I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
Courtesy of Ban's, I now proudly possess a PADI Open Water certification. The goodies that come with this include: a diver's handbook (which, being certified, I ostensibly know from cover-to-cover); a diver's logbook; and a temporary PADI membership card. My permanent membership card, which needs to be processed by the PADI head office in the States, will be mailed to me within the next few months. Plus, one other very useful perk: I'm now listed in the PADI global online database, which means that should I ever go diving again, my certification can be checked online by any dive shop in the world.
I did my third and fourth dives this morning, and they're the final dives that I need to do as part of my Open Water course. Today's drill was pretty similar to that of the diving yesterday morning: on the boat by 7:30am; one dive at The Twins, then over to White Rock; and completion of the remaining handful of PADI-required underwater exercises. My group had Ber as our instructor today, instead of Flav, and we descended a bit deeper than we've done previously: we made it to 18m, which is the maximum depth permitted for an Open Water certified diver.
Abbie's a cheerful English girl, who's been travelling around the world for several months, and who's recently completed a long volunteering stint down in southern Africa. Abbie's currently undertaking her DMT (Divemaster Training) course with Ban's, which means that she's living and working here on Ko Tao for a few months. Abbie's been with my Open Water group over the past several days, and this is her first time as an instructor's assistant to a group of Open Water students. Great girl, and quite committed to her diving.
Ber's an English bloke, and he's another one of the devoted, dedicated and — let's face it — addicted diving instructors at Ban's, here in Ko Tao. As well as being a full-time instructor, Ber is also now the proud owner of the Hippo bar, which is just off from the main drag of Sairee. Ber took me for my second round of dives today; and like his colleague Flav, he did a great job of showing me around below the surface.
Ban's hosted a big party this evening, which they held on the beach in front of their bar-slash-restaurant. They put on a wicked show: live DJ; cheap drinks; and an awesome display of fire juggling. Alex and I were pretty exhausted from today's diving, but we somehow managed to stay up for a fair bit of the party. As well as the juggling, they also doused a large hoola-hoop in petrol, and ignited it to form a ring of fire: then, they tied it up in the air, and they invited anyone and everyone to try their luck at jumping through it. Check out the video.
I just received the shocking news this afternoon, about what happened to Dave. It happened on the 23rd, but it's taken some time for the news to spread, and finally to reach me. I don't want to say too much about it here, except that Dave was one of my best friends, and that like so many others I will miss him dearly. I wish I could make it to his funeral, which will be on Fri 1 Feb, but at that time I'll still be here in Thailand. I have no doubt, at least, that there will be no shortage of Dave's other numerous friends, family and colleagues in attendance, all to pay their respects. My deepest condolences to Ruth, Leslie and Debbie — Dave's mother, father and sister — as well as to Jo and Rountree, who were closer to Dave and who knew him better than most, and for whom I know the pain will be particularly strong. Sydney, AUJS, high school reunions, skiing, chess, Frisbee, action novels, playing Nintendo, talking loud, and losing count of girlfriends — these things simply won't be the same without you, mate.
We completed the theory component of our Open Water course this afternoon, with a final class (held by Lucy, another one of the instructors) teaching us about the use of dive tables. When you go diving, your body absorbs a higher-than-usual amount of nitrogen (depending on depth and time); and dive tables are used to calculate how much nitrogen you've absorbed (approximately), and to help you keep within safe nitrogen level limits. Lots of theory about such things as: pressure groups; nitrogen quantity; minimum surface intervals; and total bottom times. Once the class was done, we'd been taught all the required theory for the course, and so we were ready to undertake the final exam.
Chris is a tall, long-haired, opinionated lad from Manchester, that great urban centre of northern England. He's one of my comrades in the Open Water course that I'm currently doing: and like me, he's finding diving to be challenging yet rewarding. Chris has a wicked sense of humour; but what makes me crack up everytime he speaks, more than anything, is his positively kick-a$$ super-strength Manchester accent. Chris is here in Thailand for a while — and if he likes it enough, he may just spend the majority of his Thai time right here on Ko Tao.
The pool dive yesterday was just practice. Today was the real thing: at 7:30am we were on the boat (little dinghy from Sairee beach, then we transferred to a big boat for the actual diving); and by 9am, my first ever scuba dive had begun. All scuba diving must be done with a buddy — and for today, my buddy was Alex. Once again, the deep-sea Dutchman Flav was my instructor. By midday, we'd completed two dives — to a depth of 12m, and at the sites of The Twins and White Rock. Contrary to my tip-top expectations, real diving proved to be quite a challenge: but I survived the ordeal, and I'm ready for whatever the next day holds in store.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
"Advance Australia fair!"
Jan 26th — Happy Australia Day, folks!
We may not know all the words to our national anthem (and some even deny the existence of a second verse). We may have less respect for our politicians than for a skunk in rehab. But there's one grand tradition for which us Aussies do hold national pride: we know how to put on a good BBQ! So, to celebrate this momentous day — when, 220 years ago, an English dude landed on our beloved soil, whacked a Union Jack into the ground, and promptly impaled several tribes' worth of Aborigines upon it — the Aussies of Ko Tao pulled out the grill and sizzled up some sossies. The fine folks at Chopper's (the one-and-only Aussie bar on the island) offered a free BBQ for 2 hours this evening: all you had to do was purchase a beer, and a generous plate-full of meat 'n' salad was on the house. Aus-tra-li-a, F$#% YEAH!!