Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Crystal Clear

The ferry drops passengers in Mae Hat, a quiet village with a rash of westernised restaurants and halfhearted tourist shops. Crystal Dive has carved out a good sized portion of land just north of the ferry port, and filled it with relatively comfortable shacks equipped with fans and in some cases, air con - (for a premium). Each shack has a wetroom, with all the things you want from a thai wetroom - a loo, a bumgun, an exposed lightbulb for the electrocutotourism industry, a sink and an unheated shower. It is comfortable, and infested with friendly geckos who have long since polished off all the roaches. So it feels fairly salubrious. And if you dive with them, the subsidy on the room makes it laughably, joyously cheap.

I arrive, fresh off the ferry, and after accidentally crashing a very vehement board meeting being held in english, I find the reception. Everyone at Crystal defaults to english, and the thais that work there don't bother with ka and crab. This is something of a relief as at least I can make myself understood. I book a course with the unnecessarily attractive receptionist - she is clearly a dive instructor too. They work them hard here. My course will start tomorrow - a basic PADI Open Water Course.

What is PADI? PADI is the bulbous all-seeing spider at the centre of scuba diving worldwide. It has cast its web to the far corners of the world and sits in the middle monitoring everything. It is implacable, vast and uncompromising. It has no sense of humour. It stands for "Professional Association of Diving Instructors," and whoever set it up is oh so very fond of acronymns. Also this sort of prose is standard: Scuba diving [ ] can help transform your life through education, experience, equipment and environmental conservation: It's like they brainstormed as many words as possible beginning with E. They make you read vast tomes of this crap. Now this is not to say that the content is crap. Just the style. It's a good thing that a company exists that homogenises scuba worldwide, as it makes it possible for you to hop from America to Thailand to Australia to South Africa and always be speaking the same language, and thus safer. And in a sport where you can't speak, this is important. But the presentation??? Oh dear. It’s hard to believe that the world’s largest scuba diving training organization was dreamt up by two friends in Illinois over a bottle of Johnny Walker in 1966. I agree - you'd need to be a whole hell of a lot drunker than that to write this shit.

The night before my course starts, I wander around the beach and the town, finding a cool rasta bar out of the side of a campervan. I spend a good long time on a swinging chair staring at the full moon, and paddling down the beach. Then I grab my book and head for the bar. Within a minute an Israeli woman joins me at my table and we get chatting. Twenty minutes later a whole pile of drunk instructors bundle onto our table, and begin to propose drinking games. Shaking off the feeling that I have somehow teleported to Magalouf, I join in and after a couple of hours of utter stupidity, realise I need to hit the sack and crash off to my hut.


Day one of the course is videotime. And after the new year celebrations on the neighbouring island, most of the people starting up are sweating alcohol and haven't slept. First of all you have to watch one of a series of scuba training videos. These videos were made in the late eighties /early nineties. They were made with the assumption that anyone that wants to learn scuba has the mental capacity and sense of humour of the six year old boy who sits at the back of the class eating lego. And they are desperately American. This is "Have a nice day" taken to the power of 10000. Scuba is FUN and FRIENDS and JOKES and LEARNING IS FUN and so are your FRIENDS. And so full of acronyms. SCUBA: Smug Cretins Using Bloody Acronyms. Nonetheless I learn all about my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and my RDP (Recreational Dive Planner) and my SNORKEL - (Suck Now Or Right Kidney Explodes, Lamentably).
And after each video our instructor Rob bundles in enthusiastically and helps us with our knowledge reviews and makes us do a test. And he is constantly upbeat, and constantly positive and informative. And you almost believe that the PADI spider is not watching him. He gives no indication that he thinks the videos suck. He is a consummate professional, and I can't help thinking a good actor. Probably after work each day he is sucked into a cocoon and tortured through the night.

In the bar that night Jodie tells us that if you get someone from Holland to say "Choose my side" it sounds rude. We do and it does. Without being able to prevent it, and despite Rob's protests, it becomes our team name.


Day two of the course is VIDEOTIME and I am beginning to feel very fortunate that someone else paid for my flight. At some point, probably after another few bottles of whisky, the guys that made these videos decided that they would be much better if they had some JOKES in them. But they have gone way too far. The whole course is much longer than it needs to be because you have to watch this middle aged "clown" and the "hilarious" things that he does. Is American television always like this? No wonder they're voting for the Tea Party. Nation of retards. While the jokes happen on screen I pore through my manual. I read fast. I'd sooner just lock myself in a room and read the manual than have to watch any more of this rubbish. At least I could listen to some good music. Towards the end of the videos they devote a whole section to this: "So how can you get the most out of Scuba? Spend FUN MONEY on PADI! Yes you NEED to spend MONEY on us. Giving us MONEY is FUN, PLAY and FRIENDS!"
Rob comes in to find me trying to dash my brains out on the table. I need a beer. But now it's off to the POSAP - (Pool Of Scum And Piss). Here is where we will learn our Subaquatic Helpful Information Tips. We all jump in, and instantly the fierce chlorine sucks all the moisture out of our skin and leaves us weathered and cracking. The pool is full of dead insects, consciously added I have no doubt to replicate the plankton that will affect our visibility in open water. A brilliant bit of thinking by the people at Crystal. We repeatedly run over the important basics. Rob is excellent underwater - comfortable and professional and reassuring. I can't work out how to equalise with my mouth held open by the regulator (Breathing bit). Equalising is something you need to get good at - it's to stop horrible pain and burst eardrums from the added pressure - you need to do it regularly as you go down. I work it out eventually. I also find it really odd breathing underwater. The air in the tank is very very dry and I feel it on the back of my throat.
The time ticks on and on and my skin grows more and more hideous as I constantly take accidental sips of the filthy filthy water in this miasma. But by the end of the day I feel like I have a good grasp of what the hell I am supposed to be doing.


Day three and it's up at crack in order to take a test. I get a good score and am relieved that I don't have to take another one. Then we have to take a swimming test. Thankfully this is conducted in a much nicer pool further down the beach.
There are four of us in our group, and Rob. Rob the instructor is only about 22, professional, fun and full of beans. Jodie is a proper northern lass gone travelling, burnt a deep mahogany by the sun. Plenty of common sense and very smart, but someone somewhere has told her she's thick and she sometimes believes it. She is a lot of fun. Then there's Brian and Sarah, providing the comedy in the team with their bickering and vast competitive streaks. Both from Ireland, both great foils for each other - a great couple and at times they reduce me to tears of laughter. I make up the fourth by being the opposite of Jodie - no gumption, losing everything, walking into trees and generally living up to my ability to make a prat of myself. A finnish instructor in training occasionally joins us and shouts at us. One time he howls "NOOO!" at me, as is his wont, when I am tucking the band of my compass back round itself. My hackles rise and I bark "Fuck YOU" at him. "I'm streamlining." He doesn't bother me so much after that. But during the swimtest, we discover that he lost his virginity at 13 to a 36 year old woman. Perhaps that's the root of it - I can hear her shouting "NOOO!" at him in bed. These things stay with you.

In the afternoon we finally get into the sea. It's a big old boat and it's crowded, and we chunter out to "Twin Peaks". My buddy is Jodie. We have to check each other. The PADI video, surprise surprise, suggests an ACRONYM to help us with our checks. "Begin With Review And Friend." I kid you not. Why that is any easier to remember than "Buoyancy Weights Releases Air Final check" I do not know. I suspect they chose it because it has the word "FRIEND" in it. WOOO We're all friends here!! _ (Another quote from the video, as we watch a bunch of grown men and women behaving like total idiots : "Scuba Divers have more FUN than regular people." By inference this is because they have all been lobotomised.) Rob suggests a more local acronym - "Bangkok Women Really Are Fellers." Better, but it still doesn't get over the fact that IN THE QUEEN'S ENGLISH WE CALL IT A BUCKLE NOT A RELEASE!

In 12 metres of water, I slowly get to know what it's like to dive. The visibility is great - 10 - 15 metres, and the temperature is 30 degrees - it feels like a pool. There is so much colour down here and so many odd fish. The rest of the guys see a Banded Sea Krait, but I am upset to have missed it. But then it can kill a man in 4 seconds with a seriously strong dose of neurotoxin. So probably a good thing. There's a lot of life down here - Damselfish, Sgt. Major Fish, Butterfly Fish, Red Breasted Wrass... By the time I surface I am in serious discomfort. Drinking all that wee in the pool has made my stomach go bad. Under pressure at the bottom it's not so bad, but when you surface, it expands...

The afternoon dive is much more technical - emergency things, buoyancy things, mask floods, getting your regulator back in. No time to look at the scenery. But necessary.


Day Four kicks off early, and we go to White Rock. There IS some current this time and the visibility is down to 5-10 metres. We still get to see some sealife when we aren't flooding our masks and pumping our BCD's orally. Loads of Giant Clam, Blue Ringed Angelfish and Longfin Bannerfish. At one point I see something large moving strangely. I go towards it, but Rob is signally frantically - "gunfingers gunfingers bang bang gunfingers." No he hasn't suddenly regressed - it's a triggerfish - they're nasty little territorial buggers. I steer clear and find a Marbled Sea Cucumber instead. Much safer.

Second dive and we go back to twin peaks. Unperturbed by the fact there are about 200 other dive boats here, we all leap joyfully into the water and sink. This dive is a little more fruitful. We watch a Blue Spotted Stingray as it regards us grumpily - "What are you staring it - We did for that Steve Irwin, so you better be careful." We also find a little White Eyed Moray Eel, sticking his head out of his hole. Sadly there are way too many Scuba Divers having more fun than regular people wherever we look. In my logbook I have logged them as "wankerfish." But with the skills I have learnt I am now a certified Open Water Diver. Apparently. One of them.

That evening in a bar a man called Jace shows us a video he has made of us underwater. It is well cut considering it's a rush job, and made with a sense of humour. Unfortunately is is cut onto a DVD made out of diamonds and platinum, hand build molecule by molecule by ancient monks in the distant cloud cities of nepal. And the price tag reflects this. Despite the fact that I have no older generation left to show it to I get one. It seems unfair not to get some beer for the guy Jace. He seems nice, and went to the same school as my ex. Maybe one day I can bore my kids with the video too. We all get very very drunk. I stagger back to my shack, knock the top off the fuse box in a quest for the lightswitch, give myself a staggeringly vast electric shock, fly like superman onto my bed and wake up face down four hours later with my jeans soaked in blood. Remarkably, I haven't pissed myself.


Recovery takes some time, but now I am certified I want to go on a night dive. This is the best idea I have ever had. On the way down, I briefly see a Banded Sea Krait as it swims between me and the rest of the group. On the bottom it is peaceful and dark. If you cover your torches, you realise that all around you the plankton is bioluminescent. So if you move, it lights up with kinetic energy. There are loads of bad tempered looking Great Barracuda. They dislike our torches. Some are bigger than us. It is quiet, serene, fearsome. I imagine what it would be like to sink here in a ship - to have your last moments in this void with the bioluminescence. I decide you wouldn't really care, as you'd be too busy dying.

At the boat, I take off my fins and pass them up. Then I put my foot on the ladder, and someone shouts "Snake!" "Where!" I say - I want to see it. "Round your leg!" Oh. It's been drawing heat from the boat and become curious about these hot things that have come. It lazily coils around inspecting us for what seems like ages, and I am smitten, despite the fact that the only girl in our group is screaming blue bloody murder and telling me to get off the ladder. Only later does it occur to me that I must have come within an inch of putting my foot on it as it was on the ladder. Docile or not it would've taken a chunk out of me then and I'd be going home in a box. Still, I am humbled by the beauty of nature and resolve to come back to Koh Tao and to Crystal as soon as I can afford the time or the money.

Crystal is a really well run operation. I was attracted to it because Lonely Planet describes it as "The Meryl Streep of dive operators," and I think Meryl Streep is a fantastic actress, but it turns out that my arbitrary decision was a good one. The impressive thing is that there are enough staff working hard enough for it to feel uncluttered and uncrowded, while in reality they are putting a vast amount of people through their PADI course every week. And they have a good selection of languages too - all of europe is probably represented.

I just wonder if I can persuade PADI to update their video. I'd be happy to help with the filming! Hey I could be one of the friendly divers!! Or the hilarious clown!!! In fact no, scratch that last one. Not if you paid me a million dollars.

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