Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Snorkel test

Indecision remains the theme of my life at the moment. Shouldn't I be relaxing? The good news is that the sun is back again. One of Ban's boats broke down so it was insanely crowded and uncomfortable here for a while but now a new, bigger boat has come to replace it. I've also got my Nitrox (enriched air) and Deep Diver (up to 40m) specialties signed off and going through. Today was also my 100th dive!
Apparentely it's tradition to do #100 as a naked dive but I spared the rest of the boat from that kind of trauma. I know of only 1 person here that actually did it so they can't really complain too much that I skipped out. I still get a fair amount of hassle about skipping my "snorkel test" though. For those that don't know, it is diver tradition that upon completion of your Divemaster course you do the snorkel test. It involves wearing a mask with a snorkel leading to a funnel into which is poured a very unhealthy amount of randomly mixed highly alcoholic beverages (and sometimes a few other very nasty surprises). The new DM then drinks until choking, puking or successfully downing the concoction. I've seen all three possible results and none are pretty. The rest of the night is then spent in wild celebration, usually with the person wasted and passed out well before everyone else. At Ban's there are a lot of DMTs so they usually group the snorkel tests together and some of the DMs have started organizing it along frat lines with competitive drinking games and challenges for the new DMs in warm-up for the test. Some are pretty funny but generally it all just reinforces my belief that people are all generally sick and sadistic beings enjoying the abuse of others.
I'm currently operating on the belief that I will leave here in the middle of August and am actively searching for a new plan, most likely involving some sort of training for work of some sort.... How vague is that?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Return to Paradise?

After walking back to Ban’s I tried to sleep on an outdoor couch for a couple hours until the island woke up. It’s amazing how a little peek at another world can totally change your perspective on the one you are in. I suppose it was inevitable coming off the high of such a successful visa run, but coming back turned into a huge let down for me. I was promised a room again when I got back. That turned into a “you have 1 week and then we kick you out so start looking elsewhere and while you are at it, start freelancing everywhere if you want a job”. Lovely. So at the high season, they kick me out to make room for “customers” and everyone else is also full or has already sold their long-term deals to others. With a little help I made up a CV and spent a day dropping it off at other dive shops, only to find out that most of them hate Ban’s and anything coming out of their system, not to mention that there are about 1 million freelance instructors and DM’s looking for work here that outrank me both in terms of experience and social connections. I think I’ve just been cold-heartedly processed by the Koh Tao business machine and thrown to the wolves....
I can still get free dives with Ban’s if I lead fun divers but if you do it for free you’ll never get paid and if you hold out and hope to get paid you’ll never get to dive. I can hear that bus to anywhere starting to call me….. Others say that busy season is coming and we’ll get something, but the weather has completely deteriorated right on top of the first rush so nobody is diving like they should be and even I don’t want to go out there…. Am I allowed to complain that my life is rough because I can’t play volleyball right now?
I did find a place to stay but it is not as nice and a little more expensive, grrr... I was very close to going full hobo though. I think there are a few Burmese employees on the island living that way. There are enough couches outdoor to pull it off
It’s funny but I seem to have developed a reputation amongst my friends here as the guy that has crazy travel stories, plays a lot of volleyball and eats all the time. Yes, you read that right, eats. I must’ve picked up something somewhere because I’m always starving. The more I eat, the hungrier I get. I eat 5 or even 6 times a day! When I’m not diving I can be found in the same place in the same restaurant stuffing my face. I wake up starving and by 7am when the restaurants open I’m convinced I’ll die if they don’t bring the food out in record time. Is it doing any good? I don’t know but I must’ve gained a pound somewhere….
As for my future plans, I don’t know. I just got my DM number processed by PADI so I can start looking online at diving jobs around the world. It’s not that expensive here really even without work but after getting a few calls about freelancing, it's obvious that I am not going to get much work at all unless I have my own equipment so the time has come to make a serious decision about how serious I am with this sport. If I buy the gear, I may as well do the instructor course too..... Oh boy, I can see myself totally getting sucked into this place deeper and deeper. The only other option might be just to run now and do something else. Stress..... I'm stalling at the moment and hoping something sorts itself out one way or another to give me a little direction.

Visa Run

Having stayed in Thailand for the 2-month limit on my visa, I had to make a run out to Malaysia to get a new one. Any country would do, but Malaysia is the closest and easiest from here. A few people go to Laos as well. One of the strangest things for me out here surrounded by “travelers” is how unserious about travel people really are. The visitors all have the simple stories of a newbie on a party vacation and the people living here “working” all seem to dread their visa runs, telling horror stories when they get back. Something along the lines of “the train was late” or “there are Muslims in Malaysia”. On the other side of the spectrum was me, positively relishing the idea of a little more travel and movement and a chance to add to my reputation here on Koh Tao. The trip did not disappoint…..
For a quick visa run to Malaysia there are two logical choices, Kota Bahru and Penang. For some reason I don’t understand, most people go to Kota Bahru in the mistaken belief that it is closer, faster and cheaper but in reality the two are equal options. Tempted as I was to go somewhere new, I opted for the return to Penang and the guarantee of good Indian food. Being me, I also opted to do everything completely on my own and organize things as I went rather than buy tickets from an agent on the island. I also declined all offers of buddying up with others that needed to do visa runs at around the same time.
On the day of departure I checked out of my room and stored my very stuffed backpack in reception. Two reasons for this, first to travel light and more importantly, second, I know me and having finished my DM and not having to come back, there would be a good chance I wouldn’t come back once I started moving again. This turned out to be a very wise precaution because as much fun as I’d been having on Koh Tao, I was tempted a few times to just keep going. Anyone worried that I might be feeling tempted to settle down a bit now need not worry, wanderlust is still running strong in these veins. The body is very willing, the wallet is not….
Overnight ferry from Koh Tao back to Surat Thani. Arrived at 5:30am and walked to the nearby bus station to catch the first bus out at 6am. I can’t say I was really surprised to find I was the only foreigner on the boat to do this. 7 hour ride south to Hat Yai. True, the minibuses are a lot faster but being the only foreigner on a bus, watching the scenery roll by hour after hour felt so normal. It was like living again. Even the breakdown and transfer to a new bus 5 ½ hours into the journey gave me the warm fuzzies of familiarity. I know it’s only been 6 weeks on Koh Tao but it’s the second longest I’ve stayed anywhere in 4 years after Cairo. The only thing that seemed a little strange was having to wear sandals again since I’d only worn them once in the weeks since I’d last written on here.
At Hat Yai I found the local minibus to the border and walked across, without problem, only to find that there was no onward transport other than a taxi for the next 10km to the nearest bus station. Taxi? Me? Nope, wasn’t going to happen. So I stuck out my thumb and after a few minutes managed to snag a ride the rest of the way to Penang. Well, actually to the ferry terminal in Butterworth but that was a lot better than I’d been hoping for. Test #1 was complete. If you pay for the bus and do it all yourself, you don’t really save much money over the tickets by the cheaper travel agents everywhere. With all the transfers and time involved on your own, it’s only worth it if you are crazy like me.
In Penang I went straight to Indian food and then found a hostel with a dorm a little further down the main road from where we stayed before. I can’t emphasize enough how different Thailand and Malaysia are. I knew it, I’d seen it before and yet I was still shocked by the ethnic diversity of Penang. Indians and Chinese, Muslim Malay, the better roads, the cleaner streets, the history, architecture, culture and character of Georgetown were such a breath of fresh air to me after the cultureless, tourist-dominated life on Koh Tao. I love the diving but there is nothing else there that appeals to me as much as suddenly being back in my travel world again. Chatting it up in the dorm (which was just a large open area on the upper floor of a building oozing character) with real travelers that have a real appreciation and respect for what I’ve accomplished. I’ll admit that my ego definitely enjoyed the boost, but more than that, I just really enjoy giving travel advice to others and telling stories. I can barely make it to 10pm on Koh Tao without falling asleep (despite the constant party atmosphere) whereas that first night in Penang I was up until 1:30am having tea on the side of the street telling travel stories. Like a true addict, that little infusion of travel drug suddenly had me craving so much more. I think I’m in serious trouble. Is there a proper rehab for people like me?
The next day I made the trip out to the Thai consulate (with a few others in tow) and was pleasantly surprised to find that the visa is still being offered for free. The sad thing is that after all this travel, it’s the first time I’ve got duplicate visas in my passport and they are sequential. A few of you will understand what I mean….
For old times’ sake I popped into the Hotel Noble where we stayed before and found two people I recognized, Helga and Macon. Both had been away and just recently returned so I had a nice long visit with Helga over dinner. Always fun to meet people again on the road. I opted to spend the following day in Penang as well and made a trip over to the Kek Lok Si temple, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia. It is very big indeed with many different buildings, ponds, giant statues and stupas but in all honesty I found it disappointing because it felt like most of them had been converted into tacky souvenir shops. The weather was hot, humid and surprisingly dry. The true monsoon seems to have been delayed this year. The other note I want to mention is that all the shops and malls were playing Michael Jackson since he’d only died a few days before. Yes, even Malaysia mourned.
Since I’m not a fan of hitching out of cities, I caught a local bus from Butterworth to Alor Setar and from there to Changlun, 10km from the border. Again, rather than pay a taxi, I stuck out my thumb and, of all things, was picked up by an off-duty taxi going duty-free shopping. Free ride in a taxi! Yes!! In the few hundred meters of no-man’s land there is a big shopping mall and even a golf course. Once in Thailand again I called Bangkok to make sure the hospital I needed to visit for my TB test for my Aussie visa application would be open the following day. Having been given the affirmative, my plans suddenly involved a journey of a little more than 1000km to Bangkok. I’d heard that hitching was really easy in Thailand so decided to put it to the test, get as far as I could and then catch a night train from wherever I ended up.
1st lift 12km to the next town. 2nd, 50km. Didn’t take long but I needed something bigger. 3rd, 100km but I made the mistake of letting them take me to the train station instead of dropping me off on the highway. Still had a few hours before dark so 4th lift, 4km back to the highway. 5th, 40km. He was an off-duty public transit pickup with benches on his way home. He dropped my off in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway at a bus stop near the turnoff to his village. A couple of locals were looking at me strangely as I got out, ignored the next bus that came by and stuck out my thumb yet again. They smiled and waved as a few minutes later I drove off in the back of someone’s pickup. As it turned out, this 6th ride was the jackpot. A couple with 3 little kids, they drove a little further up the road, pulled up to some place and started filling the back of the pickup (where I’d been sitting) with a bunch of boxes and old electronics equipment. He then told me he was going all the way to Bangkok and I could come. I hadn’t said I was going that far initially as it was still 850km away. He left a small space for me to lay across the back against the tailgate and 30 seconds after leaving again we hit a storm. I was so happy there were 2 satellite dishes tied up over my head to keep me dry.
Being squished in the back of a pickup all night was awesome. I know, it sounds strange but I think everyone got a kick out of it. Lots of Thais travel that way and they’d all point and wave at me. Even the guys working on the VIP buses would honk, wave and laugh if they noticed. The guy driving was cool too. He drove all night and at every stop for gas, etc he’d get out, look to see if I was ok and just shake his head and laugh at such a strange cargo. Like all the Thais that picked me up, he spoke very little English, but got a kick out of having a foreigner half passed out in the back of his vehicle. At 6am the following morning, just as the sun was rising, I was dropped off a short walk away from the hospital I needed. It took 24hrs almost to the minute from when I’d left the hostel in Penang to cover the 1200km and I was even 2hrs ahead of the train! Sure, I didn’t save a ton because I could’ve flown for about $60 and taken the train for $40 but I had an adventure worthy of writing about and it cost me less than $5. I met a bunch of nice Thais, the first “real” ones I think I’ve ever really dealt with and now start to feel that their reputation for smiles and friendliness might be genuine and not based on the almighty tourist dollar. The best part was that I even got to run around a couple of towns that never get tourists and I spend all that time without seeing a single foreigner. It’s not really the kind of thing that would normally make a travel goals list but hitching in a pickup so far overnight would’ve been on there if I could’ve thought of it. Check!
Bangkok is known as the place to be in South East Asia for medical treatment and with hospitals like this one I’m not surprised. I got there as it opened, did my x-ray, had a complimentary breakfast as I waited for the doctor to ok it and then walked through Patpong on my way to the train station. Patpong is the old red light district and at 8am on a Monday, it’s even more dead than Amsterdam at 10am on a Saturday. I guess my natural timing for such things is just way off…. After a total of only 3hrs in Bangkok, I caught a 3rd class train for 3 1/2 hrs out of the city. It only cost a dollar and saved me a lot of trouble trying to hitch out of the capital. The time went really quickly as I met an interesting Czech couple on the train. If they were on that one they’d have to be the kind of people with interesting stories or travel ambitions and I was not disappointed. I left them in another fairly random Thai town called Petchaburi that is actually famous for some of it’s temples and as an old capital or something. I didn’t visit anything but the place had a nice feel to it. Again, no tourists. A series of 3 hitches from there got me the remaining 350km to Chumphon where I was kindly dropped off right at the pier for the overnight car ferry back to Koh Tao. I was so exhausted after all that that I confess to falling asleep before the boat even left and having to be woken up at 4:45am when it arrived. What a journey! Exhausting, busy but thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.