport. A combination of the big night out and a general lack of sleep probably contributed to the emotion of the farewells, but we all seemed to find it hard to say good-bye that morning, knowing that we'd probably never see each other again. On a much happier note, Jen made
Lots of little black dresses
Jen, Jaime, Naphat & Leti on our last night out all together
the practically last-minute decision to try and extend her flight a little more. After a frantic search for the right number, we finally tracked down someone who could help us, and were able to change Jen's flight again, (no cost this time!). It was an indescribable relief not to have to say good-bye to Jen as well that day, and I felt so happy that we could be together for at least a little while longer.
The next few days were spent showing Jason around the Rangsit area and then downtown Bangkok - shopping centres, markets, temples, and all the usual BKK destinations. I'm sorry to admit that I did neglect Jason a little (that's probably putting it very lightly to be honest), as Jen & I enjoyed a bit of time to ourselves, (after a month of doing just about everything with the group). Jason is a seasoned traveller though, and seemed happy to do some exploring on his own occasionally. I hope it all worked out and that you still enjoyed your time here Bruce! Koh Tao
Booking a PADI Open Water course on Khao San one night, (with Asia Divers
- a great outfit I'd recommend to
others), we caught the usual overnight bus & boat combo and reached beautiful little Koh Tao island the next morning. Checking into our room, (included in the very reasonable cost), we all got started straight away. Jen had already done the basic Open Water course in Australia, so she opted for the Advanced course, (diving to 30m, going on a night dive, practising more advanced navigation and buoyancy control, and so on). Jason and I asked if we could squeeze the four-day Open Water course into three, so had a fairly busy routine of watching safety videos (mostly as corny as these sorts of videos always seem to be), filling out quizzes on each section, and then practising with the gear in the pool. And each night we'd head down to the beach for dinner and then have a couple of drinks at the Dry Bar, a cosy little beach-bar with great music and a very relaxed ambience. It was a very happy few days, especially for me & Jen. Unfortunately, Jason succumbed to a bad cold around this time. He soldiered on almost to the end, but eventually had to pull out of the very last dive.
for my experience of SCUBA, (which stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, if you've ever wondered), I'll never forget the first time I went diving in the ocean. At first all of my attention was on my gear, my breathing, my instructor, and so on. But once I started to relax and feel more comfortable, I was able to look around me and fully appreciate for the first time where I actually was!... Floating effortlessly a couple of feet off the ocean bed, I watched with fascination as a couple of little clownfish (of "Finding Nemo" fame) darted in and out of the wavy sea anenome they called home. Off to my right, a massive moray eel glared menacingly out at me from under a brightly-coloured coral overhang. Suddenly, a deep blue stingray glided wavily past, briefly distracting the eel from his intense inspection. Rotating slowly onto my back, I gazed up through a shifting shoal of shiny fish to the quicksilver ripple of the surface. The fish parted like little flashes of light as a few other scuba divers moved across above me, with lazy, graceful strokes of their fins. The sensation of just being where I was -
about 10m below the ocean's surface - looking around at my leisure, totally comfortable & relaxed, was absolutely amazing! I was hooked immediately.
Passing the Open Water course involves completing a number of set tasks, or 'skills', (such as the face-mask removal I described earlier). I didn't have too much trouble with the other ones, (although I think my instructor sometimes passed me too easily in her eagerness to get out of the water and back to the bar). The face-mask removal skill was the very last one, and the one I'd been just a little worried about ever since first trying it in the pool. (Of course, I now know that you can simply cough & splutter to your heart's content into the regulator - but I wasn't aware at the time of how easy & effective this was.) So, back to the scenario with which I started this blog entry... I'm 18m down, eyes closed, face-mask in one hand, starting to feel for my regulator with the other, and hoping I don't panic. In the event, (and I'm sorry if this is a bit of an anti-climax... actually no, I'm not really!), I was able to handle
it fine and am very glad it happened, (it increased my confidence that if something similar did go wrong, I'd be able to deal with it). Releasing a steady stream of tiny bubbles from my mouth, I leaned to my right in the water and then passed my arm up along my side (as we'd been taught to do), locating the regulator tube easily. It was a huge relief to fit the regulator back into my mouth, 'purge' it (clearing it of water), and then take a couple of deep breaths! It was still a little tricky to control my breathing while I put the face-mask back on after that, and then cleared it of water by blowing air out of my nose, but I felt a lot more confident about it all by then! Koh Pha Ngan
Once our courses had finished, (with Jen now an 'Advanced Open Water' diver, me a more lowly 'Open Water' diver and Jason just one dive from earning the same certification), we spent one day on Koh Pha Ngan, (another beautiful island nearby, famous for the monthly Full Moon Parties). By this stage, Jason was actually quite sick, with what seemed to
be a bad flu virus, and hardly left his bed the whole time. I know this might sound callous, (and I really am sorry you got so sick Bruce mate!), but it ended up being an amazing time that Jen and I were able to spend together, just the two of us for once. Relaxing on a private beach during the day, a candle-lit dinner at a table for two right down on the beach that evening, and then a long, moon-lit stroll back along the beach to our guesthouse that night. I've never met anyone like Jen before and the time that we were lucky enough to spend together will always be very special to me, no matter what happens in the future.
Packing up the next morning, we left Jason to relax on the beach, while Jen and I went out for one last dip in the ocean before leaving. We'd waded a fair way out, trying to reach deeper water, when suddenly Jen stepped on something and yelled out in pain. Jumping forward and lifting her up, I stepped on it too - a sharp shooting pain in my right foot. Hobbling out of the water
and back up the beach, with Jen in my arms, I found that we had both stepped on some spiky black sea urchins. I only had five of the narrow, brittle spines in my foot but Jen had at least a dozen and was in some pain. In my worried attempts to remove the spines from her foot, we soon attracted a concerned crowd of bar-staff, sarong-sellers and random tourists, who offered advice of varying quality and practicality. (Luckily for Jen, noone suggested peeing on her foot at the time - as many others have since - because I probably would have done it at that stage!) After mostly unsuccessful attempts to remove the spines, (Jen did get one out - about two inches long!), using lemon juice and tweezers, a kind Thai lady offered to drive us to the hospital to have it checked out. As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about - the spines break down quickly and are absorbed by your body in a week or so - but it was certainly a dramatic end to our island holiday!
Back in Bangkok, Jason did one last round of shopping and then it was
time for him to head home and back to the office! =/ It had been great fun to catch up with the Bruce again, although I felt bad that he'd come down with such a bad flu on his brief break from work. (Not to mention the fact that I'd been more than a little distracted for much of his visit.) Jen's flight was just a few days later, so we had only a little more time together before we had to part as well. By this stage, both of us were convinced that what we had together was rare and special, and we decided we would stay together, as difficult as we knew a long-distance relationship would be. Not knowing when I would see Jen again was the hardest thing to bear, on that cold grey morning at the airport when we said our final, reluctant farewells and she passed through passport control and out of sight. I'll leave it there for now, as the next entry will pick up at exactly this point - I went travelling almost immediately, temporarily unable to bear a Rangsit that didn't contain Jen.
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