For the past week I've been scuba diving on the island paradise that is Koh Tao. ALMOST paradise, I should say, as there are too many tourists and partyers for it to be a real paradise. Close, though. It is absolutely gorgeous here, situated off the east coast of Thailand.
A few days ago I took a freediving course. Freediving is kind of like scuba, except you do it only by holding your breath. You "breathe-up" on the surface, and then dive. In the beginner class we got at deep as 20 meters, all on one breath of air. At that depth the water pressure compresses your lungs to 1/3 the size of what they are on the surface. There are a few methods. One is with fins and to just dive down, equalizing your ears as you go. Another is to pull yourself down along the guide rope to a depth of 20m, feet first. Headfirst I had trouble equalizing my ears, and need to practice, so I was going feet first, pulling on the rope.
The breathe-up process on the surface takes four to five minutes. I was floating in the water with my mask on, looking at the end of the rope. Barely visible against the deep blue, I looked at the ring of weights suspended there and visualized my dive, listened to my breathing, slow and controlled, in the snorkel. When I completed the breathe-up, I removed the snorkel and took hold of the rope. You're supposed to remain calm and use as few superfluous actions as you can in order to conserve oxygen. That results in a sort of gliding motion as you pull yourself downwards. One hand needs to be kept on your nose so you can plug it to equalize your ears and release it to equalize your mask. You can feel your lungs compressing as you go deeper. At first it is a scary feeling, but as they get smaller the partial pressure of 02 increases and you actually get a bit of an oxygen rush and a sort of second wind. That kicked in for me between 7 and 10 meters. My first time at 20m I wanted to make sure I was legitimately at 20. In my mind, this meant putting my head at the level of the weights with my feet hanging below.
At 10m depth you are neutral buoyant. That means that if you go to a depth of 10m, you can just float there and won't move up or down. Shallower than 10m and you will eventually float to the surface. Deeper than 10m, and you sink in freefall towards the bottom. At 20 meters, with my lungs compressed and my brain saving oxygen for the rest of my body, I forgot this. I let go of the rope to grab hold of the weights. Already possessing downward momentum and 10m past the neutral buoyancy point, I shot towards the ocean floor like a stone. We weren't wearing fins, so any swimming I had to do would deplete my oxygen supply for the 20m ascent. As my fingers left the rope, through my mask the rope appeared to be zipping upwards towards the surface. Then the weights flew up past my eyes and all I could see was the blue of the ocean. My hand shot up and grabbed at them desperately. Fortunately, my fingers barely managed to grab them. I hung there for a second and let myself feel my body being pulled downwards. I thought about how close I was to either sinking or wasting my oxygen with 20m of water above me. It freaked me out. Slowly pulling myself up, I tried to keep my heartbeat slow as I glided back towards the surface. The safety diver met me at 10m. With the rope between us we glided upwards as he made sure I didn't experience a shallow water blackout and made sure I maintained eye contact in order to remain as aerodynamic as possible.
When you do break the surface from that depth (at least as a beginner) you experience an oxygen rush and it is a very clear-the-mind experience almost like a natural high. The last 10m are when you experience this the most and are actually the most dangerous. From 10m to the volume of your lungs doubles in size, meaning that the partial pressure of 02 is halved. That means a lot lower efficiency of absorbing oxygen for your body. It is the last 10 meters where you start to get really low on air and a little panicked.
The crazy thing is that if I opted for the advanced class they teach you dive as deep as 40m. Madness. I would certainly have liked to take it, but it was very expensive for three days. The first day of the advanced was static apnea. In other words, holding your breath in a pool. They guaranteed at least three minutes. The two people from my class that continued on each held their breath for about two minutes when we timed it the day before. After the class they each managed four minutes and forty seconds, underwater. Crazy.
Right now I am spending my time trying to decide whether or not I should leave the island. I have a little bungalow 20 seconds from the beach for 9.25US a night. I think it maybe should be a little less than that, because it is a huge jump up in quality for what I could have for 1.25 more a night at the place next door. There is no mirror in the bathroom, the door doesn't really close all the way (although it locks), the bathroom reeks from something that I can't find and is inhabited by shockingly big ants, I can see through the floorboards, and today I found a rodent turd on the bed when I woke up. However, it looked pretty dry so it could have been there and I missed it or fell from the ceiling or something. Tons of personality, though, and not too uncomfortable when the fan is on. [Edited: I just talked to my friend, who tells me that it is likely a gecko turd. He was lying in bed watching one on his ceiling when it pooped on him. Just like a rodent.]
The scuba here has been great. Coolest thing I've seen was a lionfish. Yesterday I hit a rock with my hand, scraped and cut it, and hit a sea urchin. At that depth the spectrum is so depleted that your blood looks green. They had told me that blood looks gray at depth, but this was definitely green. "What the devil is that," I thought to myself. Then I realized it was blood, and it looked like Spock's hand.
Urchin spines are designed so that they break really easily in order to remain in whatever predator tried to eat them. Or in my case, clumsily hit them. Some smaller points that broke off in my hand aren't bothering me at all, but a bigger one is stuck deep in my fingertip and is quite painful. Last night I spent some time digging at it with a needle, but didn't have any luck. The anti-septic the pharmacy gave me was iodine, though, which was exciting. I'd heard of iodine being used from Peanuts when Peppermint Patty got licked by Snoopy, but had never actually seen it used outside the hospital.
I want to see Krabi and mayyyybe Phuket and then I will feel more or less satiated in Thailand. My next big stop is Laos, where I am trying to see a rocket festival. Apparently they make homemade bamboo rockets and shoot them towards the sky. There are supposed to be lots of botched rockets resulting in explosions, as well as normal bottle rockets. The losing rockets get thrown into the mud by their frustrated creators. The question now is how to get started on the rest of my SE Asia itinerary. If I stayed four more days on Koh Tao, maybe with some snorkeling and hiking in the jungle, on the 6th I could go on a full day trip to Sail Rock. It is one of the best dive sites in the gulf, and whale sharks are often seen there. BUT, "often" by whale shark standards is still a pretty low percentage.
My Vietnam visa expires at the end of this month. I want to cross into China from Vietnam overland. As a result, I think I might just reapply for a Vietnamese visa in Cambodia and absorb the wasted cost of the visa that I got in the US. That will mean finish up Thailand, then Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. But do I stay for those dives, or do I get started? I just don't know. Aside from the heat, it is pretty amazing here. This is also about as un-touristy as I can probably hope for; it is low-season, plus many people are avoiding Thailand due to the political situation in Bangkok. So many decisions! The biggest thing is that I don't want to miss the rocket festival (Boun Bang Fai) in Laos. If anyone has any details on the dates of that, I would love hear them. I am having a hard time finding them. One guy on the couchsurfing site says it happens every Sunday of May, which is good news, but I'd like to have this corroborated.
Anyways. I just looked at some pictures of whale sharks online. That would really be something. Tough, tough decisions. Here is something that my friend Sam sent me. It is a link to a hike in China. It looks pretty exhilarating, but maybe too terrifying to actually attempt. The story is really good, but the pictures offer quicker gratification. Blogger's "embed link" function is unreliable, and doesn't seem to be working, so you have to copy paste, sorry!
All for now.