Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Needle Swings West

AFTER ENDURING a truly appalling English Summer, the worst on record for a hundred years, my latest exit from these shores was drawing near. Autumn is the only season I miss while away on my travels, and I had been happy to see an October here for a change. The crisp, bright mornings; crunch of browned and yellowed leaves underfoot; frigid blue skies; clouds of breath in fresh air. But come winter I seek escape. No snow-blocked roads, dysfunctional London Underground services or grey-skinned, disgruntled populace for me. No way, Jose...I'm offski.

For some months I'd been pondering a return to the Philippines. Finding a diving job in an unfamiliar location elsewhere in the world could prove difficult with my limited work experience. My best bet appeared to be to turn up and freelance in Coron. I'd previously served as a guide on the WWII Japanese wrecks there, and so the local dive shop owners know me. I also felt that I had unfinished business with the deepest and most thrilling of the ships: Irako. And using the Philippines as a base, I'd maybe see some of Japan on a visa run, finally make it to Borneo, and perhaps revisit Truk Lagoon for a Busman's Holiday on the wrecks over there. Right? Wrong.

Plans have a funny way of changing. And after all, I've always said that the plan is there is no plan. And so it happened, as I sat alone in an Old Street pub on the fringe of east London, nursing one of my last pints of real ale. A familiar leering face appeared pressed up against the window to the street, that of my rangy Italian friend Stefano. We'd met in Honduras on the PADI Instructor course, and dived together in the Galapagos islands: an easy travelling companion. He was on his way from Genoa to work on a tiny Caribbean island in Nicaragua called Little Corn. It took him little time to sell it to me over a few drinks: no roads, no cars, no motorbikes, no noise, beautiful beaches, plentiful grass and a nice relaxed vibe. Stef told me that Adam, the English manager of the dive shop he was returning to, would let me help out on courses to get some student certifications on my CV, something I was certainly lacking. This sounded a lot better than hanging around in a dusty Philippine town with back-biting ex-pats and scant opportunities of work. My German diving mentor there, Gerd, had also split with his wife, and had recently left the island. Coron wouldn't be the same for me without the boss there. Something just didn't feel right about going back. It's a long way to go if you're not feeling a hundred percent convinced.

And as much as I love spending time in Asia, the food and the diving being far superior to that in the Americas, the Latin countries will always draw me back: the people, the colour, the vibe, the language. My Spanish, as rusty as it got during my time back in Blighty, would soon improve. I'd spend time improving it en route to the place where I felt I'd left my heart last trip: Mexico. I'd never been so sad to leave a country as I had been that December afternoon in Cancun. A few months with Stefano diving a Caribbean island, followed by a return to Mexican friends had my mind changing like the wind; a few pints with him before he left to catch his connecting flight, and we'd made arrangements to rendezvous on Little Corn.

Two weeks later and I was bouncing across huge waves in a tiny panga, watching the dimiutive island appearing and disappearing as we crested peaks and lurched into troughs; huge walls of dark blue water loomed threateningly above us as the sun fled. The heads-up from Stefano proved useful: I'd changed into a pair of board shorts and stuffed everything into a waterproof bag; plenty of people around me were drenched in hoodies and jeans. Local knowledge is always key. Though having said that, Stef hates Miami airport and I actually enjoyed my couple of hours there, beginning with the grinning chap who stamped my passport and welcomed me to the States with "British, huh? Enjoy Miami...and you can eat the beef here!" I like a bit of banter. There was an elderly American sat opposite me on the panga who had been rabbiting on non-stop about the differences between British and American English as we'd left the harbour on Big Corn. Not banter...more taking the piss. I'd bitten my lip and kept quiet as he'd mocked our accent and apparently odd expressions, everything bar our reputedly bad teeth. He soon shut up as the first set of waves hit us, and the boat dropped steeply behind a foaming crest of sea. He soon seemed keener to hang on to his Nicaraguan wife's hand as she fed last night's dinner to the fish over the side. I smiled at him and commented in a jolly fashion that it was certainly an interesting ride: eyes set on the horizon and the safety of the island, he didn't reply. But, feeling his wife's pain, I told her to try and watch the distant horizon to the side of the boat, as she'd start to feel better. Watching the waters around you as the boat is pitched and tossed is a recipe for violent seasickness.

We finally reached the shelter of Little Corn's outer reefs, and flat water. The boat sped toward the darkened island and a spattering of bright lights. A crowd of black faces awaited us on the dock: porters and touts, local boys scanning the passengers for lone young women, and among them my goatee-sporting Italian friend. "Despicable Crawford!" he shouted with a wide grin as the panga drew level with the wall and we clambered out. A bearhug, and he took my small pack from me, leading me off into the descending, fecund night, the lilting strains of country and western from a distant bar competing with a raucous insect chorus. He'd reserved a room for me at Three Brothers, an economical place run by a large and affable black fella named Randy. I liked him immediately. He's well-respected on the island and Stef told me "Your stuff is safe here, there are no burglaries at the Brothers...no-one fucks with Randy." Stef showed me to my room...the best one upstairs with windows on two sides, ensuring a breeze from somewhere. "This was my room last season, and my girlfriend Lisa's when she first arrived. Mike from the dive shop also stayed here. So we've all had a shag on your bed" he grinned, patting the mattress. Thanks for that, mate. Very cosy.

"This place is not a paradise" Stefano warned me as we walked back out to one of the tiny bars on the main pathway running parallel to shore. He gave me a brief rundown of Who's Who on the island: who to avoid, who not to trust. It was safe for a man to walk anywhere at night, but a woman should always be escorted home. Two weeks before my arrival there had been an attempted rape; a German woman walking alone in the darkness along the path connecting the two sides of the island had been attacked from behind, only avoiding a serious sexual assault when she bit the hand of the man trying to gag her as they struggled in the undergrowth. Horrifying. And it's not a rare occurrence: there are rapes every season on these islands. The lack of a police presence seems to lead some local men to think that they can almost get away with murder. My good friend Fletch came to this island with his wife Caroline some years back. He was swimming while his wife went back across the island to get her camera. On the way back she was robbed by two youths waving a rusty machete: one confident but his compadre nervous and wide-eyed. It didn't take long for a line-up of likely suspects to be paraded in front of my friends, the head man having quickly been informed of the robbery. Caroline picked the culprit out immediately and, though she recognised the clearly terrified accomplice amongst the men, chose not to identify him as she had the feeling he'd been bullied by the other into committing the attack. The head man told the robber to go to the house of his grandmother and await the police, who would come from Big Corn in two days' time. Caroline was distraught with fear: she'd just fingered this criminal to the authorities, and now only his granny stood between him and possible revenge? They left the island a week later, and were greeted by a police sergeant on the harbour at Big Corn. He took them to the airprort via the station to show them his handiwork: the youth was handcuffed in a cell, his face a bloodied and bruised mess. "Look what we did to your robber" he said proudly. The Fletchers were, understandably, shocked and appalled. Rough justice had not been demanded. And so, in a nutshell: be friendly to the locals but don't be too trusting; don't mess with the local women, as a charming Englishman had recently left the island with a broken jaw; don't let your definitely-not-an-island-girlfriend walk home alone. Sobering words from the Italian.

And so I settled into island life and a pleasant routine. The staff and instructors at the shop made me feel at home immediately, and it was nice to be diving every day. I was helping out Gary, one of the local divemasters, when he had a group too large to handle: I'd just hang back from the divers and try and keep them together when the odd one drifted off on their own; when a diver or two got low on air, I'd surface with them whilst Gary continued the dive with the remainder. We worked well as a team, and I really enjoyed it. When Stefano had courses to teach, I'd assist him. Usually it was Open Water or Advanced students. I'd been teaching beginners with my BSAC club in London, so I found it easy. I also helped out Jennifer, a half-Colombian girl, who was teaching at the shop.

Two Argentinians turned up one day wanting to take the Open Water course, and I expected to help out Jen in teaching them, as she was next in line on the rota. Adam came out of the shop and asked me "You can teach in Spanish, can't you?" I gulped. Taking on my first students solo was one thing...teaching them in Spanish was quite another. I was scared. But then, a friend of mine once said, when I told him I was daunted at handling a design project many years back in London "It's good to be scared." Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself. Sink or swim. So I bit the bullet and nodded. I introduced myself to the Argentinos, outlined times and what we'd cover the next day, and went home to my notebook and Spanish dictionary.

As it turned out, Martin and Luciano were ideal students: intelligent, quick to learn and didn't need to be shown anything twice. The two weeks of rain that I'd been accused of bringing with me from Blighty had muddied the waters: visibility was vastly reduced underwater. On the first day we had to take the boat to the north of the island where the water was clearer, but we had to deal with big waves and water movement, which made demonstrating and evaluating skills very difficult. Luckily for me, the confident Argentinos took all in their stride and actually enjoyed the challenge. Big grins all round as we sped across the bay back to the dive shop. The three days flew by. Each night I'd make notes in Spanish, trying to second guess any problems or questions for the following day's exercises. By the time the lads completed the course, my confidence in both the lingo and my teaching ability had soared, and I felt like I'd achieved something. The feeling you get from seeing someone take to something you love, as I love diving, was every bit as fulfilling as I'd expected. And my Spanish diving vocabulary had certainly tripled.

Aside from the diving, which is a little tame for my tastes as there are no wrecks or deep sites, life on Little Corn was relaxing. Ideal after a hectic summer working in London. I spent most of my time with the big Italian, smoking and putting the world to rights as we usually do. Hanging out on the stunning beaches on the north side. There were parties when we broke our self-imposed booze ban. One night with a group of English girls was particularly memorable for the fact that we drunkenly went skinny-dipping when the bars closed. A dive guide from the other shop, an American named Preston, realised that his clothes and wallet had been stolen while he was in the ocean barely ten yards away. Local thieves apparently wait in the darkness for such opprtunities. I'd had the foresight to leave my clothes where I could easily see them. The next morning one of the girls was rueing the theft of her dress, until Preston revealed that he'd drunkenly assumed that it was a sarong when he'd located it in the dark, and had staggered home wearing it. Torn and out of shape, it was now unrecognisable as an item of womenswear. A story for the grandchildren, at least? Once the girls left the island, things quietened down considerably. I'm surprised the bars didn't go out of business. A local asked me if all English girls were as crazy as these? Pretty much, I told him. I almost pissed my shrivelled liver out after a week with them.

Not everyone on the island was amiable. On arrival I'd met a scruffy, rangy scarecrow of a Spaniard named Nacho. He ran a kite-surfing school on the island, and was the boyfriend of Lorna, one of Adam's instuctors. I liked Lorna, but something didn't feel right about him. And I'm usually a pretty good judge of character. I had offered to help out Adam with the dive shop website, in return for my work experience. The Spaniard wanted help with his website, too. But his New Best Friend act, and offer to teach me up to Instructor level in kite-surfing, felt hollow and false. He seemed all talk. Besides...he barely worked enough to help his girlfriend out with the rent. I didn't trust him as far as I could throw him and, when I wasn't forthcoming with help on his site, he soon stopped speaking to me and we avoided each other. Until the day before I left, when his resentment obviously boiled over and he approached me in a local bar.

"I'm glad you're leaving, man" he said glassy-eyed, in his pidgin-English.
"Thanks. Me too, Nacho."
"Yeah...because I don't like you."
"That's good, Nacho. Because I wouldn't want you to" I replied.
He paused.
"Yeah...so...so I'm glad you're leaving..."
"I heard you the first time..."
He was obviously looking for a fight. Much as the chap needed a good punch in the face, I don't leave England to look for fights on foreign shores.
"You know...you're a fake traveller, man. You don't have any local friends."
"That's nice, Nacho...thanks."
Nacho has island friends, alright. They all share his cocaine and beer, which his girlfriend subsidises. Genuinely heart-warming friendships, those. Lasting, lifetime bonds. A human leech covered in leeches: poetic."You don't know anything about the culture here" he helpfully pointed out. If this loser thinks that hanging around the same bars on a tiny Caribbean island every single night and sharing his coke out with his sycophants is culture, then he likely has no desire to visit the British Museum, the Louvre or any of the Americas' ancient ruins. He'd be tempted if they have bathrooms with a nice flat surface, though?
"OK, Nacho...let's agree to disagree, shall we?"
Nacho could clearly start a fight in an empty room.

A fellow next to me asked what the problem was? I said quietly to him that I'd tell him all about it later, as I was conscious that the cokehead was stood over me and, me being seated, I was vulnerable to a bottle over the head. I was primed and waiting for him to make his move and didn't want to be caught unawares. He shouted at me and accused me of talking about him. I told him to just stop talking, that we should leave it. As Lorna looked over worriedly, I asked her to call her dog off. He continued to rant, and I asked him if all this bitterness was due to me not designing his website? Talk about kicking a wasps' nest: he was not a happy chappy. I chose to leave him with that and walked away before it all got out of hand. The next day even Pelon, one of his friends on the island, said that he was out of order, and that he'd seen a darker side to him that evening. Apparently he's uspet a few locals recently and needs to watch his back. Doesn't surprise me at all. Biggest idiot I've met since that pillock in Thailand. Lorna is way too good for him. She'll wake up one day, I hope.

So...I made some friends on Little Corn. I made an enemy. And I lost two things on this beautiful island: one of which I was very happy about, and one which broke my heart. Due to not drinking beer for several weeks, a pact myself and Stefano made, I lost several pounds in weight. But, throwing an anchor from a boat with wet hands, I also lost a silver ring I'd bought with money that my Grandad had left me when he died some years back. Despite spending three dives alone searching for it, the sea had claimed it. Gone forever. But then, there is nowhere else I'd rather have lost it than the sea. And I could just imagine the shake of the head, wry smile and the exasperated "Jesus, lad..." he used to give me when I did something wrong as a kid. Sorry, Grandad...


Megan said...

I always love reading your stories....even though they come so infrequently I think "what happened to Warren"....Glad you made it out of Mexico safe. I'm heading their with the man in 2 weeks....bit more American just staying in Cozumel but its a trip either way. I won't complain. Take care and email me more good stuff!

old8oy said...

Always nice to hear from you, Megan. How was Cozumel...you enjoy it? Good diving there. I'm living in Mexico City now, so it's a cheap holiday destination for me!