|Subject: When in doubt, tell the truth.
Date:17 Oct, 2002
So this story begins with a drama surrounding my visa. Before I left, knowing I had six weeks and that visas at the border were for a maximum of one month, I sent my passport to the L.A. consolate. They put a pretty sticker on my passport with the magical word "tourist" on it. Upon arrival at the airport, they still stamped me with a one month stay. Bummer. So I thought...
So in Bangkok, I discovered that the Immigration office would give an extention. Dissillusioned with the prospect of staring at dead buildings at Angkor Wat and putting up with the disgusting tourist town that's grown up around that abandoned, land mined corner of Cambodia, I opted for the extention.
So I left to go get my extention. Managed to communicate to the Taxi driver my destination, and we set out. As we approached, I noticed a very large city park, and trying to make conversation with a non english speaker I pantomimed "after I get my visa stamp, I come here and hang out, yo." A lightbulb went on in his head, his eyes lit up, and I realized at the same time what he said exclusively in Thai, that "It's not possible to get your visa stamped, the office is closed, it's sunday!" Oops. So I had him let me out at the park and decided to waste the day wandering back to Banglampu; probably a 3 or 4 mile walk. As I meandered lazily through the park I heard a familiar song and ensemble. I saw the safron robes, and approaching saw the double ended drum (name escapes me), harmonium, and hand chimes. Sure enough, I'd found the Hare Krishnas.
So I joined in on the fun, singing Kirtan, and playing chimes. A warm fuzzy feeling arose in me, reminded at once of India (loosely speaking), my time at the Boulder, CO ashram (Alandi Ashram), and endless sparring matches with these folks on Sanford mall in Boone during my time as an agnostic philosophy major. Nostalgia warmed my soul, but afterward, seeking to escape conflict, I bowed and tried to escape. However, bribed by indian-ish food, and the inevitable Halva, I stayed. Payment for this meal, of course, was an interminable sermon on Krishna consciousness and Vedantic philosophy delivered by an Australian who clearly had not read the Vedas. I pointed out to him as I left that he really should read the vedas before he quoted them as proof of a sound philosophical base. I did it politely, memorized his arguments, rhetorical style, agreed wherever I could in clear conscience, but otherwise held my toungue. It was fun. And killed a couple hours.
Anyway, wandered back through middle bangkok amazed at the scope of that city, who's sprawl is only comperable to a cross between Paris in street facade scale and L.A. in scope, but with a VERY distinctly Asian spirit. Before long, I was in China. A Sepak Teklu game was being played under the viaduct that runs like a python overhead timeless buildings. This is a game that is at once Hackysack and volley ball. Three people per side, a court approximately 25 feet deep per side and 20 feet wide. And a net at chest level. Now add in Kick boxing and you'll begin to get the idea. Spikes and blocks at the net are like beach volley ball, but with overhead, spinning side kicks which leave both opponents vaulting off the ground in the end. A super cool game, and well worth stature of olympic sport. The gymnastics are amazing.
Later, err before, whaterver, I wandered into a temple complex, intrigued by the Chinese dragons on the gate, with definite Thai Style. On a minor shrine I saw chinese characters and wandered in. Several people in white were loitering in a cool, airconditioned room. No diety was clearly present on the alter, but after peering through the wreaths and flowers I realized I'd just made someone's funeral a tourist attraction, and after studying a paper model of a barbie dream house, complete with Mercedes in the garage, consort waiting with open arms, and lotus pond with pavilion in the middle of a spanning bridge, I bade a respectful farewell. From the look of my hosts, I was a curiosity in my own right.
The rest of the walk took me through one of the most intriguing Chinatowns I've ever seen. I bought three jacky chan movies from a street vendor for 100 baht (2.50 USD) and tried a bizarre green goo like jello or custard, that was sliced into chunks and deep fried. It was vegetarian, and to be honest, a little disgusting, but in a bland, yet hot and spicy way.
Later that night, hanging out in a bar, flirting with a Thai woman I met my first night in town, trying to ascertain if she was professional or just really really flirtatious, I got into a conversation about my intention to get a visa extention. They clarified that an "extention" was only good for 10 days, 15 if you're lucky. I had to do the math, and sure enough, I needed 19 days. Fuck. So thrice foiled on the extention I randomly decided to go to Malaysia for a day.
The next day I set out at six pm on a journey of entertaining magnetude. In Surat Thani I learned that its called making a "U-Turn" at the border, and yes you could get a new visa the same day. Fair enough. So after 12 hours on the bus, I opted to continue on to the border and return to Surat Thani that night, if at all possible. I'd grown (unjustifyably) mistrustful of travel agents, and before I'd left decided just for fun to arrange each leg of the journey myself. In the end this approach probably cost me extra money, but I had the inner satisfaction of some bizarre, recurring aspect of pride.
So to Hat Yai. Seven hours by mini-van. From there to border in another mini-bus. Now, by this point I was convinced that what I was about to do was a crime. There's no way a country would refuse to give a one month visa at the Official office for such a thing in the capital, and yet such an obvious loophole occur at the border as recieving a new visa the same day. But in interest of getting the bottom of all this, and avoid being labelled a criminal, I opted to explicitly state my intentions to everyone who would listen and guage their reaction. Nobody blinked.
Well that's not true. When I went to get an exit stamp, it took about a minute and a half discussion between all five people of the office to decypher my Consolate-issued visa. I was sure I was either busted, or the guy at the airport had made a mistake, my visa was still valid, and this whole ordeal was unnecessary. In the end, he gave me an exit stamp with no further explanation. Okay. So I smoked a cigarette in the DMZ, A man now outside of every country, a really joyful feeling if you've never felt it. And tried to immediately reenter Thailand by walking to the other side of the station. Everything was going fine after I found the guy who wasn't at the window at the time, and after, first of all finding which of the many windows was SUPPOSED to be occupied. Then, he flipped from one end of my passport to the other several times, (again, I think I'm busted). He asks for my Malasia stamp, and then tells me to walk half a kilometer to Malaysia and come back. Kept my completed paperwork on his desk. Okay, fair enough. I half a kilometer to malaysia, explain to the police officer who stopped me to interrogate me what country, what my intentions were (again convinced I'm busted, going to get searched, and have my switchblade(s) confiscated, go to a jail for people without a country, etc), and told him I'm a computer administrator. His eyes brightened up at the mention of computers, and that clearly that meant I was a very smart, and virtuous man... If only he knew...
So again, at the entry counter I explain my intention to get a stamp or two and leave, he looks at me with disdain, something like, "what, malaysia's not good enough for you?" And gives me a stamp, no charge, good for the same day only. Again straight to the exit counter, another stamp, no question, and back to Thailand, whistlin' dixie, that yes, it really is as fucked up as it seems.
Now the punchline. When I go to get my new visa for Thailand, the form filled out, he stamps my passport and sends me on my way. This means one of two things. Either he forgot to ask me for money and I pulled a jedi mind trick by my confusion (unlikely), or that I did in fact get a two month visa, only, I STILL had to go through this ordeal, except without having to pay an additional fee. Strange but possible... The funnest thing about travel is that you never really know what's going on.
So a taxi back to Hat Yai, and a government bus back to Surat Thani. I arrive at 10 pm, 28 hours after embarking on this oddessy, at a night boat for Ko Tao leaving in one hour. Instead I get a room for the night, without a light or a key that works for the door, a room I have to enter by climbing out the window in the hall, on a second story ledge, and enter through the window. But I wanted a window so I'd wake up with the sun for the 7:30 am boat. I wanted to see this mystical journey I've dreamed of for so long, through this archipelago of islands in Gulf of Thailand. I didn't want to pass blindly through the night.
The only reason I'd decided on Ko Tao, was that at 5am in the morning after a night of broken sleep on the bus, I carried on an idle conversation with a german name Helle about the dive schools on Ko Tao. He said the world's three largest dive schools were on the island, as well as 25 others, that the two biggest were Ban's and Sunshine, the two Cheapest were Carabao and Crystal, and the newest and, arguably, the best was Dive Point. In my heart I decided to go to Dive Point on the spot, but entertained my indecision till the end. Upon finding out that a 3-4 day course would land me with "Open water" certification, and a 6 day course would give me "advanced open water," I knew myself well enough to know I could settle for nothing less.
Its funny, in all my life, more than half of it spent in the water in some form or another, it's occured to me to go scuba diving, maybe three times. I distantly remember David Parks telling me it was one of his favorite things in the world; and anyone who only likes a dozen things at all in the world must be on to something. So at five AM, aimlessly wandering south, ambiguously searching for some way to kill time for my last two weeks, I decided without realizing it, that for the rest of my life I would scuba dive in the summer and snowboard in the winter.
So here I am. After seven hours on the boat, talking to anyone who looked like more than a tourist, including all the touts, err, touting their diveschools, and one employee of Ban's (who recommended Dive Point), I arrived in Ko Tao. The boat arrived at the tertiary pier in the villiage, and after finding Dive Point, after careful study, only five minutes before on a map, The FIRST diveschool one comes to from that direction turned out to be "Dive Point" with a bold sign on the water, facing the boat. Funny. The two owners were waiting on the front step for me when I arrived, the first tourist off the boat (small packs mean you can just jump over the side onto the pier instead of waiting your turn on the gangplank). I told them to go fish for other business, I was starving, and a bit confused about why I was there, what I was doing, and why I irrationally had already chosen this one of many dive schools. So, also coincidentally, the next english language class started at 4 pm. Currently it was 3.
So Their guest house was full, and anyway it was the top floor of the building, so they knocked 800 baht off the price (6800 baht, includes room, international certification, rental equipment, etc. minus 800; 6,600 baht for advanced open water, minus 400 baht, 10% discount for doing both... more than I have with me, but we'll work it out at the bank, courtesy of VISA... err... actually we're digging deep into rent for when I return... not gonna think about these things :-) and sent me with the travel agent next door, on his motorbike (moped), on sand roads, to find a guest house. And as luck would have it, for 100 baht too much, (a whopping 200 baht/ five bucks), I have a bungalo perched atop boulders jutting right out of the ocean, about five minutes walking along the sandy, picturesque, paradisiacal (is that a word?) beach to the dive school.
So After three days on busses and boats, strung out, dehydrated, exhausted from the sun, travel, lack of sleep, sweaty and salt-sprayed, I began my diver's training. Thankfully, only watching videos. I had enough time to find the guest house, but I did not have time to take my bags, or a shower. I did eat, Thai [red] Curry with whitefish, shrimp, and squid over rice. But half delerious, I watched my introduction. Two hours worth. I did skip the big party on the south end of the island, at Venus Pub, which everyone else on the island went to. That night, I drank three beers, tried to write this email, failed, and slept deeply to the sound of the waves pattering on the rocks below my window.
This morning I awoke with the sun, meditated on a flat rock in my burgundy silk boxer shorts after performing jala neti with salt water, practiced alternate-nostril breathing pranayama, and some cursory mahabandhas. Walked through a touristy corner of paradise to the dive school to find all the restaurants closed until 8. One was open ten minutes early and I had an egg sandwich on a hoagie bun, with mayonaise, and nescafe' that was too strong, but oversized, and necessary. We watched the final hour of the training videos, had a reiteration from the instructor, and off we went in a sweet motor boat (twin 200hp yamahas) to the opposite side of the island, to meet up with the real dive boat; a four story wooden hulled yaht from the late 40's by my estimate. A real beauty of a run-down, well loved ship. 27 meters long. There, several groups of divers besides my four person class were coming and going from their dives.
We were briefed on the equipment's handling, all the possible ways to kill ourselves right off, and then jumped into the sea. We laid on our backs, kicking our way to shallow water in a cove too beautiful for words, over coral shoals that helped me gain perspective, perhaps start to understand what my body already knew it wanted. I want to say I took to scuba diving like a fish to water, but I'll spare you. But we went through the 30 necessary skills in rapid succession. How to unflood a mask, how to remove and reattach a tank, how to rescue your partner, how to use your partner's secondary air supply, how to achieve neutral boyancy, etc. And yes, my body knew exactly what to do, although I spent most of my time in the water fumbling with this and that series of tubes, and draining my ill-fitting perscription mask borrowed from walter the shop owner. Then, after training in chest deep water, we swam out to thirty feet. I was following behind John, our instructor, an itinerant dive instructor from england, fumbling with this and that, trying to maintain neutral boyancy and float at his same depth. and suddenly woke up to what was going on. I was swimming through a canyon of coral 20 feet under water, and going deeper, breathing effortlessly, yet with mindfulness. My soul sung a song I'd never heard it sing. Its like the refrain to the song last sung the first time I saw snowcapped mountains at some unremembered moment in my past. An emptiness I never knew about at that moment was filled.
When we returned to the surface, I was speechless. We unloaded, rinsed our gear, and I went to smoke a cigarette. But before I could I was informed we weren't leaving for three quarters of an hour. So I grabbed my mask in a mad dash and dove back in; I swam unencumbered back to the corral, wanting more. I dove down, for the first time understanding how to equalize my ears at depth (just pop your ears like normal). I was diving 25 feet down to play with the irrirdescent fishes, swimming with schools of minnows, winding through those same corral caverns, but after fleeting moments of bliss, forced to return to the surface. Even snorkelling was more fun, knowing that I now could go deep and stay there if I wished. And soon would be diving to 30 meters, 100 feet. Every peak I've ever climbed is now 100 feet bigger.
Anyway, the earlier visa ordeal and onward travel was accompanied by "100 years of Solitude," if that explains my prose. And, p.s., I took off my shoes the day before yesterday, and see no reason why I'll have to put them on again till I leave the islands. Thank you for reading this far, and as always, please respond. Your feedback and response helps me to understand what's happening to me more than this clumsy first-and-only draft diary entry ever could.