Thursday, September 15, 2011

scuba diving!

Saturday, July 29th, Mom caught up on her rest and went to get the laundry done while I had my first day of open water scuba diver training! I’d been wanting to get it ever since I went scuba diving last summer in Japan. I thought I would be really scared. I’ve always been afraid of going under water since my baby brother drowned when I was almost ten, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me when my face and nose is in a mask and I have a regulator in my mouth. The air is cold, but I can always count on it to be there. Some people just can’t do scuba diving. I love it.

It basically allows the certified person to dive in any open water (lake, river, ocean) with a buddy who is also certified up to 16 meters, or about 60 feet. I had done the book training online prior. There’s a lot more to it than I thought, and just the online portion took ten hours. The major skills were nitrogen calculation, depressurization, equipment types and uses, different types of diving environments, various tides and how to handle them, underwater hand signals, basic safety, emergency procedures for helping yourself and other divers, what to do if something goes wrong with your equipment under water (rare), and other such things. I had to take a bunch of online tests and quizzes.

As far as nitrogen goes, the deeper I dive and the longer I stay under, the more nitrogen builds up in my system, which can cause nitrogen narcosis and various other nasty medical problems. There’s also depressurization sickness, which one can get from rising too fast (nitrogen bubbles get caught between bones or even organs and then burst). I have to worry about these things even more than air supply, since nitrogen levels usually force me to go up before the air tank is even half empty. I also had to learn what to do if I see different kinds of animals, such as dangerous fish, sharks, sting rays, etc. Basic policy: don’t run. Just bypass it slowly. Don’t touch ANYTHING if it can be helped. Even if it looks safe, there’s more danger of me harming it than it harming me, and ocean ecosystems are very fragile.

In Thailand, I had to take a quick test to ensure it was me that did the online training before we went to the pool with my instructor, Danny, who was from England. He had a rather thick cockney accent, which I’m not familiar with, so sometimes, especially when my ears were all clogged after a dive, I had trouble understanding him, which made me feel rather slow and stupid. The first day is called “confined water” I had to demonstrate basic swimming skills, learn how to put my equipment together, take it apart, store it, make sure it’s working properly, etc. I demonstrated “neutral buoyancy,” which is the ability to stay completely level on the bottom of the pool, which is a lot harder than it sounds. I had to compensate for a weight belt, buoyancy control device, and my own breathing, which made me rise about two feet every time I breathed in, and sink two feet when I exhaled. I learned how to lose and recover my regulator, “sip” air from the regulator (in case it malfunctions), emergency buddy regulator breathing and “buddy breathing,” clear my mask underwater, use the hand signals to communicate with my instructor, swim to one side of the pool to the other while exhaling slowly the entire time, among other things. All of this would have been no problem, if I didn’t keep have problem with my ears. They wouldn’t equalize. The further I went down, the more they felt like they were going to pop. I’ve always had trouble with my ears, (had tubes as a kid and they still get clogged quite often) and my dad actually ruptured his ear drum once. This made everything take forever. It took me ten minutes just to get to a decent depth every time we went under.

We’d only gotten halfway through the skills when I had to run to catch the sunset cruise. I was too late to catch the free shuttle from the hotel, so I caught a cab. I arrived and ran down the pier just as the ship was pulling out. I ran back to the office.

“That’s my boat!” I cried, pointing to the Chinese June Bahtra as it sailed into the open ocean.

Without saying a word to me, the woman pulled out her cell phone and gestured for me to follow. She spoke to the harbor gate guard in Thai, who opened the gate for me. Then a young man appeared and pointed to a small boat. Boat isn’t the right word. It was a large inertube with an engine on the back.

“You want me to get in that?” I asked.

He just smiled.

Well, why not? So I jumped in and he jumped in after me. Before I knew it we were whizzing toward the cruise ship, my hair whipping in the wind, the blue green ocean rushing under us. We reached the ship in about five minutes. I handed the young man a tip, climbed up the rope ladder and jumped on deck.

“All right, the party can start now!” I cried.

Boy was Mom glad to see me! “I asked our guide if we could wait a little longer but she said we had to leave at 5:00. I saw you waving as we were leaving. I asked if we could turn back but there was no way. But being Miss Drama Queen you had to go James Bond and arrive in style! Typical.”

While I had been away, a woman from South Africa who lived in Australia with her husband kept telling Mom “ ‘Tis a pity ‘bout your daughter.” Mom couldn’t understand her until she’d said it several times. I don’t think we met a single American on the entire trip. But I could understand her just fine (I have two friends from South Africa) so I could translate while we had a nice conversation.

We enjoyed a nice buffet dinner while chatting with our guide/captain, Jenny. There was something…strange about her. She wore the clothes and make up of a girl, but had a man’s voice. I finally got up the courage to ask her,

“Are you a lady boy?”

Mom about slugged me, but Jenny said, “I’m not offended. I am a lady boy.”

A “lady boy,” is a boy/man who’s had a sex change. They’re apparently quite common in Thailand and there is little to no discrimination against them. But if you ask me…it’s disgusting! They have to take hormone supplements their whole lives and end up being neither man nor woman, but something monstrous in the middle. I know that many people disagree with me, including many Thai who say lady boys are beautiful. That’s fine. If they’re entitled to their opinion, then I’m entitled to mine. The basic liberal philosophy is “it’s their body so they can do what they want to it” but I believe our bodies and our lives belong to God. More on that later.

Apart from being disturbing, Jenny was fun to talk to, very smart and informative. The cruise was lovely. Here are some pictures:

The next day was my first day scuba diving from a boat. Mom came too just to snorkel, since she’d discovered she loved that on the Phi Phi islands by speedboat tour. First we took two shuttles to the dive site. There was a Japanese family I chatted with until our second transport arrived. One Chinese kid (he had a name but I’m not putting it here) who sat next to me was from America (the first!) but he was living in Singapore. He told me he was flying back that evening.

“Uh…then you probably can’t dive,” I told him. “You shouldn’t dive if you’re going on a plane in the next eighteen hours. Depressurization sickness.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” he said, “but I’ll ask.” Sure enough, the captain and his guide wouldn’t let him. I feel a little guilty. They would have let him go if I hadn’t mentioned it to him. He raised a stink for about an hour, he was so mad. But I think it’s good that I told him. Depressurization sickness can be pretty severe. He ended up having a good time snorkeling anyway.

It took half an hour to get to the dive site, so I spent the time up top deck feeling the wind and sun on my face. After a while, the captain, who was from Ireland, came out and talked to me. He was a very stereotypical captain, grumbling about the Chinese guy giving him trouble, complaining about his various aches and pains. He started telling me about his life and mentioned he’d been thinking a lot about death lately. He talked about how he saw so many horrible things when he fought in some South American war, killed a lot of people. He wondered how life could be so beautiful but human beings could be so rotten, and wondered how any “supreme being” could let it happen that way.

Wow, here’s the perfect opportunity. For several days I’d been praying that God would open up a way for me to witness to someone. So I said,

“You know, I believe God didn’t make the world this way. I think He made it perfect, but human beings screwed it up. But if we earnestly seek God, we can still find Him. He’s not far off from any of us.”

He nodded. “Huh, that’s makes sense. So do you think if we try hard enough, we can be good and reach God?”

I shook my head. “No, I think that when human beings messed up in the beginning, the world became broken. That’s what causes earthquakes and hurricanes. It wasn’t meant to be this way, that’s why natural disasters and disease and death always seem so unfair, you know?”

“Yeah, I do. During the war I saw innocent children get hurt all the time. I always wondered, ‘whatever did they do?’ Human beings just keep screwing up. There’s no hope for us getting better. There’s something…rotten about us, down to our very core. We can’t be good even when we want to be.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s hopeless for us, but I believe that God, because he knew we were hopeless, came down to Earth and became one of us. To show how much he loves us. And then, He even died for us. He paid the price for all the bad stuff we’ve done, because he knew we couldn’t do it ourselves. All he asks is that we put our trust in Him and try to share the same kind of love He had for us with others.”

“Man, that’s amazing!” he turned to me. “What’s the name of your religion?”

I almost laughed. “Christianity.”

“Really? Protestant? Catholic?”

Knowing this is a particular sensitive point to the Irish, I smiled. “Just Christian.”

He mulled over this a minute, then sure enough began talking about the Protestant and Catholic fighting he’d seen growing up, often leading to loss of life.

“You know what?” I told him honestly. “I don’t think those people you saw killing each other were really Christian at all. “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and Christ never killed anyone; he saved lives. Real Christianity is about modeling his love for others. I think those people you saw simply wore religion like a political party.”

He nodded. “That’s for sure. What about the crusades?”

I told him about my time in the U.S., Mexico, Africa, India, and Japan and all the Christian good I’d seen while volunteering in those places. “No one ever talks about Christians doing those things, do they?”

He smiled. “Guess not. But you’re right. I saw a lot of Christian missionaries working during the war. They sacrificed their lives, literally, to help everyone they could. But I think it’s too late for me. God doesn’t want me.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s never too late. God loves and wants everyone. All you have to do is put your trust in Him.”

Just then, my instructor Danny called me down to start putting together my equipment. Perfect timing. Come on, God definitely planned for that encounter. It’s easy to evangelize, when you pray for the opportunity.

Here’s me putting my gear together and testing it:

We had two dives scheduled for the day. I loved the first one. It was mostly swimming around getting used to all the gear in the open water, coral reefs, swimming with currents, stuff like that. I took a banana with me again and the beautiful tropical fish swarmed all around! I saw a giant green trigger fish, which you have to watch out for because it will attack if you get in its territory. I don’t think it even noticed us.

The second dive was not so fun. We had to spend a lot of time catching up on skills I didn’t get in the pool. I swallowed a lot of salt water learning how to take on and off my equipment and weight belt in the water, and the waves were really choppy on the surface where I had to learn and demonstrate other skills. I felt really sick when I got back on the boat. I sat next to the Chinese guy, who seemed to have had a good time. He even saw more than I did, a school of baby barracuda. All of a sudden I got even sicker and threw up all over the floor. My instructor came to get me and chastised me for throwing up inside and brought me to the side, where I continued throwing up. He was not very nice about it. He kept saying we had some paper work to fill out. I resisted the urge to throw up all over his lap.

I spent the next hour and a half utterly miserable. Mom never came out to see me, which in addition to her extremely disgusted face and lack of any kindness while I was throwing up inside, made me really mad. I only found out later that she had done the smart thing and taken a seasick pill, which conked her out shortly after I threw up. After awhile my instructor came out again and said tomorrow’s schedule would be even more rigorous with three dives and going out three hours one way to the Phi Phi islands. I knew I couldn’t take that. Finally he let up and suggested something useful, that I downgrade my certification from open water diver to scuba diver. We had already done all the training for that. Tomorrow, if I was up to it, we would come back to the same place and just do two fun dives. By the time we arrived back at the pier the seasick pill had finally kicked in, so I was feeling better and I agreed to his new plan. (I learned that many pills take about 1 ½ hours to kick in, so I have to take them before I get on the boat!)

As a scuba diver I could do everything an open water diver could do, except I always had to have a guide with me and I could only dive to twelve meters, or 40 feet. Because of my ears I don’t think I can dive deeper than that anyway, and I never planned on diving in the same place twice, so having a guide is just smart anyway, since he or she would know all the best places to see beautiful coral and fish.

That evening Mom and I both took a nap because of the medicine. I was hungry from no lunch and throwing up my breakfast, so I went out for some dinner about 7:00. There I met a German woman living in Australia, and we talked about our travels. She was a ER surgeon with a strong passion for Samalia. Very interesting lady. I had pizza (I needed something easy to digest, easier than Thai food, anyway) and fried ice cream, then tried some of her delicious “banana pancake” that she couldn’t finish. Here’s the fried ice cream:

So the second day was just “fun diving” without instruction, and was certainly a lot more fun. I saw eels and pencil fish and giant puffers, baby puffers, urchins, neon fish, and almost sat on a lion fish! They’re so poisonous that they’ll kill you in two hours if you touch them. My instructor pulled me away just in time. Another reason to always go with a guide. I got much better and swimming by myself, though. At the end of the second dive of that day, he didn’t have to hold onto me at all. I could switch my direction in the middle of a current even and keep perfect buoyancy at all times.

Diving is like being in a magical world or an alien planet. You see so much! The fish act so different than they do in aquariums, and everything is much closer and real, rather than artificial. It's one of the few habitats in the world where you can still see tons of native animals roaming around in the wild. I’m hooked! Next I want to go to the Philippines and swim with the whale sharks. They are called “the friendly giants of the sea.” They are sharks but only eat microscopic plankton, hence the name “whale” in front of shark.

I didn't get sick on the second day because I was sure to take the medicine plenty in advance, but others did:

Our final day in Phuket we were planning on taking the Phang Nga Bay 4-in 1 tour, but we were both tired and sick of boats, so I canceled it. Instead we spent the day packing and actually enjoying the beach and hotel. There were some beautiful gardens around. Here's some flowers in the windows of a nearby apartment:

A nearby hotel called the "Austrian garden" where lots of German speakers stay:

Path through the palm trees:

A shrine in the garden. They offered fanta grape to the spirits, that was funny:

We both got a Thai massage:

It hurt! Little did we know that unlike Western messages, Thai messages are not meant to be relaxing, but stretching! The bend and pull you in all kinds of uncomfortable directions! It’s supposed to improve circulation and all that. It was one hour of near torture, but they assured us we would feel better later. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. It’s hard to tell.

But the beach was nice:

Someone parasailing. Cost over $30 for five minutes:

The waves were too high to swim in and filled with trash, so we went back to the hotel pool to swim:

For dinner, we ate succulent Thai dishes like coconut pineapple chicken, Thai salad, orange chicken, beef kabobs, and other mouth-watering delights while sipping pinacoladas by the pool in lounge chairs. Not kidding. It was heaven.

We headed for the airport at 6:00 and caught our 8:40pm plane for Bangkok, arriving at 10:05. We got to our hotel at 11:00 and crashed. And that was the end of the Phuket portion of our summer 2011 vacation!

Until next time, keep loving and praying,
L.J. Popp

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