Sunday, 7 November 2010

How Not To Dive

I’ve seen some crazy stunts over the course of 275 dives. And I’ve taken the odd chance myself. But nothing quite prepared me for the way Yudi and the staff at the shop wanted to dive the wreck of the Sophie Rickmers. As the only customer interested with enough experience, I was to dive it one morning with Oliver and Carine, two trainee Divemasters. This wreck sits at a maximum depth of 70 metres, with the dive planned to almost 60m. Way too deep for relatively inexperienced divers, especially with no wreck training.

I asked Yudi if we would have stage bottles of extra air suspended below the boat for any emergencies. He told me that they didn’t use this system, and dived with twin tanks. Fair enough, I thought. Until I saw him strapping two tanks onto a flimsy BCD (the jacket you wear for buoyancy control) and using a weightbelt to secure them at the base. The rest were carrying their extra tank slung below them, tied to their metal D-rings with fishermans twine. I was incredulous. I questioned the safety of diving to 60m+ with most of the divers carrying a tank under their arm. Oliver was having a quick-release knot on his tank, so he could release it as it lightened as the air was used up (an empty tank will float, believe it or not), thus preventing him being dragged to the surface and getting bent. I asked him what he’d do if he got separated from the group, ran low on his tank of air, and then the knot slipped, dropping his tank to the sea bed? That was a life-threatening scenario. He didn’t have an answer. I asked the guide what would happen if he had to rescue one of his DMs, and he laughably told me he’d drop his spare tank and rescue them.

I wasn’t having any of this, and told Yudi I was cancelling the dive. The other guide laughed, and said something to the boat crew which made them all snigger. Something along the lines of pussy, no doubt. I posed a scenario for him, involving a panicking diver going below the safe limit on air (66m) and losing their spare tank. His answers became less and less cocky as I pointed out the domino effect this could have: one panicking diver is enough to set someone else off; over-exerting at 60 metres is going to massively increase the already serious effects of nitrogen narcosis; making a bad decision down there has consequences for everybody. An out-of-air situation for one or two divers is going to lead to a life-or-death scenario with only one outcome: bent divers if you're lucky...and dead divers if you're not. I wasn't prepared to take a chance.

Diving without the right gear, in dangerous conditions, and not even having both hands free isn’t just stupid…it’s suicidal. Yudi pointed out nobody had ever died; I think it’s just a matter of time if they carry on in this manner.

The DM trainees didn’t get any marks from myself or Grumpy, who is as fastidious an instructor as you are ever likely to meet. If you don’t do it right, Iain will not be happy. We had a customer fall overboard into rough seas trying to retrieve his hat. Obviously everyone laughed, and an Irish DM who was diving with us was first to react and help him aboard. Oliver sat and laughed with the rest and when I asked him why he hadn’t helped he said “I’ll leave that to the real DMs.” Quite. The two of them just seemed to be diving for fun, and not taking their responsibilities that seriously. Being a Divemaster means looking out for your charges; you’re responsible for other divers' safety. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

As it turned out, Carine was even more negligent. On one particular dive, we’d just finished and were hovering at our first decompression stop at around 15m, as the dive had been fairly deep. I floated around behind her and was puzzled to see her starting to take off her equipment, which should only be done in an emergency. Holding it in front of her, she hugged it beneath her chest and proceeded to unzip her wetsuit and roll it down to her knees. She suddenly remembered me, and I saw her looking left, right, behind and below her before she thought to look up. She certainly looked relieved to see me hovering there, arms folded. I waved sarcastically, waggling my fingers.

We broke the surface, and floated in the swell while we waited for the boat to pick us up.

“What was with the wetsuit removal routine?”

“Ah…I don’t like to pee in my wetsuit” she explained.

“And if you’d looked around and seen me 10 metres below you, unconscious and without my regulator in my mouth…what then?”

“I would...erm...I don’t know...”

“How would you possibly rescue me with your wetsuit around your knees and your equipment in a bear hug, especially if the current took me?”

She apologised, saying she hadn’t thought of the risks. I was exasperated by this point at her stupidity and, it has to be said, selfish diving.

“A smelly wetsuit is better than a dead diver on your conscience for the rest of your life, surely?” I relented, and cracked a slow smile. Lecture over. No point me getting wound up. Hopefully she'd think a little more when guiding people in the future.

It’s one thing removing the kid gloves for experienced divers on your shift; quite another to think that, because of their experience, nothing bad can happen. Preparation is everything. Stay switched-on, and stay out of danger. And as far as danger goes, they certainly saved the best dive for last.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Diver

Solo travel is liberating. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and making a split-second decision to hit the road and move on. No debating, no compromising. Lone wolves are a breed apart from other travellers, a little more independent. It was nice to have the company of friends when I first set out in Vietnam; everything is bewilderingly new, and the support is welcome and reassuring. Meeting up with my closest friend in Colombia was great, too…despite some of the rows, myself, Jocky, Garfield and Speckled Jim had a great time. Most of the time.
In Thailand, in September 2008, I took my first tentative steps on my own. Jocky had woken up to heavy rain and told me “Fuck this…I’m off up to Chang Mai.” I’d said I’d come with him if my laundry was ready. Thankfully it wasn’t, as we both knew the time had come to head off alone. It was strange, after being together a couple of months, to walk up to the bus and watch him go. Before leaving London we’d both agreed we wanted to see some places alone, and that we’d know when the time came. The sunny afternoon as the clouds broke over Koh Tao was that time. And it was the best thing we did, any longer together and it would have been too easy to keep going as a pair. Obviously our experiences from then on were vastly different. I took my Rescue Diver course, smashing five ribs in the process, and ended up recuperating on various islands before heading for Australia. Jocky escaped the clutches of a rampant, middle-aged Glaswegian woman (“Nice body on her, like…but…”) in Krabi, and ruined his camera and iPod in the process (wading out to a boat with them in his pockets). He ended up meeting a cute girl and spending a couple of months with her in various beds and hot tubs from Thailand to New Zealand, smoking twice his body weight in weed. I know which experience I’d have preferred. You learn a lot about people when you travel, and it was good that Jocky and I only knew each other vaguely through work; we’re solid mates now.
So self-reliant is the way to go, for me. It’s a challenge, but it presents more opportunities for meeting people. It also forces you to make more of an effort to speak to others. And the most interesting people I met on the road were almost always travelling alone: Karl Biller in the Philippine Cordilleras, Jonathan Brodeur in El Nido. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone on their own. And don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking anyone who travels in groups or pairs; I just think the experience of doing it on your own is more rewarding. Of course, there are times when you wish someone was there to share a moment, but sitting alone and isolated on the edge of Bromo’s volcanic crater and watching the sun rise over distant Javan hills will stay with me for the rest of my life. I met an American in Siquijor this year, and he said he has what he calls the Two Week Rule: he’ll travel awhile with anyone he finds interesting, but after a fortnight it’s time to break up the party. So you get the best of both worlds.
You learn a lot about yourself on the road, too; you really see what you are made of. Not in that clichéd “finding yourself’ bollocks kind of way. Just organising yourself, getting around difficult areas unscathed, keeping yourself safe and out of trouble. I think if anyone needs to “find themselves”, they should be heading for the nearest Mental Health Unit, rather than the nearest airport?
Now I’d be lying if I told you travelling alone didn’t get lonely sometimes. It does. There are day you might be wandering a region and not meet anyone to talk to for a day or two. That probably explains my 52 books read in my first year away.
I’d break my rule on solo escapades for the right woman. I imagined I’d meet some hot Latina on my way around last year. Being with the boys didn’t do much for my Spanish, though…and believe me you need it there. And it’s no fun if you can’t communicate properly, is it? I went on a date with a Colombian air hostess on my arrival in Bogota (she'd actually chatted me up), but the prospects didn’t look good: a teenage son, and impending divorce from a hot-headed, jealous Colombian Marine sergeant. Leave well alone, I decided. There were other interesting girls I met on my way around but, like in England, it’s all about timing. They’re either attached, off somewhere else the next day, or not interested. I met a cool architect from Stoke Newington when in Coron. I’d seen her around, but our paths only crossed the day before she left. We arranged to meet up in Bali, but I was waylaid by Javan mushrooms and grass before we could meet up. That’s the way things go. No concrete plans.
Without diving, I don’t know if I’d be heading off as much as I do. There are so many places I want to see, but these could be done in short bursts between contracts. It’s likely I’d be living in Barcelona by now. I’m lucky enough to be able to get enough freelance work both to finance these trips, and also to allow myself as much time out, so for now I’ll go with the flow and literally see where the current takes me. Once the instructor course is out of the way, I may be spending 6 months a year away, or may simple keep going and enjoy that life awhile. Can I be a drifter for much longer, though? Who knows. Anything can happen. That’s the beauty of it.
Time seems to be flying by. Friends are getting married. Having kids. While I love what I’m doing, I’d like to have a Significant Other in my life. Especially if she travelled and dived. This life I’ve chosen leaves me feeling a little rootless: I have no base, no immediate plans to make one. I experience the odd moment of doubt in what I’m doing, but I think it’s just a case of social conditioning nagging at me. I didn’t for a minute think I’d still be single at 40. If you’d told me this as a schoolboy, I’d have laughed at you. It just seems the done thing to meet someone, get a place to live, have kids and watch the waistline expand. So when you choose not to follow suit, people question it. A girl at work, when told of my plans, raised her eyebrows and asked me “Don’t you think you should be settling down at your age?” Kids these days, eh?
The trouble is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; I’ve lost count of the number of married friends who tell me they envy me my adventures. But, equally, I see them in a happy relationship and think that I’d love that, too. It’s been a long time since I split with a long-term girlfriend. So has this wandering life I’ve chosen made it more difficult to find the right girl, as some female friends are endlessly pointing out (and Mum’s given up, she said)? Time will tell. Travel has got a hold on me at the moment. And you only get one life; we’re here for a good time, not a long time, after all. I’ll take it as it comes, for now.

The Earth Moves

No, unfortunately it wasn’t that kind of an experience, but rather a frightening first for me. And this one above water, for a change. A case of terra-not-so-firma.

Indonesia sits on the western edge of the Pacific Ring Of Fire, which forms an open loop from the west cost of the Americas, over and down through Japan and Southeast Asia. These areas suffer 90% of the world’s earthquakes, the results of tectonic plates constantly shifting miles below our feet. Volcanoes pit the face of this island nation like burst blisters, where the pressure from the depths has forced itself through the earth’s crust. I’ve always been fascinated by them, and their violent displays of strength; I was pleased to see a few on my way through the Philippines and Java last year. Sumatra is particluarly susceptible to seismic activity, and this year has been unfortunate enough to suffer yet another tsunami and two volcanic eruptions.

I’d intended to be home for the World Cup Final, foolishly believing England had a chance this time. In the meantime, I’d imagined being in Thailand watching the group stages. But the beauty of travelling is that you never end up quite where you expected; I’d had no intention of visiting a tiny Indonesian island in the time I’d had left. Ley, the resort (and I use that term loosely) owner, had been a bit peeved after the tournament started; the island is so quiet that it’s always obvious where the best place to eat and drink is, as everyone is there and the other restaurants are dead. Ley’s had been busy but , as she had no satellite package, people disappeared into the village once the games started, to a makeshift café operated from a local house. Just about every man from the surrounding villages descended on this place to watch matches at ridiculous times of night. Being strictly Muslim, there was no drink on offer…just cups of tea. Not ideal, but better than nothing. I’d had The Fear in the days before the big kick-off that there were no TVs available in the village.

We were sat around at the house one night, waiting for a game to begin, when I felt a rumbling beneath me, not unlike a passing tube train in London. Only this one grew steadily louder. People sat down quickly, and moved away from the house. It stopped momentarily, then began again, stronger this time. Children looked around nervously, but the locals I made eye contact with just smiled reassuringly; it was obviously a mild one. The ground seemed to move from side to side, and any longer I’d have felt nauseous. It’s disconcerting to have the one thing we think we can take for granted in nature, that solid ground below our feet, threatening to disappear from beneath you. As quickly as it had begun, the movement ceased, to my great relief. I wouldn’t want to be around for a big one, I can tell you.

The island is quite steep, and Ibioh resorts lie inside the woods covering a hill which slopes down to the sea. We had storms so severe over a couple of nights that trees were felled, one narrowly missing a guest’s bungalow. Electricity cables were down for a day, thankfully not when a decent game was on. Not that there were many decent games. Ley bought a satellite package, cannily calculating she could make more money selling beer and food if she had football on offer. The Shariah Police arrive to check up on the place at times, but the jungle telegraph usually warns of their approach. It can mean a long prison sentence for those caught.

It wasn’t an enjoyable World Cup from our point of view, but it was amusing to see the French and Italians going out in a worse shambles than ourselves. And don’t even get me started on those bloody vuvuzuelas.