Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, February 13, 2012

We Got Mermaids

We went to Ko Tao to dive. It is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, on top of the more famous and much bigger, Ko Samui and Koh Phangan. Like most places on this side of the world, there are a couple of spellings that all go along together, Ko Tao, Koh Tao. The name means the "turtle island", there are no turtles here, the name comes from the shape of the island. It has a population of about 5000 people and it is famous for its diving schools. Like with any government in the world, stupidity and greed reigns here as well, corruption is the name of the game and the local police and immigration services impose hefty "shares" to let the  diving schools alone. It is stupid because they support the local economy and are essential for the way of life of the locals. Somehow the schools get by, and probably because of the competition, it is the cheapest place in the world to get an open water PADI certificate. It has warm tropical waters, the sea is calm and clear, there are about 30 diving sites in the vicinity with relatively low depth making it easy for beginners to learn their skills and pass their testing.

Getting on the boat in the Gulf of Thailand

Do you see what kind of flowers they have here? 
Long boat, typical.

Free for four nights

Just the beach we had to walk on every morning!

The end of the beach

Who's this guy?

Initially I planned a week on the west coast of Thailand and a week on the east coast, but then we realized that we could lose one or two days travelling. We gave up our plane tickets to Krabi and our plans to visit Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lantau and came here, prepared to spend a day or two shopping around, learning our options and trying to make our minds if diving might be of interest for us. We got train tickets and experienced a night train in Thailand. Much more civilized than the Chinese or Indian trains, we arrived in Chumphon at 4.30 am, took a bus for 30 minutes to a boat and that took two hours to the island. On the ferry we were approached by several sellers for the diving schools and made the decision to go with New Way Diving. It was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, it is a relatively small school that teaches in small groups. When we met one of the owners, Jim, a nice guy from London - he immediately convinced all of us that we should give it a try, it is fun and "anybody can do it." The children were more easily convinced, Ileana Ruxandra thought that she is afraid of water and wasn't quite sure. They shouldn't let funny, charming, British lads promote scuba diving. They might convince a turtle that it can fly.

As it is customary here they offer free accommodations during the training. We got two basic huts at a quiet resort, BowThong, on the upper part of the beach. My family decided that we were ready to start that afternoon. We agreed that the generous gift from the grandparents will pay for this expensive course, the children and us will always have something special to remember. Thank you!
The open water certificate is the first step for a diver. Organized in a typical American way, the professional association of diving instructors, PADI, has a clear, simple curriculum, a book, a DVD, and a long list of requirements in order to give this certificate. That is good all over the world and allows it's owner to get on fun dives. The trick for us was that we were convinced to skip the preliminary stage, the "discover scuba diving" choice. If we would have done that...
The theoretical course was easy. For Ioan it was the first contact with physics, but he might have a brain designed for that. For the rest of us, just courses, like so many others in the past. It was good to be in our small classroom, the five of us learning something new together, for the first time. We were lucky to have the best instructor ever. She was caring, funny and smart, but also had a tough side, like a drill sergeant maybe. We needed that. After the first afternoon in the water, the older three of us would have easily stopped, without regrets or second looks. My wife was my "buddy" the partner that stays one meter close all the time. As we jumped off the boat and started the two hundred meter swim to the shallow water, she was far behind, making no effort to stay close to us, just strolling on her back with no worry in the world. Nothing on my equipment worked, everything was in the wrong place and the wrong order. I wanted some help and some answers, but everybody was far away. It was so frustrating. It never crossed my mind that my wife was going through her share of problems, she never thought that she should say that. When we caught up with the rest, I asked Anna if anything on this equipment is supposed to work or just feel right. Not now, but later, maybe. It turned out that there were some problems with my equipment, too many to explain or make sense of. The good side is that there can only be so many things going wrong, at some point it has to stop. When later I would run out of air, before returning to the boat, it wasn't even a big deal. By the way, running out of air NEVER happens, especially in the controlled environment of a pre-dive. The three hour shallow water session was a lot to take in, and back in the classroom that evening we would have easily stopped. If only that would have been an option. The DVD was talking about the discovery of a different world, the magic and the beauty of the coral reefs, we were in Ko Tao and this was the thing to do. When we went to Beijing we saw the Great Wall, when we went to Himalaya we saw the Everest. Similarly here we would see the real thing, not glimpse about it. The pain, the discomfort, the cold or the fear was not going to stay in our way. And my lazy mind that has such a problem coordinating my legs and my arms was going to get its act together.

So we went on. Next morning, the last classroom hours, passing the theoretical test and leaving in the early afternoon for the first real dive. The preparation of the equipment, the review of the goals, that all went fine until we got in the water. Anna was first with Ioan, Maria was followed by Ileana, their mother behind. I was the one before last on the line, then Sarah, a divemaster trainee, attached to our group to help and observe. I hold the line and start to submerge; there is no air. It takes a moment for me to notice and then my genius strucks. I hold the snorkel in my mouth, not the regulator! Problem fixed, I keep going a couple of meters and then a pain in my ears starts. It would get worse and worse, at times excruciating, I am now way behind everybody and my pain would not subside. It is an expected pain, we were trained to "equalize" the pressure between the outside world and the pressure inside the ears. If not done properly, the extreme pressure could perforate the eardrum. But that's for deep down diving, I was 3-4 meters under and things were not supposed to be this bad. It would get worse and worse. At some point Sarah tried to help, remind me to hold my nose and try to swallow, after a while I couldn't breath anymore, I would forget to do it because of the pain. Up I went, at the surface, no more pain, let's try again. A couple more tries, beginning to get clumsier and make more and more mistakes, the pain wouldn't give way. At some point, I must have got panicky, mix my snorkel with the regulator, inflate or deflate the BCD at the wrong time, and so on. Realizing that, I started to laugh, good hands on experience for my professional life, but that's not why I am here. Anna had to take everybody up, she couldn't let me go by myself. We talked, tried to make sense. Maria and Ioan also had trouble equalizing, that might be genetics, really narrow ear canals.

Anna decides to take me alone underwater and with her patience and her guidance we slowly get to 8.2 meters. It took nine minutes, that is huge. She decides that we will just have to take our time. A really long time, but maybe it can be done. It is amazing to me to experience such excruciating pain, it is mind boggling to have such level of control over it. A few centimeters down, the pain increases to unreal levels, the ears seem to explode. It is dull and heavy, but at the same time sharp as a knife. How can that be? Up a few centimeters, the pain subsides to tolerable levels, it's there and bad, but I don't care. There is  some hope that at some lower level it won't get any worse, I also hope that maybe I am not equalizing hard enough and eventually I will just get it right. Anna has to readjust the schedule, get the goals redistributed, if she could get all of us for 20 minutes at 10 meters she can catch up on the skills testing on the next dives. We get advice and suggestions from other instructors, I get a mild decongestant and we go down for the third time. Again, the same incredible connection between a few centimeters and the threshold between tolerable and unbearable pain. I decide to ignore it, I am not concerned that my eardrums would explode, but if it happens it would surely make things better. Off the line for a few minutes, I can never get down at the other's level, I float more or less a little above them. Sarah is guarding me closely, encourages me and strangely it is both reassuring and disconcerting in the same time. I can hardly control my motion, it's hard to keep track of her and she disappears at times behind me. Trying to make eye contact and communicate with her disturbs my concentration on the equalizing effort. I can see the rest of my family a couple of meters below, they get going on the business part, maybe with one last effort I can join them. There is water now in my eye mask, I know how to get it out, I review the steps in my mind, get my fingers on my forehead and the thumbs are ready to raise the lower part. I start to do it and suddenly from below, Anna starts moving towards me and instructs me to stop what I'm doing and follow her. A few meters later, I hang on the line, she watches her hand computer and has me stay there. In a few minutes the rest will join us and we slowly rise to the surface. As we swim leisurely toward the boat, she tells me, "I think I have to do you a favour and take you out of your misery!" I am painfully aware of that. I did stay submerged for 20 minutes or more, but I didn't do anything that was expected of me and I had no idea how much I was holding everybody back. She explains to me that she saw me panicking again when I started to take my mask of, it wasn't that, I was finally in control for a moment, but the reality was that I could never go below the 8 meters mark, I was way behind in mastering any of the required skills, I couldn't float, rise or descend, I could not move the right way and I had no chance of accomplishing that in the allotted time. Concentrating on my breathing and equalizing effort, trying to ignore the pain, it would have taken forever for the sliver of brain left to learn anything more. We were back on the boat, the pain in my ears was begging for a couple of sharp knives, it would have felt so good. I was out and there must have been a bit of relief, at least I didn't feel guilty for holding my family back anymore. They were late and behind, in a few minutes they were back in the water with determination and maybe a bit of envy. Ileana, my daughter, kept going by the business, nothing can phase this girl sometimes. Ileana, my wife, was a bit concerned and sad, but she was now left in charge of the children and she will do that like countless other times.
When they get back up after a while, Maria laughs at the seven marks of sea urchin that stabbed her in the calf.

I am OK. My ears would get better in a few days. My psyche can take this. I never failed like that before, when something didn't go right the first time, there was always a second chance. This is different because diving is not for everybody and I am one of the ones that cannot do it. I saw a a fish or two, I got a glimpse at another world, but what I remember most was the image of my children frozen weightless in a Buddha stance in the middle of the water. That was unreal and magical.

The last day starts at 5 am. We arrive at the school at 5.50, we get on the boat and they are ready to dive by 6.30. We meet Charlie, the film maker who would follow them the whole morning to make a DVD for us. The third dive is the hardest, at 18 meters, and when they emerge almost an hour later they all look exhausted. Maria is ready to cry, she's done, they never told her that she would be bitten by plankton so badly. She might need to cry on my shoulder, but it helps her more to throw some punches and she's better. Ioan is surprised, he had pain in his ears while coming up, that is not supposed to happen, something is not right. He informs Anna and his mother that he doesn't want to do the last  dive, according to Maria, he is lucky to get out of this and takes her option of giving up out of the equation. She would never do something like that to Anna. As they enter the water for the last time, we stand side by side, talking quietly "If it's hard or very hard we do it, if it's impossible we give up." There was still a moment or two left, if he would change his mind he might catch them and get this done. "I don't think it is impossible, but I think it would be hard", says Ioan after thinking for a moment. "Let me repeat" I say, "if it's hard or very hard we do it. If it's almost impossible we still try it. If it is impossible we stop and do something else." He thinks for a long time and with some hesitation "I think it is impossible". "You think or you're sure?" he thinks again, "I'm sure!" "OK then" I say and we start talking about something else. We have some time until the girls come back, we can go snorkeling and after a while we do it for a few minutes. The sea is just a little rough and the shore is far away, there might be nice corals there by the rocks, but we stay around the boat. We get to the diving line, hold on to that and get a glimpse of the divers activity far below. A fish or two, small and far away. "We can go back now", I say. "Did you take a picture? Let's take a picture and then we go back!" says Ioan. And so we do.
A bad picture with a rope (line), some fish and divers in the background

A few minutes later the girls emerge from the ocean, they are not done yet, a couple more "skills" to test, but the worst is over. Exhausted, but with a smile on their faces. They liked what they saw, they might have loved it for a moment or two. Ileana is just content. She wanted to do it, she got it done without any of the problems that the others had. When she'll find her prince charming this would be one of the test questions. And she might have to take him to Ko Tao to get his diving license. Maria is also content, but with a bit of attitude. "I've done it because you wanted me to do it, now can I go back to read my books and do something useful?" Without realizing, she will start talking more and more, letting go of all the pressure inside, and soon she'll just be happy. An amazing wife is also happy. Tired, satisfied, she never held it against me that, the only parent left, she was practically forced to continue after I gave up. She is happy she'll never have to do this again, or maybe, who knows
... Maybe."

We return to the school by 10.30, we have a few free hours. We accept their suggestion to go and have Ioan's ears checked, if they look OK, Anna would take him tomorrow for the last dive. They don't look good, "minor trauma", no diving for a few days. Good call Ioan, it's a great quality to know when to stop. Unfortunately my ears don't show anything wrong at all, this means that whatever problem I had is probably  anatomical and diving will never be an option for me.

In the afternoon we are back at the diving school, they do the paperwork and get their temporary licenses, we watch and laugh at Charlie's DVD, we exchange emails and impressions. Ioan gets a partial certificate, as a scuba diver, while, resisting the temptation, I decline the option of getting one as a "bubble blower."

(New Way) Diving. It is an amazing world filled with fantastic people and we were briefly part of it. They have fun, but they are serious and very professional. The whole sport is centered on safety, the precautions are extraordinary. That is good, but what impressed me most was how they cope with the frustrations. There are so many things that can go wrong, the weather, the water, the boat, the equipment, the air, or the buddy. One little thing can easily ruin the whole day or an expensive trip, but they are ready to take it because they love the rewards. They marvel at a little fish, a shark or a snake, a branch of coral. They occasionally save some fish from the nets of an abusive fisherman. They have to give in to the mighty local corruption, pay their dues so they can live. They would go off to another country for a while, save some money, renew their visa and get back to Thailand. The underwater Thailand that they love so much.

We congratulate the three mermaids in our family and celebrate in the evening with all you can eat pizza at the "Simple Life" resort. Two and a half hours we stay there, every 10-15 minutes they would drop by giving us some small slice of pizza. We talk, watch rugby, the girls read. Next day I will decide that I would never ever have another bite of pizza again. Until we get to Napoli and try the real thing.

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