Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas

I’ve been wanting to learn SCUBA since before I was old enough. Somehow i’ve managed to put it off for about twenty years, and now i’m very excited. The plan (as much as there is one – it’s Mozambique after all!), is to spend the first day blasting our way through all the theory (5 videos and a text book), the second day doing our 4 confined water dives (pool stuff), and then getting the four open water (the sea!) dives done as soon as possible, preferably within the next 2 days. So that’s the whole lot done in 4 days. At least that was the plan …
Day 1 went as planned with us chugging our way through the theory. We watched 5 videos (well, four since the guy who ran the dive school took pity on us and just went through the chapter review), and did a lot of quiz and knowledge review questions. We went home with brains bursting, and I decided I wasn’t going to even make an attempt at learning ‘The Fish List’ until the exam was behind us. The videos are extremely cheesy, but then anyone aged 10 and over can attend the course so they have to make it vaguely engaging for the kids. The best bit of the day was the grilled chicken I ate for lunch. We were the only people in the restaurant, and it took three quarters of an hour to arrive, but it was goooooood.
Day 2, and we’re in the pool. First task – get into the wetsuit. Now i’m not usually one to be defeated by a piece of stretchy rubber (insert your own joke here), but Oh My God!! Apparently it gets easier with practice. At least I hope it does, because i’m sure I looked like an absolute tool hopping around with one leg stuck. I conquered the first task eventually and was zipped into my wetsuit, even if the crotch of it came somewhere between my actual crotch and my knees. More ‘Kick Ass’ than ‘Catwoman’.
Next – set up gear. This is the easy part, at least it’s easy compared to untangling the lines of my bloody paraglider before I can use it. Finally we’re in the water and experimenting with how much weight we need to actually sink. Turns out that I am quite buoyant (once more, insert own joke here), and am stubbornly floating on the surface. It takes 7 extra kilos to sink me; 6 strapped around my waist, and one stuffed in the pocket of my BCD (that’s buoyancy control device to the uninitiated).
This feels weird. Unnatural. Perhaps it’s arrogant of me to say so, but I expected this to be easy, or at least easier. It was a solid ten minutes before I started to relax and slow my breathing, although now i’m wondering why it takes three times as long to exhale my deep breath as it does for me to IN-hale it. We spent a solid couple of hours under the water, learning to fill and clear our masks, recover our regulators, establish neutral buoyancy (that is, stay at the same level in the water so you don’t sink and sit on a sea urchin or float upwards and burst a lung), use alternate air sources etc etc. We also had to learn to breathe without our masks, which really was weird. I think if my mask ever comes off on a dive i’ll never find it again, since i’m blind as a bat under the water without it. When I bought it I remember thinking that the guy selling it to me was just trying to fleece me for a few more quid when he suggested getting a neoprene band to cover the mask strap. Now I think it’s the best eight quid I’ve spent in a long time, for two reasons. Firstly, my mask is made entirely of clear plastic, which makes it near invisible whenever I put it down. The bright pink strap means I have an outside chance of finding it again. Secondly, it makes the mask slide nicely onto my head without ripping half my hair out. This comes in extremely handy when you have to get the damn thing back on under water with your eyes screwed tight shut. Not to mention when your locks are chemically straightened and highlighted. Anyway, pool day over, we went home exhausted, and somewhat apprehensive for the next day and our first open water dive.
The next day, we arrived at the dive centre ready(ish) for our first real dive. The destination, ‘Clownfish Reef’. This is fairly shallow, 10-12 metres maximum depending on tides, and a good place for us to practice the stuff we learned in the pool. Also, we get to find Nemo. Back into the wetsuits, and this time I have it nailed. Get feet in, then slowly roll up your body rather than pull on. Catwoman is back. I may drown, but at least i’ll look hot doing it. At this point, my big fear is getting seasick. The water here isn’t quite the flat-calm I had expected – in fact, it’s some of the roughest water i’ve swum in, and surf’s up today. It takes ten of us to push the rib into the water and clear of the sand banks, then we are instructed to jump in. I guess this must be a practice thing too – I won’t assault your senses with a description of how it looked. The ride out was only short, but pretty rough. The rib bounced over the waves, and by the time we reached the reef (about three minutes later) my legs had turned to jelly and I felt like i’d been on a roller coaster. We donned our gear as the boat pitched up and down in the waves. On the boat, aside from us three girls and our two instructors Adam and Susanne, there were a father and son, and the son’s friend. The boys must have been about ten years old, if that, and were on a ‘Discover SCUBA’ day. Up until we reached the reef, they’d been cocky and brave, the way ten year old boys usually are. However, bravery disappeared for one of them, and he started bawling as they strapped him into his BCD. “Nein, nein, nein,” and then “I want to go back.” Now normally I would have felt desperately sorry for him, but since I was focused entirely on trying not to barf, the concept of a round trip back to shore wasn’t very appealing and I wanted to push him in to see if he floated. Ultimately, the decision was made that we would go down first and then he would be taken back, so we readied our gear.
“One, two, three, GO!” I rolled backwards off the boat and hit the water, discovering that either my mask wasn’t tight enough or I wasn’t holding onto it tightly enough, and the first thing I got was a nose full of saltwater, prompting a small-scale freak out. I swam to the buoy and held onto it for dear life, while I sucked 50 bar out of my tank before my head even dipped below the surface. Susanne was next to me looking after me, asking me if I was ok, if I was sick. When I eventually unclamped my jaw from my regulator, I managed to explain that I wasn’t sick – just freaking out. The surface was rough, and it was going to be easier under the water. I decided to suck it up and just go for it. We descended slowly down the line, equalising the pressure in our ears as we did so. Visibility wasn’t spectacular, but we were on the sandy bottom in no time. We stayed there for a good ten to fifteen minutes, partly because we needed to get used to being there and relax, and partly because Adam was upstairs dealing with the crying child. Presently he joined us, and we started to swim around the reef, working on our buoyancy and trying not to squish anything. We saw a plethora of different reef fish, and I finally started to chill-out. Not to the point of enjoying it, but certainly to the point of being a bit less scared. Adam was pointing out a scorpionfish, perfectly camouflaged against the rock he was resting on. I wasn’t about to get too close, partly because I was still working on my buoyancy and didn’t fancy landing on him (the scorpionfish that is, not Adam), and partly because i still had no real concept of how large / close things actually were. We were underwater for around 40 minutes in total, and I arrived back at the line to begin my ascent. In a vertical position again, I was hit by a feeling of lightheadedness and disorientation that I imagine to be what vertigo feels like. The world swam, and I thought that my worst fear (puking in my regulator) was about to be realised. Thankfully the sensation passed, but i wasn’t looking forward to next time. On  the surface, I was faced with a bit of a swim to the boat, and by the time I got there I was too exhausted to pull myself in. I was hauled out and given a lollipop, and then everything was right with the world again.
Back on shore it was exam time. A 40 question quiz, plus a 50 question exam.  A lot of it, as you would expect, is common sense, with some math thrown in for kicks. I was hit by an attack of the giggles at a question about pre dive safety checks, since one of the other girls had given us a mnemonic to remember the steps. BCD, Weights, Releases, Air, Final OK, becomes Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas. After acing my quiz with a perfect score, I was then pretty pissed when I failed to repeat the success on the exam, scoring only 47 out of 50. Get me to ‘Overachievers Anonymous’. We were scheduled to dive the following day so the Friday night party was a little muted, but we still managed to put in a decent showing at Dino’s, Tofo’s only ‘club’. Beer is cheap, wine is dreadful, and the repetitive beat is broken only by the drunk people hammering on the bongo drum in the middle of the dance floor. After throwing a few shapes and taking a few photos it was time to hit the sack in preparation for the next day’s dive.
This is a great time of the year to be in Mozambique. It’s spring, so the days are hot and the nights are cooler. I imagine being here in February would be awful – hot, humid, and with no escape or respite from it. If there is one problem with this time of year, it’s the wind. It’s sometimes REALLY windy, which causes serious problems for the dives and ocean safaris which are scheduled to take place pretty much every day. Waking on saturday morning, I could hear the wind howling outside. In fact, it was blowing the proverbial hoolie. It was a great day to surf! The surfers and kite surfers were out in force, but the dives and ocean safaris had a big question mark hanging over them, so we went to lunch. We went looking for a particular restaurant, got lost, and ended up stopping in a tiny place called ‘Empire Foods’ where a few locals were sitting enjoying something that looked pretty good. Lunch today was something called ‘bunny chow’. We ordered this having no idea what it was, and thankfully we got lucky. Bunny Chow is basically a quarter of a bread loaf, hollowed out and filled with chicken and vegetables, served with salad. It cost 90 mets (about £2) and it’s bloody delicious! It’s also quite a generous portion, so I was actually a little relieved when we got the word that the dive was definitely cancelled.
That evening we went first to a bar to watch the sunset with a cold beer (although in typical Mozambique style, the beer didn’t arrive until after the sun had departed), and then to ‘Fatima’s’, which is about the most popular backpacker hostel here, and sister to the one in Maputo where I spent the first night. For dinner I ordered lobster and chips, a whopping 300 mets. I felt like I was splashing out, although i’d be lucky to get Macdonalds for that back home. The golden rule of dining out in Mozambique is “never wait until you’re hungry”, since wherever you go, you’re pretty unlikely to get fed for a good hour after you order it. It turned out that this was especially true at Fatimas, and we waited in excess of an hour. Earlier in the bar we’d been given a calamari dish to try, which was new on the menu and they wanted feedback. The flavour had been beautiful, but the calamari was WAY overcooked. The same was true of the lobster and I was at a loss to understand how, when they have such easy access to beautiful fresh seafood, they feel obliged to cook the fuck out of it. Anyway, such is life.
Sunday arrived, and a week was gone. At this rate, this trip would be over in the blink of an eye. Still, I wasn’t complaining since I was having an amazing time. It was windy again today, but the direction was different, therefore allowing us relatively easy passage back to Clownfish Reef. Thankfully I had now nailed the wetsuit-donning technique, and was rocking the rubber look again. I was nervous this time, and as I rolled backwards off the boat i pressed my mask to my face as hard as I could to avoid getting a nose-full of salt. This actually made a huge difference and hitting the water I felt perfectly comfortable. Down we went again to the sandy bottom, looking out for the lion fish who seem to like hanging around the drop site. We spent the first 15 minutes or so on the bottom practicing the skills we learned in the pool, before heading off to explore. This time was much more enjoyable, and I wished I had my camera since I would have gotten some great shots, particularly of the pretty clownfish bustling around feistily in their anemones. I was sorry to leave and go back to the surface, but since I was still doing a pretty good job of sucking up my air there really wasn’t any scope for staying a while. Note to self – chill out. More.
We returned to the volunteer house in decidedly better spirits than we had been following the previous dive. Standing under the hot shower waiting for my 60 second miracle conditioner to work, I killed time by doing a little character analysis (read: character assassination). If i’m honest, my fears in relation to diving are actually nothing to do with the diving itself. I know it’s perfectly safe, and I know how to use my equipment. I know all the theory and procedures and was just fine in the pool, and i’m not afraid of water, so what’s the problem? In a nutshell … fear of failure. The idea that for some reason i’m not going to be able to do something that so many people enjoy and find easy. Apparently taking a year out of the rat-race hasn’t changed me in that respect – I am still an over-achieving control-freak. The traveller lifestyle suits me to a point, and then I have to go and do something else. Bumming around the world is fine, as long as there’s a point to it. Someone once described this as ‘stumbling towards bliss’, but it seems awfully self-indulgent to me. Maybe that’s the point, and I guess it’s as good a motive as any. That said, I get bored easily, and if i’m just wandering aimlessly looking for an undefined something, not adding value to anyone or anything, then i’m not going to find bliss there – it just feels empty. Guess i’m destined to remain an over-achiever. Helli-skiing, anyone?!
NB. Do you think I can pass the f***ing Fish Test though??!
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