On Friday, we rushed out of school to catch a van to Bangkok. This has become simple and easy for us, as we often have to travel through Bangkok to get anywhere else. We took the sky train, transferred to the subway, and ended up at Hua Lamphong train station with an hour to spare, where we awaited/dreaded our overnight train. When I stepped onto car number 3, it was like I time-warped to the 60's and I was in a nightmare of a train that was transporting people to an insane asylum. Dingy lighting, broken windows, and over-crowded. The four of us were facing one another (luckily it was us and not strangers) but our seats were at a perfect 90 degree angle. Let's just say sleeping was a large issue.
We finally took off a half hour late and quickly realized that this may be our most miserable trip yet. It was a local train that went a s l o w 30 mph, it consistently stopped to let other trains go by, and also frequently stopped to let people on and off.
We were supposed to get into the Chumphon station at 3:30 am, but arrived at 5:35 am. Our bus was supposed to leave at 5:30 to take us to our ferry. Thankfully in this case, Thai time is Thai time, late means on time, and our bus didn't even arrive until 7 am. By some crazy chance, we made it to our ferry.
The ferry was PACKED. The inside and the upper deck was full. We were so tired that we all sprawled out on the ground and used our backpacks as pillows. Unfortunately, the water was incredibly choppy. Everyone was getting soaked. Everyone was getting sick. A girl sitting near us came up from getting a drink and said in her great British accent, It's bloody carnage down there!! The ferry staff had barf bags readily available and everywhere you looked someone was using one. I thankfully have never been one to get sea sick and I was lucky that the feeling did not hit me on the two hour trip.
After traveling for 19 hours, the ferry docked at the beautiful island of Koh Tao. As the ferry was pulling into the pier, I could have pinched myself because of the view we were seeing. I almost kissed the workers from Simple Life who came to pick us up because we had finally made it. We were brought to the diving school and our rooms happened to be directly across the small street. We had a couple of hours until we could check into our rooms, so we grabbed some food and headed to the beach. Maybe my only complaint of the trip is that it was cloudy and hazy every day. I don't think I have seen clouds in the two months I have been in Thailand, but we got them in Koh Tao for 4 days straight. Perfect timing!
So, the main reason for choosing Koh Tao out of all of the islands in Thailand for this long weekend was for the scuba diving. This island is famous for its diving and we decided to sign up for a four day open water diving course. After doing hours and hours of research one day, we chose to dive with Simple Life Divers. Like many of the diving schools we found, Simple Life was 9,800 Baht, around $300. This included accommodation for four nights, our diving course, and our diving certification. Even though the other schools were mostly the same price, Simple life had amazing reviews so we went with our gut.
We met our instructor, Steve, the day we arrived and we got started by watching videos and doing worksheets. He kind of left us to it without explaining much, but he was very reassuring that you learn the most while you are in the water. The next day was more video and then we got practice time in the pool with all of our scuba gear. Vests, tanks, regulators, masks, and all.
Conquering fears seems to be a recurring theme of mine in Thailand. Elephants, check. Zip lining, check. Now I can add scuba diving to that ever growing list. We were only in a pool with water up to my waste and I completely panicked the second I went under. Ever since I could swim my family always said I was a water rat. I am a great swimmer and have never been scared of water, but scuba diving is scary. We are used to swimming under water by holding our breathe and coming up for air when needed. In the pool, I was suddenly expected to breathe under water. What kind of concept is that?! Steve told us to stay knelt and try our hardest not to stand, but after about 30 seconds, I panicked and stood up until I could feel my lungs breathe like normal again. There were a million thoughts going through my head at once. I looked around, saw my friends under, probably also freaking out, but dealing with it so they could put the skills we learned from 5 hours of videos to use. I knew this was my moment of truth. Run and get the heck out of that pool, or suck it up, go back under, and try again. Another thing I've learned about myself being in Thailand is that even if every bone in my body is shaking with fright, I don't like to quit. So, go back under I did. I was breathing through the regulator as if I had just run a marathon, which isn't exactly ideal. Steve came to me, looked me in the eyes, signed to breathe slowly, and suddenly it got less scary. I was breathing normally and I didn't feel like my lungs were going to explode anymore. Besides the water becoming freezing from being in the pool until 6 pm, the whole session went so well, thanks to Steve and Jordan, our second instructor. They were both extremely patient with a group of five girls who knew absolutely nothing about scuba diving, and I would recommend them as instructors in a heartbeat!
On our third day, we set out on the long boat in the afternoon to get to Simple Life's diving boat. We nervously hung out for about 10 minutes until Steve basically said, Okay girls, you're on your own. Let me see you set up your gear. We set up our own tanks and vests ourselves, got into our wetsuits, and suddenly it was time to jump into the ocean. At this point the nerves were hitting me. We had all of this heavy gear on, I suddenly felt like I was going to vomit from nerves (or hangover), and we were about to go swimming at the ocean floor for 35 minutes. I jumped in and there was no turning back. Luckily our first dive was a fun dive at Buddha Rock, meaning Steve needed to see how we would do with the real deal. No skills to practice, just a swim. It was awesome. There were reef and colorful fish everywhere. I survived that one, so I knew I could get through the rest.
We had one more dive that day and two dives on our last day. White Rock was the second dive and one sight was called Junk Yard, which literally had junk dumped there. Exercise machines, a bench, and other random things are there to serve as an artificial reef. The last dive sight, called Hin Pee Wee, had a small shipwreck at the bottom. Even though not all dives had great visibility (conditions were very choppy on both days of diving), I saw things on the ocean floor that could never be the same as just seeing a picture of it. Some of the marine life that we stumbled upon were clown fish, parrot fish, damselfish, puffer fish, butterfly fish, moray eels, sea cucumbers, and coral reef was everywhere you turned. Everything about it was surreal.
Some of the dives had scary moments. In order to get the certification, we had to show that we could do all of the skills we learned in the ocean. As if it wasn't difficult enough in the pool, I was now on the ocean floor trying not to panic, all while I had to practice filling my mask up with water and then blowing it out at 10 meters deep. Lots of reasons to panic while scuba diving, but I just had to trust Steve and Jordan, and also be confident in myself. We always followed Steve, and Jordan always brought up the rear. She did a great job checking on us to make sure we were okay throughout each dive. Steve was so awesome and a great teacher but we were also happy to have an experienced female with us who really wanted our first diving experience to be great, not traumatizing. Go check out Simple Life Divers if you ever find yourself wanting to scuba dive in Thailand!
On Tuesday, we finished our last dive, went back and took the final test, and I am now a certified open water scuba diver! My certification is universal, so I can dive anywhere in the world, with or without an instructor. I almost didn't do the diving so that I could have beach time instead, but it would have been a big regret if I was only watching my friends from afar!
Our last night in Koh Tao was New Year's Eve, and I can't think of any place in Thailand that would have been better for it. We popped champagne (more importantly.. ANDRE!), celebrated receiving our certification with the Simple Life staff, watched the fire dancers fill the beach with their talent for the fourth night in a row, and enjoyed our last night on the island that I am dying to go back to already.
Our instructors, Steve and Jordan, in the middle
I hope that everyone had a happy and safe New Year's Eve! 2013 was a bumpy year for me. It had lots of ups and downs, but I can only assume that everyone's does. We talked this weekend about describing the year in one word, and I think my word to describe 2013 is challenging. The biggest challenge was facing, and dealing with, the fact that my best friend was diagnosed with brain cancer. This may have been the single most challenging thing of my life so far, let alone this year, but I am happy to say that Erica is doing SO WELL, and besides the chemo once a month, she is living life just as she always has been. Some other challenges were sorting through relationships with people I care about and deciding to put my life at home on hold to pack up and move across the world. Even though the year was a challenge, I am grateful for all of the amazing moments, like Dana and Mike's wedding, Mandy and CJ's wedding, meeting my Thai students and watching them learn and grow, a trip to Vegas, and getting to experience living in Southeast Asia. I have no idea what is to come in 2014, but I have a feeling that the word challenge will carry over again, especially after moving back home in the spring. There will be constant change, excitement, some anxiety, and happiness throughout this next year, but I can't wait to see where 2014 takes me!