Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Does India have an ocean?": some 'full moon party' and other tales from the turtle island

Post Open Water course, all I wanted to do, really, was the Advanced course. However, I'm really glad I managed to get in a couple of fun dives instead, as it was a completely different experience to diving with an Instructor. The Divemasters just do the fun bit: pointing out all the cool fish. We did Red Rock Drop off and this was my favourite dive of all. We had a small group, just Saul, Dave, myself and (unfortunately) a Dutch girl who ended up being my buddy but couldn't dive for shit.  Fresh from our courses, we kind of knew what we were doing, but her buoyancy was all over the shop, she couldn't equalise and, worst of all, she kept banging into the coral. We were swimming through little holes and caves, up and down and upside down, you had to be pretty careful, and I'd constantly be looking over my shoulder (to the point where I actually had a sore neck the next day) to check she hadn't shot off to the surface (again).

I went the wrong way once or twice but it was such a cool dive it didn't matter too much. Our DM was Steven, who was a lot of fun and really knew his stuff.  At the second dive the visibility was poorer, and my attempt at a dramatic direct ascent was an epic fail as it was too painful on the old ears.

Apparently the visibility gets poorer around full moon as this causes the coral reef to reproduce or something(?!) For the Big Blue crew, however, full moon meant something else. I was so happy to see Sarah, Julie, and their friend from home Sinead arrive and do their Open Water courses. There was, by this point, 10  freshly qualified divers, deprived of beer and ready to party.  The night before full moon we had a chilled evening at Chopper's, listening to acoustic music (a blessing since my ipod was stolen) and then headed to the beach to catch up with Team Bermuda's 'graduation' party - which, when I left at about 1am, looked as if it was going to end as messily as ours had. Lots of buckets and diving banter (OK? GOING DOWN! and so on) was had and they had the funniest, nerdiest guy who was hilarious and lovely at the same time. Oh Paul. When he lost the 'mine' game (as Karen had done earlier in Choppers) and had to do 10 push ups, it was too much, I think i had to look away. And then the dancing.....

I left them, buckets in hand, and went to rest up for the inevitable night of no sleep which awaited the following day. 4 messy, noisy Japanese guys had moved into my room (yes it was my room by now!) and they woke me up in the mornings with their noisiness, which meant I was fully allowed to prance in after full moon and screech goooooood morrrrniiing! As they slept.

We went down to the pier, where we made friends with 'the twins' - Keisha and Tanhi, the most identical of identical twins, beautiful girls with the most incredible afros - it was like walking around with celebrities all night the amount of times they were stopped, and boarded the 'party boat' to Ko Phanhgan, where some Korean guys, fascinated by the twins, bough our entire group of 10 a beer and shared their pringles. Good times! We arrived onto Koh Phanghan and had a shit pad thai in a rubbish restauarant and starting painting each other with fluorescent stuff and  guzzling buckets.

I blame Karen, mostly for what happened next. I wish I could remember it all...It was so hard to keep together. 12,000 people on Haad Rin; I hadn't thought it possible. You couldn't move for people in paint, fluoro, buckets, blaring music, people filming, screaming - pure madness. We found by chance, Amy and Eleanor, who'd been on Koh Tao a few days before, and I saw Liv too. I even got everyone to 'number off', Raleigh style, so we could check we all were there. Old habits die hard! Moo Bang (Black Moon, 2009) painted down one arm, I can't remember what down the other, I just remember the sensation of fun. The bucket throwing incident - Karen - was one of the highlights of my night. There was wild dancing, fun times and a blurry, hazy messy sense of fun. That is what I remember. I didn't go near the sea, or walk down the beach, I think we pretty much stayed in a similar spot all night. I was down buying my 3rd (fatal) bucket when I heard Shakira's finest (waka-waka) and in my drunken state went a little crazy as memories from being in a similar, drunken state last summer in South Africa came flooding back. Lots of random people know now the dance, anyway.

9 out of 10 of us managed to make it back onto the boat at 7am the next day. By this point I was hanging badly and seriously angry. You do not need techno, Goa trance-esque music on a boat at 7am in the morning after a night of no sleep. I crashed out and no one emerged until 3pm that afternoon.

That evening, the night after full moon, was really sad, we all sat on the beach at the Fish Bowl, with a beer, and started the goodbyes. Sarah and Sinead (Julie had remained on Koh Phangan....) would be leaving the following day, as would Becky. The day after, I would follow. Saul and Dave would be doing their ridiculous visa run to Burma and the twins would also go to Phangan.

We had such a fantastic group, it was a melancholoy and bittersweet evening. Walking down the beach at midnight, ankle deep in sea, was one of the moments where you think you never want to go home ever again and want life to just crystallize at this moment, seemingly perfect.

Our final goodbye night, just Saul, Dave, Karen, the twins and myself, ended up being buckets again. Hi bar, Office Bar, Lotus Bar....same same, but always just a little bit different. Karen and I had a full scale drunken argument with some stupid Scandinavian boys who were throwing their cigarettes into the sea (I was still remembering the documentaries...) about the damage they were causing. Eco warriors, even when drunk. It's just RUDE!

The next day, I caught my boat back to Chumphon, and then a bus to Bangkok which arrived at 2am. Liv had bought me a room at Sidthi Guest House again and I crashed out. Unfortunately, the next day I felt really rough. Sore throat, fever, all the signs of having had too much fun in the previous 2 weeks. Also there was the bad news that Seb, from my dive group, had caught Dengue Fever and was in hospital on Ko Phangan.

I took a day trip to Hua Hin on Thursday, to meet one of my Mum's friends who was on holiday there and had brought my new debit card out with them. How lucky is that. They bought me lunch, I relaxed by the pool at their luxury hotel, and checked my card worked, and then headed back to Bangkok.

Still feeling rough, I did nothing on my last day and a half in Bangkok. I had no money to do anything anyway, and my one treat was a Thai massage, which was amazing.

My tiny room had space for my single bed and little else, there was no furniture, a window which faced onto a breezeblock wall and fan which chased hot air around the room. I was kind of glad to be leaving the tourist circus of Khao San (which, when i had arrived, I couldn't have wanted more) and be heading back to some 'proper' travel in India. That's not a very fair comment, but India is definitely in a class, world, (hole?) of its own. How moods change, as this is exactly what I'd been looking forward to escaping - the ease of Thailand, the lack of hassle, the efficiency of everything, the ease of booking stuff. I guess after being in both countries, comparing them side by side, I appreciate their strengths and weaknesses far more. They are almost opposite in style and outlook. Thais will do anything to avoid 'losing face'; they are calm, quiet people. You would not et anywhere by shouting at a tuk-tuk driver to try and get a lower price. Not so in India. Survival of the fittest. Survival of the one who can shout the loudest, be the brashest and boldest.

I had to laugh as my plane landed into Delhi and everyone scrambled for the exit (and then we were told to sit back down as Delhi airport wasn't ready for us to disembark.....oh INDIA).

My worries about arriving in Delhi, alone, late at night, have come to nothing. I got a taxi and room with a lovely Austrian girl called Romy, and am escaping to Rishikesh tonight. After a few weeks away, what was started to grind on me is now amusing again. For example, this morning someone tried to give me change in bananas. the constant stream of beggars, spitters, sweepers, hawkers, rickshaw-wallahs, street-sleepers and all the other crap that comes with India has been a delightful presence today. Not that I am going t say I enjoy Delhi - I don't, really.  I have realised that travelling in India is like being in a turbulent relationship. If it were on facebook, it'd be listed as 'complicated'. Like having a boyfriend who cheats on you, lies to you, shouts at you - but you can't help but carry on loving him anyway, after the anger and rage and hate has subsided. You leave and say you'll never come back, but it's never the end. India has a strange, sado-masochistic quality quite unlike anywhere else in the world.

I love it. I hate it. I will be back for more!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Inevitable Return to Koh Tao: Diving and buckets of fun

I have been out of touch for quite a while. The internet on Koh Tao was nearly 4x as expensive as in bangkok, which is already double the price of India. On my minsicule budget, on the most expensive of the Gulf islands, I couldn't afford it.

The past 2 weeks have been blissful. The bus dropped us off at Chumphon at 2.30am, and the ferry left at 7am. I crashed out in a waiting room, and slept solidly.

Arriving somewhere you've been before, and have fond memories of, is always very strange. Expectations run high, it's so easy to be disappointed and I was trying not to get hopes up too high.  It was far busier than I remembered. Everyone at Big Blue Diving seemed absolutely rushed off their feet. I got a bed in a nice enough 6 person dorm and booked myself in for my discounted Open Water course to start the next day.

Those few days were seriously intense. It was an 8am - 5pm intense course of academics and theory in the morning, learning about the physics of diving, decompresion sickness, nitrogen narcosis, diving tables - a lot more than I'd expected. I even got set homework. Then the afternoon was learning diving skills and gradually building up to deeper dives. It felt great to be really learning something again. I also had a great group - Saul (dive buddy), Becky and Seb, Amy, Jennifer and our Instructor, Sonia, who, like many on Koh Tao, had the familiar story of  'I came here 5 years ago to do my Advanced course and have never left'. She was incredible.

My little dive log book records all the fish and things I saw. Blue spotted stingrays, clownfish, puffa fish, bat fish, groupers, parrot fish, pipefish, jelly fish, and so many more I can't remember without looking it up. Even when the visibility was failry poor, as it was at Chumphon Pinacle and Twins, the whole experience of being beneath the water was sensational.  Swimming alongside huge schools of rainbow coloured fish and spectaculary coral reef that appear to have been painted onto rocks they are so beautiful. It's something else, something so addictive it was very, very difficult to leave (again).

We did 5 dives as part of our course, Mango Bay (where I'd been previously with Dave and Ryan) Japanese Gardens, Twins, White Rock and Chumphon. The final dive site was our early morning (6.30am) dive and our qualifier. We had to do all the skills (taking off your mask, clearing it, taking out your regulator, practising the 'out of air' buddy technique etc) at a depth of about 10m and then we messed around having a dance off underwater whilst the videographer filmed it all. Buddy checks (Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas (BC/Weights/Releases/Air/Final OK) were supposed to stop any disasters but somehow Saul's tank managed to fall off as we were descending on the mooring line. I had to sort this out underwater, which was actually pretty easy, we'd had to learn to take off all our equipment, including BC and tank, weights and everything, underwater as part of training. This is probably a testament to how good Sonia was as an instructor.

We got back onto the boat and got back to Sairee beach at about midday. Shattered, we all retired to bed for a good solid nap. That evening everyone met in the bar to watch our video and recieve our offical Open Water certification cards. The group got larger as we headed out down to Lotus Bar, and celebratory Singhas and Changs turned into celebratory buckets and it all turned pretty messy pretty quickly. It was an amazing end to the course, and the huge group of us that started out slowly diminshed until the last few staggered home at about 5am.

I think I spent the next 2 days recovering and not diving or doing anything, really. Liv came over from Ko Phangan for 2 days, so it was nice to catch up with her, and there was a mass exodus from the island in the opposite direction as everyone went to start worshipping the full moon at Haad Rin. It was perfect on Koh Tao at this time. Lazy afternoons in the bar, watching movies and chilling on the beach, the amazing all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel up the road, and Saul's conversion to eco-warrior after watching two documentaries, Sharkwater and The Cove - both are highly recommended, really powerful films about illegal shark finning in Costa Rica and dolphin slaughter in Japan, respectively, and their effects on marine ecosystems and general damage to the planet. I never realised that coral reefs provide 70% of the world's oxygen, or that 40% of these reefs were already lost or severely degraded, and had no idea how killing a few sharks would so severely displace the fragile underwater ecosystem which hangs finely in the balance. I learnt a lot in those few days. We were swimming in the sea one day and picked up a ton of broken bottles and litter and I have myself a 'Big Blue Conservation' T-shirt. Seriously interesting stuff I knew nothing about.

Check out and the Cove won an Oscar for best documentary - deservedly so.

I would have loved to do my Advanced course, but that was pushing my already ridiculously tight budget too far. Next time, Divemaster. Definitely. I am hooked.

Monday, February 7, 2011

To the kindness of strangers (and Thailand)

Yesterday was the worst day of my travels. Of travelling, ever. I realised, at Calcutta airort (what a dive - worse than Humberside) my debit card was missing. I don't know how or why, but it is my only source of cash. After a lot of crying and panicking, I am in Bangkok, with some very kind people. A woman at the airport offered a hug and a tissue. The Indian guys working at Cafe Coffee Day even tried to offer advice and comfort. A wonderful Taiwanese girl, Wan-Yin, bought me water and offered me a free space in her room. Unfortunately, I lost her at customs, I waited but there seemed to be some problem with her visa.

I tagged along with a group of Israelis and a Polish guy, who all offered sympathy, to lend me cash and just general reassurance. I have a plan now and enough money to last for the duration. Found a cheap guest house (SO CLEAN, everything seems so clean) and can't wait to see Liv later. Walkng down Khao San alst night, hearing shit Western pop Music, seeing people drinking, remembering the women selling wooden frogs and the fake IDs - oh, 2009! Culture shock after 4 months in India. I'm wearing SHORTS! My shoulders are out! It's 35 degrees! It's swarming with people and this is exactly what I need. Ease.

Now I've realised I'm going to be fine, I'm getting excited about going to Koh Tao. I am enjoying doing nothing except sorting my life out for the next few days, and then heading south to start diving.

I think it's time for some Pad Thai....

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Darjeeling, unlimited

My first experience of going solo in India got off to a relatively bumpy start. Not only was the train delayed by 4 hours (meaning it arrived at 1am) but there was someone in my bunk. This meant I had to turn on all the lights, pull his blanket off him, and generally throw a strop until eventually he moved. The wait hadn't been too bad as a group of gap yahs and a lovely old English couple, Steve and Betty, who bought us all fruit, had sat it out with me.  Eventually the train arrived into NJP sometime in the early evening of the next day. I had a group of Bangladeshi lads on tour in my carriage who were actually really friendly and non creepy (how refreshing) and asked me to sing my national anthem  - refused, but offered to play them a song on phone instead, onyl having stuff from South Africa they all clapped and cheered along to waka-waka which was pretty funny.

Then it was time to transfer to a jeep for the climb into the Himalayan foothills (Darjeeling is 2100m), which took 3 hours. It was freezing when we got out the car at 8pm and I'm glad Sarah and Julie were there to take me to their hotel!

The next morning I got up at 4am with them and a group of Kiwi guys to go to Tiger Hill, even higher up. On a clear day, you can see Everest and the whole Himalayan range into Sikkim, but it was cloudy and we saw nothing. I was gutted. We got the jeep back down, stopping briefly at a Tibetan Monastery on the way. There are prayer flags streaming everywhere all around Darjeeling and 'Gorkaland' (there are currently strikes and protests for a separate state from West Bengal) as it has a huge Tibetan refugee presence.

What I loved about Darjeeling was its relaxed atmosphere: no 'come look my shop', no 'Madam, madam, look this, just looking', no one asking for money, no staring, no rickshaws, no traffic, no hassle. Perfect. It's difficult to describe how much I appreciated just being able to browse in a shop without being mobbed by desperate salesmen. What a relief. I spent the morning with Sarah and Julie, visiting the local market, drinking tea at Glenary's (English style patisserie and cafe, complete with red phone box) and sitting at the viewpoint. We got really excited when we caught a glimpse of Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, as the weather had been rubbish and cloudy for their whole time in Darjeeling.

That afternoon, after they left, I wandered around the windy streets and found myself at a Victorian mansion, only to be promptly escorted out by a man with a gun as it was off-limits government property.  There were few tourists around and I felt a little lost that afternoon.  I had a comforting dinner of mac & cheese and then went back to the hotel at 8pm, as everything shuts down pretty early due to the freezing weather (I assume this is the reason). Luckily I got chatting to a group of Japanese guys who were planning a trip to Tiger Hill the next morning, and decided I'd give it another try - the weather forecast looked good.

This was the best decision I've made in a while! Despite the cold and the horrendous 4.30am wake up, the stars were all out when we arrived and when the sun started to come up it was simply magical. Kanchenjunga and the mountains around it slowly came into view, and as the sun came up it lit up each mountain range in turn - from Everest on the far left, three sisters, then Kanchenjunga and the Sikkim ountains. There was a purple haze behind Everest and mist in the valleys below. The sky was bright orange and Darjeeling itself, looking tiny in the valley below, was slowly bathed in the pastel hues of the early morning sun. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my entire life. Greenery, snowy mountains (warm chai at 6am sharp!) and magic. I'm going to go to Sikkim itself next time.

I met Margie and Charlie, who I'd briefly bumped into the day before, at Tiger Hill and we wandered back to Darjeeling (about 13km) via several beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, quite unlike anything else I'd seen in India or South East Asia. An energetic blend of Hindu iconography and Buddhist beauty, they were really special, peaceful places, and I loved walking back through Alpine-esque scenery. Tango 5 would have been proud. I even heard, climbing a hill, walking past a chai shop, a scratchy version of 'The Climb' coming from a radio. I thought of Tango 5 and smiled.

That afternoon I wandered up to Observatory Hill, which was strewn with prayer flags, and again happened to bump into Steve and Betty who were staying at the Windamere, a lovely Heritage Hotel perched up  on the hill. They very kindly treated me to another cup of Darjeeling's finest.

That afternoon, as the mist moved in, I went and did my tea shopping. I tried several teas and have ended up with nearly a kilo. But it is bloody good stuff (they supply Harrods) and when I run out I have the details fo how to get shipped more!

That evening I met up with Margie and Charlie again and we went to see another Bollywood movie. It was so funny, as they always are, and an early night was again in order after some great chat and noodles in a nearby cafe.

The morning after was, again, thankfully, crystal clear, and I booked a 'joy ride' on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, otherwise known as the toy train.  It chugged up the road at a very leisurely, often walking pace, alongside the road. Quite literally, on the road, sometimes zig zagging across and stopping the traffic. The views were absolutely out of this world, and the Bastasia loop, around the Gurkha War Memoiral, was another great opportunity to gaze at the Greater Himalayas.

Feeling pretty happy and energetic, I set off to find he zoo, which everyone I'd met had recommended, and which was full of pretty interesting and sometimes exotic Himalayan animals. It had some decent breeding programmes, too, but the best part for me was the attached Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded by Tenzing Norgay, where there was a really cool museum all about the Himalayas and all the expeditions and attempts to conquer Everest. They even had the British flag hoisted a\at the top in 1953. 

I then hiked round, looking down on all the tea plantations (a darker green than those in Kerala) to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, where recently arrived refugees were taught English and other useful skills to help them find work in India. There was also a really interesting display on the plight of the Tibetans.

I finally got back to Darjeeling proper at about 5pm, hiking again up some insanely steep roads (the altitude was a killer, at least I blame that for how out of breath I was) and had some dinner and wrote my postcards. It was great to get some alone time and chill out after a lot of exercise.

I had my last cup of tea the next morning, and bought yet more tea to take home as presents. I didn't want to leave - the people were so friendly, there were so many more women around (this was a big deal, Indian streets are very male dominated), and it was so unbelievably beautiful. I'm now in Calcutta and about to head to Thailand but must go as I'm late or dinner with Sarah, Julie and Liv.

Namaste, India (for now). Sawasdee-kah, Thailand!