Friday, April 24, 2009

Songkran Holiday: Koh Phi Phi

On our last morning in Phuket I discovered that in my adventuring the previous night I'd managed to break my glasses. It was just the arm, but it was snapped clean off. Fortunately there was a glasses shop not far from our hotel. I wandered in and, looking pathetic, asked if there was any way they could fix my glasses. Alas no. For those of you who are counting, that's two pairs down, and my last back up pair was sitting in my apartment in Rayong. Fortunately the shop was able to recreate my prescription from the lenses I had, and an hour or so later I had a brand new, sturdier, pair of glasses. Can I just say though... one should never be forced to pick out new glasses while hung over, or in my case, possibly still drunk. Ugh.

Me and my new glasses cruising around Phi Phi Ley

Eyewear crisis averted, we hopped on a ferry to Ko Phi Phi. I was still in a bit of a funk, but the ferry ride was the perfect antidote. There were plenty of seats inside the cabin, but I went out on deck sat down with my feet over the side and just enjoyed looking out over the water and feeling the sun & wind on my face. Every once in a while we'd hit a wave cross ways so I'd get a nice splash. Seeing the Phi Phi island growing closer was also really cool. I can't do justice to it with words... so here are some pictures.

Phi Phi Don

Long Beach - Phi Phi Don

Possibly Phi Phi Ley

We'd planned to go snorkeling while on Phi Phi, as it's supposed to have the best diving in Thailand. And once on the island you couldn't toss a speedo without hitting a dive shop or an advertisement for a snorkeling excursion. Back in HS I'd nearly gotten my Scuba certificate, but wasn't allowed to do the open water exercise due to my asthma. But the temptation to try again was overwhelming. And... as this is Thailand, little things like health restrictions don't really matter. So I signed up, and the next morning I was on the boat headed out for a discovery dive.

Sitting waiting for my discovery dive to begin.

The other first-time divers and I got a quick lesson on Scuba safety on the way out to the first dive sight. I was the only native English speaker in the group, so the instructor had quite a time making sure everyone understood all the important things. He had the patience of a saint and the calm demeanor you would want from someone you're about to trust with your life. As we got suited up and ready to go, he told me. "I think you're going to be my star student." Feeling nervous, all I could say was "We'll see."

You guys know how much I love the ocean. I spend as much time as I can at the beach, I'm a solid if not a particularly fast or graceful swimmer, and thanks to a couple years of taking water-aerobics I feel like I can tread water indefinitely. I am NOT afraid of the water. But once I had all the gear on me, and my glasses off (couldn't wear them under the mask) I felt, ironically, like a fish out of water. Nevertheless, I did the 'big step' off the end of the boat, put my regulator in my mouth and gave the all clear signal - textbook. The instructor told us all to swim out to a buoy not far from the boat... and honestly, by the time I got there I thought I was going to die.

Between the wetsuit, inflated vest, and tank I could barely move my arms. I could see less than squat through my now fogged up mask, and trying to breathe through the regulator felt like sucking air through a tiny straw. And once we all got to the buoy, the other new divers and I kept knocking into each other. I thought I was going to die. I tried desperately to calm down, but nice big deep breaths were impossible. The wetsuit and vest were like a vice grip around my not particularly strong lungs. I panicked. I remembered vaguely from my brief experience in high school that after the initial shock, breathing underwater felt really cool. But I could not catch my breath, thoughts of an underwater asthma attack terrified me, and knew there was no way I was going to get through this dive. The instructor joined us a moment later, and I immediately swam up to him and told him I was freaking out.

"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I can't breathe." I gasped.
"Yes, you can, you're on the surface." he replied.
"Honey... I'm freaking out."
"Ok... do you want to get back on the boat?" he asked. My brain locked up. I didn't really want to get back on the boat, I wanted to scuba dive. But I wasn't sure if I could calm down properly. I thought maybe if he gave us a few minutes to chill out on the surface first I might relax.... but I also knew that I'd lied about my asthma when I signed the release form, and had smoked a cigarette or two over the past few days. It wasn't a good combination. In all I only paused for about 10 seconds but it was enough.
"I'm putting you back on the boat." He stated firmly then turned and called the boat back. Honestly, I was glad he made the decision for me.

As we waited for the boat to come back, he asked if I wanted to try again one-on-one at lunch time. I gave a vague assent, then got back on the boat feeling like a total wash-out. Some star student! I hung out on the boat with the girlfriend of one of the divers. She was scared to even go swimming in the ocean, so she made me feel a least a little better.

It was less than an hour before the other divers started getting picked up and as I started talking to them, they were all very encouraging. They confirmed that yes, breathing at the surface was really difficult, but once at depth, it felt as normal as breathing on dry land. One gal in particular said that on her first dive, she freaked out a bit, but she was one-on-one with the instructor and he did a good job of calming her down. So I began to look forward to giving it another go. It was just uncomfortable on the surface I reasoned... I'd be fine once we got underwater.

At lunch time my instructor came up to me and asked if I wanted to give it another go. I told him I did. Unfortunately, however, he would be doing some life-saving drills and handed me off to a different instructor. Instructor #2 was more of a no-nonsense kind of guy. And while I'd been hoping for one-on-one attention (hand-holding), there were two other divers who'd been unable to complete their dive who were also giving it a second chance. I got suited up again, he fairly shoved me into the water and there I was... in the exact same panic scenario from before. Only this time I knew that Instructor #2 would not be interested in calming my fears or giving me a few minutes to relax. Less than a minute in the water and I knew it just wasn't going to happen. Back on the boat for me.

Yes, I felt like a complete failure. Working and hanging out with a bunch of cute 23 year olds has been fun, but it also makes me feel old and lame. Up till now I've been able to shake the feeling with a few drinks... but this was undeniable confirmation. I am old, out of shape and I have bad lungs, some things are not just an issue of mind over matter.

I spent the afternoon (while everyone else on the boat was on their second dive) snorkeling around the bay. I'd never actually been snorkeling before and it was amazing. It occurred to me that it might have been a good idea to try snorkeling before, literally, jumping off the deep end. Breathing through a snorkel was weird and at times I freaked out a bit. But I could just lift my head up and take a second to sort myself out before putting my face back in the water again. After a while I was able to breathe through the snorkel for what felt like 10 or 20 minutes at a stretch. It was amazing.

There were a ton of other boats in the area - at least three other snorkeling groups.

There were an incredible number of fish, and while I might not have been seeing them in all their glory (with my glasses back on the boat), I was impressed with what I did see. There were huge schools of yellow and blue striped fish - they'd swim right up to me, look at me and just kind of hang out there. I saw trumpet fish, eels, and all manner of tiny schools of fish. There were also bigger fish, black with neon green 'eyeliner', blue with pink cheeks, leopard spotted yellow fish, and I swear I saw one that looked plaid! In addition to the fish there were giant patches of coral, purple and green and brown. I saw huge purple & green anemones, and what can only be described as a giant purple coral vase. It was really amazing, and actually really relaxing. I could have stayed in the water looking at everything for hours. And as wonderful as snorkeling was, it only confirmed my desire to try scuba diving again.

Back on the boat I talked to a couple of the other divers a bit more and had my ideas confirmed. One said she'd gone snorkeling the day before, and admitted that there's no way she could have gone scuba diving if she hadn't done that first. And another said he'd had two days of pool instruction before diving in the ocean. So while I still felt like a grade-A wimp... I also felt like maybe I'd been a bit overly ambitious and underprepared.

Compared with this adventure the rest of the trip was a bit anti-climactic. Bunny, Bobby and I went on an afternoon cruise around the island. It was *very* touristy... but, well, we were tourists. We got to do a tiny bit of sea kayaking, and a bit more snorkeling. We also got to see the beach where they filmed "The Beach" - it was beautiful, but again, absolutely covered in tourists such as ourselves. The water was warm, nearly hot, and very shallow. All you could do really was lounge around in it, so that's what I did. Koh Phi Phi was every bit as beautiful as the pictures suggest... and fun in it's own way. That night we went out for a couple drinks and ended up talking with some Swedish boys. No proposals or mind-bending conversations... just silly fun.

Our last morning, Friday, was spent between the beach and the bookstore, soaking up the last bits of relaxation before our ferry/taxi/flight/taxi back to the daily-grind: 8 hours of classes starting at 9am on Saturday. And here it is one week later... 9am Saturday looming at the other end of this night's sleep. A week and three very long-winded posts and I'm still only beginning to sort out this whole experience. But here's what I think I know.

1. The protests/riots, and the potential for more in the future are a big black mark against my moving to Bangkok.

2. After splurging for a week and being surrounded by obnoxious tourists, I have a whole new appreciation for sleepy little Rayong, its 35 baht fried rice my blue collar students.

3. It was really good to see the Brit again, and that just reinforces how much I need good friends around me.

4. As much as I've changed, there are still some things in my core character that are just not going anywhere. I hate being kept waiting, and I just can't deal with ridiculous people who cannot take care of themselves.

5. I really wish I could be as friendly, outgoing and uninhibited sober as I am while drunk... because sometimes 'drunk and fun' dissolves into 'sloppy drunk' and that's not fun for anyone.

6. I really want to try scuba diving again, so I'm going to get serious about taking care of my lungs & looking into a serious course where I get a little more preparation before being dropped in the middle of the ocean.

7. I am so fucking glad I'm here.

TAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce


Kaye said...

Those pictures are breathtaking! And speaking of--don't feel bad about not being able to scuba dive. I'm a big believe if we were meant to go underwater we'd have gills.

Rebel said...

Yeah, and if we were meant to fly...

I'm determined now, I'm going to do it!

Michael5000 said...

I think I like the new glasses...

And, nothing wrong with trying something out and having it not work out. I'm willing to join you on the list of non-scuba people.

Should it be SCUBA, though?