Monday, November 28, 2011

18 Meters Below the Surface... (Thailand Continued)

Over two weeks ago now, I returned from a trip to the majestic Chinese province of Yunnan. But while that blog post is forthcoming, I thought I should better finish off Thailand in fine detail, so here's the first day in Koh Tao:

Despite its frugality and time saving advantages, taking overnight transportation, especially buses with regular, upright seats, can wear on you and take something, be it time, energy, or the like, out of you. In other words, you can save money and time by taking the overnight transport, but it usually leaves you tired and a touch burnt out the next stay so you'll have to take the time to rest and recharge the next day, or risk getting sick or just not enjoying yourself because you're too damn tired. Luckily for me, I was in good conversation stride with dear Greg, who with his middle-class, Midwestern upbringing so similar to mine, I had plenty to talk about. He's extremely well traveled, and does it for a living as one of the net's most popular Asia travel bloggers. You can check him out here: http://goasia.about.com/bio/Greg-Rodgers-96811.htm

But the ride was not to be as pleasant as the conversation. After drifting off into an iPod-induced sleep, those of us going to Koh Tao were awoken at 3am and told to get off in the smaller town of Chumphon. We waited in the dark of night for a while, until an open-topped truck pulled up, and we were all loaded into the back. I wasn't as chipper as I usually am, but I made it through fine, while some people were basically sleep-walking and others were cracking jokes with us strangers. You won't be surprised to hear the dynamic is weird when you're driving through a Thailand forest in the middle of the night with strangers from all around the world.

Once we made it to the ferry dock, at about 3:45am, we had to wait until the first day's ferry arrived at around 7am. I shot the shit more with Craig, listened to the iPod, and tried to catch a few winks in the barren "sleep room". A storm swept through at about 6am, and when it cleared the sun was up. We all got on the ferry, and set into the blue clean.

The island of Koh Tao is the type of place every traveler seeks: a small, tropical island with beautiful views of green palm trees on sandy beaches, some short cliff faces with green foliage, and all of it set against blue skies and the infinite blue horizon of the Pacific. It only has a few roads with a few cars, and the only taxis are pick-up trucks that you sit in the back of with a bunch of people. It's secluded and quiet, for the most part, but also a well-traveled road, being clearly an economy that depends on tourism, and particularly scuba diving. It's main beaches are lined with diving schools, restaurants, travel shops to book your tickets home or to another island, and internet cafes, not to mention a few shops, bars, and a lady-boy showcase. We'll get to that eventually.

Being the responsible guy that I am, I already had my class booked at one of the best scuba schools on the island, or so I had read, called Big Blue. I would not be disappointed with the place's professionalism and know how, but somehow in the end, I felt like I didn't really fit in with the western staff there. Probably because most of them were from the UK, but more on that later.

My class was to begin in the evening with an introduction and video, but I had time to kill until then, and though I'd only had about three hours of poor sleep the prior evening, I decided I had to go exploring until it was time for an afternoon nap. So put on the old swimming suit, and whipped out the guns, and hit the beach with my pasty, office-flabby body for all to see.

Once I approached the water, I already saw a familiar face, a German who had been in my hostel in Bangkok named Volker. Not that I haven't encountered the same traveler in multiple cities before, but it was low season (my favorite time to travel, actually), and there weren't too many people around. He was on the prowl with another young German named Andre (there were a lot Germans there, yes). We started walking up and down the beach, admiring the water, though Andre complained of it being dirty, and it truly was a little a bit, and searched for the perfect place to dive in for a dip.

So we made our way up and down the beach, and finally found what we decided was the perfect place to take a dip. As we began swimming, I asked the others if one could open their eyes in saltwater, and acting like I had had a tremendous epiphany when I first tried it for myself and it worked, the others laughed. What can I say? I've swum in freshwater for most of my life, and I'm still getting to know the Pacific. Anyway, as we were in the water, exploring the blue (now with our eyes open), the weather quickly changed. The wind picked up, the sun was blackened by the thunderheads coming from the ocean. A tropical cloud-burst was fast approaching. The beaches emptied and the beachside bars and restaurants packed up everything. But me, Andre, and Volker quickly made a pact: we were going to live out this storm in its entirety, in the water. We would swim through a tropical rainstorm. And we did, despite the pelting rain, only to be escaped by submerging oneself deep beneath the water's surface. I've never felt so alive, screaming into the rain soaked air, then diving deep to find the peace and tranquility the marine world enjoys. But of course, we didn't make it through the whole storm, and about halfway through, I walked home to take a shower, get warm in my bed, and take a nap.