|Subject: ...And so it ends, battered, burned, and bruised
Where to begin...
At five AM a couple weeks ago I made a spontaneous decision that changed my life... Typical behavior for me. A week later, I'd been on ten dives, the deepest one being to 30 meters (100 ft). Epic. Now I'm back in Bangkok, awaiting my flight home, trying to get all my affairs in order before I arrive. Sometimes I think planning to go back is harder than planning to leave.
First about the diving... Koh Tao (turtle island) is innundated with dive schools. I happened to hook up with a small one that has the biggest boat, which is a big deal when you're scuba diving. Picture 10 divers, struggling into wetsuits, BCD (bouyancy control device; the vest one wears). Lugging 17 kilos of gear around, flippers and masks everywhere... its a great idea to have a big boat.
So the physics of diving is quite interesting. You can stay at 100m for about 10 minutes before you get narc'ed. You're at about four times the pressure of the surface, and without special mixures of gasses, the nitrogen in the normal air becomes somewhat toxic. You're actually supplied compressed air, four times the normal amount of air for a breath at the surface. That means four times the nitrogen, and it starts being absorbed by the blood. For those of you familiar with whippits, a.k.a. hippie crack, a.k.a, the gas used to make whipped cream, its supposedly the same experience. The only difference is that you have a lot of things to keep in mind at 100 feet below water and becoming suddenly stupid is not such a wonderful idea... The buzz is known as "The rapture of the deep."
Anyway, we didn't stay down long enough to affect me too much (maybe next time :-), though the math problem my instructor handed me to finish stumped me at 35/9... But I think that'd happen at the surface as well... Everyone makes excuses though. And experience doesn't help. everyone gets stupid at the bottom of the sea.
So, for my final two dives, I had an underwater camera along. This was an interesting challenge. Most of the diving to this point was concerned with building skills. Flooding and clearing the mask, what to do if you run out of air, etc. Most of the skills revolve around maintaining neutral bouyancy underwater so you float weightless. This involves inflating your vest with progressively more air as you go deeper and controlling you breathing. Easier said than done. But fun. Now, add to this framing an image with a 32mm camera lens. Fish, on the whole are small. They also move. Now, with a wide angle lens, for them to be anything but a speck on the film you have to be really really close. hahah. Now the fun begins. There I was, upside down, "standing" on my head, about to crash into sharp spikey sea urchins and razor sharp poisonous coral while the dive master is pulling me away. On average every one of my shots had to be within 3 feet of the subject. With a strobe, on a rangefinder camera, which means you have to shoot higher than what you see, when you CAN see through the bubbles you're exhaling. You're never allowed to hold your breath underwater (or else you may rupture your lungs) and when you breath in and out you bob up and down. I think you can see how difficult underwater photography is now.
Then we went night diving.
okay so now, in addition to having a camera in one hand I have a flashlight (torch; british english prevails) in the other. somehow I have to control my BCD with my left hand, same hand that has the flashlight. And to photograph I have to use the flashlight to compose the image. Seeing through bubbles the whole time. It was a blast. I ended up using the flashlight for balance after memorizing a couple of points through the viewfinder, then shooting somewhat at random. FUN! Night diving is great. Phosphorescents in the water, etc. And the ubiquitous baracuda use your flashlights for spotting their prey. Baracuda are eerie. They sorta circle you whether you're diving or snorkelling. Big schools of them. Surrounding you with sharp pointy teeth. Creepy. They don't attack, though, or so we're told...
So besides kneeling on the occasional sea urchin or crashing face first into a coral wall, there's really not so much danger out there. We saw a whale shark, the largest of sharks that eats, of course, plankton. These also seem to like divers and hang out with them. Remora fish swimming along underneith feeding on its leftovers. Like an entourage. Odd. And all the divers "standing" upright in the water, motionless, suspended, while she swims by. Its like a visit from the queen.
So, dive course finished, I'm now certified for "Advanced Open Water". And I head off to go snorkelling. Surface diving is a lot more fun now. So I decide to head out to the area we were at the night before, but, having left my swim trunks at home, I decide to go au naturale. I jump in off the rocky shore away from more civilized folks, on a fairly remote beach. As I'm swimming out, I'm having second thoughts, noticing all the baracuda eyeing me in their particularly creepy way. Then I notice a fish that at first I thought was an eel, but now I have no idea. It swam like a snake and was swimming straight at me with a big toothy grin. This is the way fish act that feel their territory threatened. So I put my feet toward him, protect the family jewels with the other hand, and watch as he drops down a bit and circles me from below. So now I'm surrounded by menacing (though ostensibly harmless) baracuda and this scary fellow. This was when I heard the boat motor...
Its always amazing, with all that water, how boats crash into eachother. Its even more amazing, upon surfacing, to see a longtail boat bearing right down on tiny little you. A longtail boat is narrow and long, and their distinctive feature is the rather madmax contraption that passes for an engine. Its sorta like mounting a V6 car engine on the rear of the boat, no cover, and attaching a 10 foot long drivetrain with a propeller on the end. Sorta surreal. All the more so when you suddenly find yourself 15 feet away from one speeding toward you, with all the monsters of the deep eyeing your naked, tender flesh. So, after screaming "OH FUCK" into my snorkel, realizing that that didn't make the boat go away, after considering just how much things like this should only happen in movies, I dive, Dive, DIVE!!! I get my head down, and manage to kick off the bottom of the boat, and watch the propeller pass a safe 6 feet directly above my freaked out head. I surface, and realize that, yes, I was in fact being a dumbass and swimming in what I just then realized was an unmarked channel. The baracuda were laughing at me I was sure. The eel was nowhere to be seen. I decided to go for a beer...
So anyway, the rest of the day involved a long barefoot walk around the southwestern corner of the island, and another, clothed, snorkelling session in the south. I can't tell you how paranoid I am when I hear a boat's motor anymore. but the diving was amazing, big rocks right off the coast, and its like swimming in an aquarium. Hundreds of variety of fish, some of them quite cute, most irridescent. And of course, the omnipresent, creepy baracuda. I even saw a blue-spotted stingray (guess how it gets its name) under a rock during the day. Diving through canyons of coral, having a lovely time. Surfacing every time sure that there will be a boat bearing down on my head again...
To reach the far shore of the island, I got the brilliant idea that I'd rent a dirtbike. Deeply rutted sandy roads separated me from beaches that I was sure would be epic. My last moped just didn't seem up to the challenge of these roads, so, the dirtbike. Hehehe. This is a thrill that compares to snowboarding. Mostly in the way the tail sorta skitters around unpredictably. Anyway, going out I had a great time, staying well within my limits, taking it slow. But coming back, I had to start out up a San Francisco-grade steep-ass hill. Only this one was rutted, sandy, covered with palm fronds.... Okay, no problem. The truck blocking the road, though, was in fact a problem. My brain wasn't figuring shit out fast enough, and I stalled. Now, who here rides motorcycles. What happens when your bike stalls up a very steep hill. Yes, they roll backwards, especially when the back wheel, which has all the weight in this circumstance, is operated by a foot pedal, specifically the right foot. So guess which way the bike decided to fall. Of course. It was a relatively harmless fall, a bloody, but minor flesh wound to my elbow, and... oops, broke off the front break lever. Now, after a second attempt, unsuccessful, to set out again up hill in sand, ending with the bike very nearly falling on the other side (did I mention I'm wearing a cheap imitation of birkenstock sandals with negative traction?), I did finally attract the attention of all the locals who were working, offering advice, dubious help, and well, basically making me feel like a moron. Bloody elbow and all. So when I finally got 'er going, I, of course, really gunned that first gear to the top of the hill. Then, out of sight, silently wondered how going down hills of this same grade was going to work out minus a front break... The physics reverse, now all your stopping power is on the FRONT wheel. So, anyway, it worked out just as well, sliding on the back wheel, letting off the break when you loose traction, and relying on first gear to slow the descent. Fish-tailing the back wheel occasionally.... It was great.
So then, the night after the boating mishap, there was a thunderstorm over a placid Gulf of Thailand. The stillness of the waveless shore, the mirrorlike reflections on the water, contrasted with massive thunderheads on the horizon was an irresistable photo op. so using sand and a blanket as my tripod, and my finger for the bulb release, I took several half a minute to one minute exposures. but on the way out there, I tripped over a rock, and recieved a complimentary cut on the side of my left foot to match the scrape on right that I recieved from kicking off the bottom of a speeding longtail boat. Now I'm a bloody mess! I thought diving would be dangerous. but sadly, Its been the safest thing I've done so far. Walking, snorkelling, and dirtbiking have been my downfall.
Anyway, so my time in Thailand draws to a close. Thursday I fly home. So I took the three hour boat and six hour bus ride back a couple days ago accompanied by Ernest Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ( a great story, but the lovestory bit seemed contrived. Or maybe it seemed all too familiar). The night before I left there was a party on the beach (yes, Rachel, they really do spin Poi [fire chains] on the beach here). There was a big swing on maybe 40 feet of rope. I was a little buzzed, and in a flash of insight realized that a "swing" was really nothing but a trapeze! so after playing for a half hour, I had a blister on my finger from holding onto the ropes for dear life while flipping myself upside down, dismounting with something less than grace, wrapping my legs in the ropes and hanging upside down... all the things I've learned from Cirque du Solei and various parties in various warehouses. The following day on the boat, I let myself get sunburned reading Hemmingway. So now, both feet bruised, my elbow scraped up, blisters on my hands, and sunburned, I'm ready to head for home... (I'm fine mom, don't worry :-)
I've been hanging out at a bar here where a girl I met the first time I was in Bangkok works. Her name is Kung. Her father died when she was 11 and she ran away from her Aunt's house. Her mother left her dad when she was a baby. So she's been on her own since 11, slept in the storeroom of a restuarant and washed the dishes. Now, 23, she works in a bar which I frequent on her account. As every Thai woman, she's very beautiful, but with a more exotic face than many. Not the chinese bone structure that's prevalent, but perhaps something from the indigenous hilltribes. Anyway, since her english is strong, we talk alot. Its good to have friends. An anti-social streak a mile wide hit me on Koh Tao, and I didn't really meet anyone I cared much for the whole time on the island. Not that I had anything bad to say about anyone, I just kept to myself and avoided even all the folks I met in the dive school. Lots of expatriots on Koh Tao. Most of the dive schools are foreigner owned and operated. Many without proper business licenses, and few employees have work visas. I digress. Kung was the first friend I made in Thailand, and so Its always been a pleasure to come to Bangkok and see her again, try to figure out what makes her tick, and try to unravel the unmistakable chemistry there is between us. I say unravel, because although I consider her a friend, I don't yet trust her. Behind the strength I see in her, beneith the flirtation, I sense something else. So we remain friends, we drink together, but nothing more. She's definitely a mysterious person. Maybe in a different place at a different time under different circumstances... but my heart is such a wreck right now for reasons only maybe Beth and WiL would understand, and I'll explain it to them next week, and its a burden I can't wait to be rid of.
This trip has been very hard on my emotionally. And for all that its been a tremendous success. The skills I've developed in five-ish years of travel (depending on how you count) have made this a real vacation. Completely effortless, and relatively adventure free. Everything that has transgressed has done so through completely neutral lenses which neither magnify nor detract from the experience. Everything has happened as if I were at home... And in many ways, anymore I only feel at home on the road. The real adventure begins when I get home and try to process what I'm feeling now. confronted with a completely neutral travel experience (the "travel" bit at least), for the first time in my life, I don't quite know what to think. I can't escape the feeling that this time I've been nothing but a tourist. But then I see tourists and I know that its not the case. Tourists go to a thousand temples. I've spent most of my time in the bars.
I feel like I've lost my identity in many ways. And with that loss found something or someone else. This whole trip has been little more than a postscript to my highly emotional trip to India. Perhaps a reprise.
Anyway, Thanks for reading, those who have read this far. y'all have been great. The responses have been helpful, and those in Seattle I will see soon. The halloween party looks to be at Freemont UNconventional Center; "Troll a-go-go". I photograph a wedding with Beth on Saturday; my first, full-on professional gig (oh no dad, I'm now a professional photographer too!!!) And on Tuesday, I'll be showing the best of the slides from my trip in my five minutes of fame during the Slideluck Potshow at CoCA. I also I will be drinking Porters and Stouts and eating Pizza a lot (god bless America! Land that I love!). I think like an old man now. The best part of travelling is returning "home."