Back to Thailand

No, I didn’t actually go back to Thailand (yet/maybe never, it’s way too hot) but I figured it might be good to finish up telling ya’ll about my East Asia trip before I continued with my Middle East/Southern Europe one.

So, as you may recall, I was in Thailand/Cambodia near the end of April. Feel free to read back a few posts if you need a refresher. After a harrowing journey from the Cambodian/Thai border, I had arrived in Chumphon, on the eastern side of the Thai/Malay Peninsula, by train and just got onboard my ferry to Koh Tao. I was to spend the next few days learning to scuba dive and then I had hopes to travel back to the mainland and to the other side of the peninsula to visit Koh Phi Phi and some other, lesser known, islands. Unfortunately for you, I was too busy diving to take (m)any pictures. But I swear I will get a decent underwater camera before I go diving the next time. That shit is just indescribably beautiful, and I feel like I am cheating you when I talk about diving and have nothing to show for it. Maybe I’ll write poems about it.

Anyhow, I arrived on Koh Tao around 11 AM or so, totally exhausted and pretty delirious. Starting from my day in Cambodia, I didn’t get to bed until 4 or 5 AM the night before my departure, I had probably slept about 6 hours in the past 50 hours. Whew. After finding my dive center, Crystal, I slumped in a chair and filled out some paperwork. I would start my course the next afternoon. I may have had an ice coffee and some lunch too. Then, when they finally sorted out where to put me, I shuffled my way to my beachside shack. And what a shack it was! The walls and floor were made of thin plywood, the roof was thatched, and the bathroom was finished with elevated slats directly over the sand. It did have working plumbing and two light bulbs to go along with it. The electricity even worked most of the time. And there was an operational ceiling fan. Needless to say, it was stifling from approximately 8:30 AM to 1:00 AM in there. But, as a sure sign of how utterly wasted I was, I passed out in the midday heat for a good half hour. Then, incapable of actually sleeping in an oven, I woke in a dead sweat and immediately jumped into the ocean. This was the second time I had gone swimming that day, I had failed to mention that I also dove into the surf while waiting for my paperwork earlier.

Ever restless, and oh so refreshed with my additional 30 minutes of sleep, I set off to explore the island, all 8 square miles of it. My bungalow/dive center was a short walk from the main piers and near the older town center whereas the newer developments were spread out along Sairee Beach to the north. I headed that way in search of some more food and some beach lounging. While the island was indeed quite small…there was still an inconvenient hill between where I was staying and Sairee…but I persevered and found a nice restaurant at a relatively upscale dive resort. I had a late lunch on the raised balcony/tower as the only diner. I then proceeded to take a nap at the table. In my defense, the seating consisted of these wide cushioned benches…and the breeze up high was spectacular…

Recharged slightly…I went to the beach to see what’s up and did a bit of snorkeling just for a a little sneak peak. Turned out that was more energy than I wanted to spend. Instead, I started tossing the ol’ disc with a group of English brats. And yes, I do mean brats… Perhaps I’m just jealous, but what else do you call a trio of teenage white boys in Thailand who brag constantly of how schwasted they got EVERYNIGHT and how quickly they were able to blow their money on booze and drugs? Today was a sad day because one of them forgot to email his grandfather for more funds. “Seriously, man, you had ONE thing to do all day!”  But they were pretty amusing overall, definitely plugged into the local scene, and were at least half decent at throwing. Plus it wasn’t as if I had anything better to do, other than bidding into way too shallow water in an attempt to impress some girl (I caught it, but I don’t think she was all that impressed). I was rewarded with a nice abrasion on my hip bone which eventually got superinfected and beautifully scarred. Now it almost looks like I bid regularly.

Soon after that, the sun began to set. And then it was gone, which tends to happen when one is in the tropics. I left the beach and found my way back to my oven and passed out for the night. Finally. It was maybe 8 PM.

I’m pretty sure I woke up at 6 AM or something the next morning. Then this happened:

I had breakfast, called the Italian girl that I met on the ferry, met up with her, and went a-rambling towards the southern end of the island. Following a tip from a stray Texan we found a nice beach to chill at and a couple of Austrian siblings to chat with. I didn’t stay long, as I had to be back at Crystal by 1 PM to start my course, so I caught a water taxi back to the main pier. The owner of the first boat to happen by didn’t speak enough English for sign language for him to understand what “main pier” meant so I had to wait for another and pay an extra $5 or so in communication surcharge.

Now I’ll start spouting scuba mumbo-jumbo, so feel free to skip this part if you wish. Or, if you want to learn more about scuba and learning to scuba, read on! I highly recommend it, by the way. Diving is a lot like skiing in many ways: expensive to do, expensive to buy equipment, location dependent, potentially dangerous, and really awesome; but different in important ways, chiefly that it’s less adrenaline inducing (usually) and you do it in warm climates instead of cold. And you’re in liquid water instead of being on frozen water, but that should be pretty obvious.

I did a PADI Open Water Course, which is the beginner/basic level course. It is, however, a full certification. Meaning it’s not just an introductory or trial course and I would be fully qualify to dive on my own with a buddy as soon as I finish the course. Of course, diving alone is pretty much forbidden in recreational diving and diving without a divemaster/guide in addition to a buddy is not really recommended for beginners either. PADI is an international training/accrediting/certification organization based in the US and is the most widely used certificating organization. There are other organizations too, but to my knowledge PADI is the most standardized/accepted one. The Open Water course involves a full day of classroom work/video watching, a long half day of in pool/confined water training, and four open water dives. Courses start in the afternoon at Crystal with more classroom work the next morning, pool that afternoon, swim test and written exam the next morning, and then two dives that afternoon and two the morning after for a total of 4 days. I started Monday afternoon and finished Thursday morning…in time for me to hop over to Koh Pha-Ngan for the infamous full moon party, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m not going to try to teach you about scuba theory, except that it’s pretty basic physics and it’s quite safe unless you fuck up. And it’s amazing that we can dive so far underwater and under such great pressure. Basically, diving is possible because liquids and solids do not compress much under pressure. And since our bodies are mostly liquids and solids with a limited number of air cavities, we can physiologically dive pretty deep without adverse effects. Of course, one of those air cavities is our lungs, and those are pretty important for survival. That’s where the scuba cylinders and regulator come in. The key to preventing our lungs from collapsing is breathing pressurized air.

The air in a standard scuba tank is around 200 bar when full, or about 200 times air pressure at sea level (1 atm= air pressure at sea level = 1.01325 bars). Pressure roughly doubles for every 10 meters of depth. So at 10m, the water pressure is about 2 atm, or twice the pressure of air at sea level and 20m = 4 atm, etc. Back to your lungs. As long as the air in your lungs is at the same pressure as the surrounding water and your body, i.e. 2 atm if you are at 10 m, then there is no problem. The air pushes back against the water/your body pushing in and your lungs operate as normal. Wohoo. How do you make sure the air going into your lungs is at the same pressure as the surrounding water? Well that’s what your regulator does. The first stage, which connects directly to the tank, lowers the 200 bar or whatever down to a more manageable level, then it goes through the hose to the mouthpiece, which has another regulator that makes sure the air coming out is the same pressure as the surrounding environment. How do regulators work? I dunno, but you can look it up in wikipedia. It’s a combination of springs and magic, in short.

Ok cool. Now you’re breathing compressed air and happy as a fish. Everything is a-ok. Provided you don’t ascend too quickly. Or hold your breath. Or stay down too long. The thing about breathing compress air is that it expands as you ascend and the pressure outside decreases. i.e. if you filled a balloon with air at the ambient pressure at 10 m and brought it to the surface it would pop. Or if you fill a balloon at sea level and take it up to the stratosphere. Basically, if you breath in a breath at 10m, or God forbid, 20m, and ascend without breathing out….your lungs will pop like a balloon. Lung overexpansion, it’s called. And I hear it sucks. So, that’s one issue.

Another issue is nitrogen. The atmosphere here on earth is something like 78% N2, which is fine, because nitrogen is relatively inert and doesn’t do much. And even though we don’t have a specific protein like hemoglobin that binds nitrogen and hold it in our blood, some still gets passively dissolved in our body just like CO2 in soda or air in a trout stream. So you know how all the air comes out of a soda when you open it? That’s basically what happens to the nitrogen in your blood if you ascend too quickly. Liquids under pressure, whether soda in a bottle or your blood at depth, can hold more dissolved gases. As the pressure decreases, the gas comes out of solution, gather together, and form bubbles. If you decrease the pressure slowly, the bubbles are small and are expelled effectively. If you decrease the pressure abruptly, the bubbles get huge and get stuck in your joints…or your brain. Then you die. Nitrogen also builds up if you stay down too long or do not allow enough decompression time between dives. The more nitrogen in your blood the more likely/easier it is for it to come out in bubbles and get stuck where it isn’t wanted.

So that’s fun. Also you can just drown too, if you get the urge to breath in lots of seawater. And I suppose there are dangerous animals down there? But that’s not usually an issues. Currents can be tricky too, but they don’t kill you. You just drown.

Still sound like fun? Well it is. AND the whole point of “recreational diving” is that you can ascend directly to the surface without having to make a decompression stop. Yes, you do have to do it slowly…but even if you do it as fast as you can swim, if you make sure to breath out the worse that can happen to you is a little decompression sickness and/or a very mild case of lung overexpansion. As long as you don’t panic, you should be able to make a safe emergency ascent by yourself no problem. PLUS you are always suppose to be diving with a trusted buddy, who always has an extra regulator and hose for you, in case you run into problems.

The classroom work was essentially teaching you basic scuba theory and some techniques. Then we went into the pool and practice a whole bunch of techniques and contingencies in addition to just getting used to wearing our gear, which is surprisingly simple. You have a an inflatable Buoyancy Control Device/Vest(BCD), a weight belt, a tank, and some hoses/regulators/gauges (including your SPG, which shows your depth and how much pressure/air is in your tank) you hook up to the tank, fins, mask and snorkel, and that’s it. The tank is pretty unwieldy on land, especially with fins on, but it’s not terrible. What was terrible was the pool water. It was super duper ultra chlorinated and acidified so as to remain “clean” despite the hordes of students using it daily. So not only was it way too warm, the water literally corrodes your teeth instantly if you have the misfortune of opening your mouth. And all those “flood your mask and flush it out” drills sucked even more than usual because the water would make your eyes sting like crazy.

My instructor’s name was Sasha and she was quite excellent and very professional. I guess being Russian helped her seem even more professional. The divemaster-in-training (DMT) helping us out was also Russian. Sergey was/is a firefighter in a decent size Siberian town and doing his DMT training in the shortest amount of time possible. I felt safe and well prepared throughout my training dives. We had a larger group when we started our classroom work, but then a few of us were split off and switched to Sasha’s group. It was me, and this young Canadian couple (Stephanie and….J something…HA! it’s just Jay, that’s why it was confusing) and then a middle age Russian couple. They were a bit overweight…though somehow it was in an intimidating way. The husband/boyfriend had some impressive prison-esque tats. They were nice enough but pretty bad at diving. Since there was an odd number of students, I was paired with Sergey on all of the dives. Which was nice, though I felt like he checked on me an excessive amount. Better than the alternative I suppose.

The pool work went smoothly, though it was super tiring, and I passed the written exam without much ado. The swim test wasn’t terrible either, though I had my doubts. We actually finished all of the shore based requirements by the end of the second day, so I had the morning before my first dive off. I hadn’t been doing too much exploring/going out since I started the course so I figured I’d rent a scooter and buzz around a bit. Maybe go towards the northern tip and have a look at the nearby mini-island of Koh Nanyuan. Even before I left I was a bit unsure…since I only had 3-4 hours to kill. But whatever, when in Rome, I thought. I even asked one of the instructors for a good place to rent, since I figured a lot of these outfits try their best to scam you out of as much money as possible, and you have little choice but pay since you left your passport with them. Oh, did I mention you had to leave your passport with them? I mean, it makes sense, but it still made me pretty uneasy.

Whatever. I thought. #yolo or some shit. So I went and found the bike shop Ollie recommended and got set up with a new looking bike at a very reasonable rate. The owner started the bike for me, and off I went. 13 minutes later, this happened:

+2 days

 

+8 days (I made the mistake of letting it scab over…and it got mad infected)

 

+18 days

 

2013-08-13 13

+4 months/just now

 

You see, I fell off my bike. Rather abruptly. Three reasons this happened: 1) I was dumb, 2) the road sucked, and 3) see 1. Basically this is what happened: I went buzzing down the one paved road on the island, enjoying myself and feeling quite confident. Then I reached a hill. I went up the hill cautiously…until it got really really steep. Eventually my forward momentum stalled and I stopped. Then, realizing I needed to put a little more mustard into it, I cranked on the throttle and got moving again, maybe around 10 MPH. Then I reached the top of the hill….and the road crumbled into a rock strewn dirt path and my bike went for a particularly juicy piece of debris and, in slow motion, the bike began to tumble to the left and lose its balance. Luckily I did not get stuck under the unruly machine, but rather got catapulted forward slightly and landed on my left knee, right shoulder, both hands, and forehead. I wasn’t wearing a helmet…or even pants or shoes. Once again, refer to point #1 above. I received a little gash at my hairline, quite a few scratches on my lower legs/feet, a scrape on my shoulder, and that beauty on my knee. There was quite a bit of blood from my scalp, as I discovered after the ol’ “oh my head is wet, let’s wipe it with my hand, oh it’s blood….” routine. I was a little dazed, but I dragged my bike off the road and just chilled for a bit. I found my Vassar Ultimate long sleeve Patagonia jersey in my bag and tied it around my knee after rinsing some of the dirt out of it. And I had a whole bag of Advil tucked away in my pack, so I took like 83. Everything gradually started to hurt like a sonaofabitch.

I didn’t really want to move, but the flies got to me pretty quick. It’s like they enjoy drinking my blood or somethin. How strange. So, up I got. First, I tried to start my bike. It didn’t work. “Oh shit, I broke my bike too! That’s gonna cost a gazillion dollars to fix!” I thought to myself. Then I tried again. No dice. So…deciding to worry about my soon-to-be-empty bank account later, I just got on my bike and rode it down the hill in neutral. Thankfully it was downhill. That sucker was not light. I rolled it into the first bike shop, thankfully there are many, that I saw. I told them it wouldn’t start. They looked at me, looked at the bike, held the breaks in, and started it on the first try. I had, you see, forgotten that you needed to hold the breaks in before you can start motorcycles. Silly me. Maybe I had a concussion. Oops.

So, with my shirt around my knee, I gingerly mounted my bike and started heading back to Crystal. I still have some dives to do , you see, and I didn’t want to be late. But first, I stopped by a cafe and ordered a shot of whisky and an ice coffee. Half of Johnny went in my stomach, and half on my knee. POW. Then I drank my coffee, paid, and went looking for a pharmacy while aggressively staring down anyone who even thought about offering me help/sympathy. Luckily, there are almost as many pharmacies are there are bike shops. I bought some cleaning alcohol, a pack of gauze, and some tape. And scissors. Then I hopped back on my bike, that loathsome thing, and made my way back to Crystal, taking extra care going up that little hill between Sairee and home. Oh and I stopped at a small park/sanctuary/temple to dress my wound on my way. YOWWZAAA.

After dropping my stuff off in my bungalow, I made my way over to the dive center for some lunch. Ollie felt bad, I just felt pain. WHATEVER, I had dives to do. I figured salt water would be good for it. And those cleaner fish would probably help out. But apparently tropical saltwater is still pretty rife with bacteria, and cleaner fish don’t particularly care if the dead skin/flesh they are biting off is still attached to live bits/nerve endings. OUCH.

But other than that, my 4 dives went very smoothly and I passed with flying color, in time to catch the ferry to Koh Pha-Ngan and the epically-overhyped-but-still-pretty-cool Full Moon Party. Yolo.

 

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