Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Farewell To The Philippines

It's been a rollercoaster ride; and I wouldn't change a thing. An amazing, spellbinding country. From the cool Cordillera mountains of Northern Luzon, to the archipelagos around Palawan and Busuanga, to the madness of Manila's sweltering backstreets...it's been stunning, breathtaking, funny and sometimes heart-stopping at times; pursued by robbers in Baguio, and tempting fate on the rocky roads to Sagada. The people have been warm and friendly in the main, it's easy to avoid those who aren't. The place is not on many people's radar, but I think it should be. It certainly makes Thailand, Laos and even Vietnam feel like you're on a Tourist Escalator. There are many more places I want to see next time around, it didn't make sense to try and cram them all in. Leyte, Mindanao and the reefs at Apo and Tubbtaha will certainly be on the list next time.

I saw Gerd for a few beers at Erra's in Manila. I'll really miss him, it's been the best part of my trip so far. He offered me work anytime I want to come back, so I'll maybe aim to head out again at the end of the year, or early the next. I met a nice local girl called Jane when he left. We arranged to meet the next day for an induction in the English art of Pool. She'd never played before, but got quite good by the end of the second day. We also took a walk up to Paco Park, an old Spanish burial ground set around a circular chapel. A serene, peaceful escape from the traffic. On the way up there we'd seen a lifeless, almost naked man on a pavement. Eyes wide open and staring, and his body paid attention by flies. I shuddered as we stepped round him. I had a bet with Jane on whether or not he'd be in the same position when we returned ie. dead. Thankfully he wasn't, he'd moved. Unfortunately his old chap was now hanging out of his loincloth, much to the disgust of female passers-by. He was long past caring; more existing than living...his eyes were empty. I wondered what his story was.

A trip to Manila wouldn't be complete without the taxi driver who avoids the meter. This one tried negotiating a price, I said I'd never paid more than 200 on the meter. He was chatty, until I noticed he'd covered the meter with a cloth. I asked him to remove it, and conversation strangely dried up. He gave me the silent treatment all the way to the airport. Suit's me just fine, pal. 100 pesos on the meter, is it? Here's a hundred...keep the change.

A whisk from the automatic door, baking heat gave way to merciful airconditioned heaven, and thirty minutes later I'm paying the extortionate airport tax to escape the country. Thanks for the memories. See you next time.

Squeaky Bum Time

It's hard when you've been somewhere a while. You know the locals, see the same people around the same time of day. The regulars count you as one of their own. It's pleasant. But, course done...it was time to move on. Otherwise I'd be growing roots. Besides, I just know I'll be back here; I can't leave those wrecks just yet.

I had a bit of an afternoon on the way out, and left Crystal Lodge with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth; it wasn't the return of the halitosis...more the bill they stung me with for laundry. Came to a week's rent. It was more the way the owner went about it. After the first wash I asked to pay, she said "Don't worry, I'll write it down". When I asked how much after the second lot, she said "Don't worry...it's cheap". I don't know about you, but when one wash cost me more than it would in London, I'm not up for calling it cheap.

Saying my Goodbyes to a few people at the shops et al, I made my way to the airline office to meet the 2.30pm bus. Against all strict Filipino rules of leaving whenever, it had actually gone early. The driver must have been working in Europe recently, that's way too efficient. As it disappeared around the corner, I had to run back up the hill...struggling with two packs in the afternoon heat...and flag the silly bastard down in the middle of the road.

So, dripping cold sweat in the icy blast of the aircon, I'm on my way. We get to the airport, where the tit on the desk decides my bag is 3kg too heavy at 13kg. He asks for payment, and I asked him if I could get compensation for the fact he'd just told me the flight was delayed 3 hours. That bamboozled him, as I took 3kg of stuff out of my rucksack and put it into my carry-on bag. "That OK now?" He smiled and nodded. Obviously makes a massive difference, re-distributing weight on the plane. So I'm through to the lounge. Great, they're putting a move on for us...big screen and surround sound. Not so great, it's that talentless, expressionless twat Costner in the Whitney "Crackhead" Houston two-hour plug, The Bodyguard.

The pain was briefly salved when the alarm bells rang at the side of the terminal. The fire truck set off, horns blaring, lights flashing. Busuanga is a tiny airstrip with one building, so I imagined the plane coming in had problems and we were in for drama/ death. Everyone rushed to the windows to search the sky for a burning plane approaching. Nothing so dramatic; the whole terminal started laughing at the sight of the fire truck chasing a cow down the runway. That could have caused some problems had it remained there. Or an instant barbecue.

Once onboard the prop-driven plane, I started to relax. I got a few pangs as we lifted into the air, Coron away to my right. I strained at the window to catch sight of the bays further away. Some lucky bastards would be on their way back from wreck dives right now.

The skies and cloud formations on the way back to Manila were astounding. I just spent 45 minutes glued to the window. I think it would have made a nice short film, just the weird and wonderful gossamer formations drifting past. Some looked like banks of ice on fields of fire as the sun began to set on the other side of the plane from me. The red, orange and purple blobs above were ringed with halos of gold. In the distance I could see Luzon, a giant column of cloud above it like the smoke pillar of a nulclear explosion. I didn't want this flight to end. I wish I'd taken some shots, but I was too entranced to get up and retrieve my camera. Some things need to be seen first hand. I mean, how many shots of other people's sunsets have you yawned at?

I certainly didn't want the flight to end in flames. It seemed it was bound to as we swooped down to Ninoy Aquino airport's runway. We passed over the broad white lines the piots aim to stick the wheels down on, still a good 20 feet in the air. The plane bucked from side to side, wings rising and falling dramtically: we'd hit a crosswind. Another few hundred yards and still no nearer the tarmac and safety. If we'd been landing at Busuanga's short runway, we'd be bracing for impact by now. Suddenly we dropped, the plane lurching and bouncing twice. Lights flickered in the cabin. Some women screamed. I would have liked to join in, but my throat was way too restricted. As we steadied, the pilot began braking with everything he had. Finally stopping, he turned to head back to the terminal buildings, and as we turned I saw we were around 200 yeards from the end of the runway. As we got off, a stewardess had opeed the doors to the cockpit and I could see the pilots.

"Hey, fella" I said, and he turned "if you're ever in London, the beers are on me."
"The pilots are not allowed alcohol on duty, sorry Sir" the stewardess duly informed me.
I didn't stop to explain the joke, I didn't have the strength. But as I got to the bottom of the steps and looked back at the plane, the pilot gave me the thumbs-up. I laughed and did likewise.

I don't want another landing like that in my lifetime.

Running The Show

Gerd took me aside and asked me if I wouldn't mind watching the shop for a week while he went to Manila on business with his family. Don't think he trusted Artur not to close the shop for a week to play cards and drink beer. He said I'd be able to earn money diving, and he'd appreciate the favour. I didn't mind at all. Besides, I'd stupidly allowed a full dive cylinder to roll off the floor of the boat and into 25-30 metres of open water in a channel on the way to the bays. Partly the design of the boat, as there were no guards to prevent this, but I still felt bad. Dennis was laughing as, for the next half hour, wherever the brooding Gerd stormed around the boat, I made sure I was in the opposite corner; and it's not a big boat. He calmed down eventually, and his curses of "Scheisse" turned to a resigned "Shit happens, mate". A relief. We've actually dived looking for it three times now, to no avail. But we know roughly where it is. Just a pity it was full of air as, if empty, it would have been 2kg lighter and would have actually floated (Physics again...I was surprised, too. They're heavy).

As it turned out, we didn't get that many divers through the door. Coron was dying down, and the rain was back. But a week out was no big deal. Gerd had looked after me on the course, I'd learned more than I would with most. It also gave me time to finish my mapping project for the course. Some DMs still owe Gerd a map but, being a designer, this was a part of the course I'd saved for last. I owed him a masterpiece.

Akitsushima

No visiting diver should consider leaving Coron without courting this beauty. The only true warship of the fleet, she was just two years old at the time of her sinking. I bet the Japs were well pissed off.

Sleekly designed, she had her own seaplane which could be lifted from deck to sea via her crane at the stern. She's 118m long with a berth of 15.7m and lies on her port side in a maximum depth of 38 metres.

The visiblity here is only 5-15 metres, depending on time of month and currents. But she's a stunning dive. The crane and radio tower are intact, though mystery surrounds the fate of the seaplane. A couple of anti-aircraft guns are visible. A massive crack two thirds of the way towards the stern provides easy penetration to the lower decks and engine room. This huge rent in her deck was caused by a torpedo strike to her starboard side, and this hole is a better entry point if you're going straight for the engine room. Visibility is a lot better inside, and the swim-through is fantastic, all the old pipes, wheels and walkways are still in place, though several experienced divers believe parts of her are ready to drop. So swim around the engine, not under it. As this engine was diesel, it was not salvaged; steam engines carried more valuable metal parts. The control room can be entered by one diver at a time, and several guages can be seen in there.

I dived this one 6 or 7 times, and it wasn't enough. But, being low season, it's too expensive to take the boat to her and her neighbour, the Okikawa, as they are in the next bay along from the four most visited wrecks. Next time, then.

Diveboat Characters #6: The Quitter

We only got one of these. It's not hard to pass the PADI Open Water course, after all. If anything, it's too easy. You see a lot of badly-trained divers whose instructors have probably got fed up, and certified them before they needed certifying themselves. In a mental institution. It can be hard work when someone just doesn't get it.

There's some basic Physics knowledge to get your head around, but it's very basic stuff. As long as you can swim, and breathe underwater, you can pass the course.

We had a likeable fellow called Father Manuel on board one week; the local Catholic priest. He had friends visiting him from the States in a couple of weeks, and they wanted to dive. So he joined us for his OW course. Gerd had another OW to finish, as the girl needed to fly back to Manila soon. So I looked after Manuel (I refused to call him Father, as everyone else did, as I'm an atheist) and taught him some of the basic skills in shallow water: how to recover your regulator and clear it before breathing again, clearing water from your mask, etc. He struggled with some of these, and I knew we'd have problems. It'd be a miracle if he passed, and it'd require the patience of a saint to get him certified. And Gerd doesn't have the patience of a saint...he can get frustrated if he repeatedly demonstrates a skill and a student repeats it completely wrong. I've swallowed more than my fair share of Philippines Seawater laughing at the scenarios...students looking wide-eyed and baffled, Gerd looking across at me with a dazed frown. It must drive him mad.

So by the fourth day with Manuel (the course should take 3 days) I could see Gerd approaching the far end of his tether. The priest gets a little flummoxed at times, and stares into space underwater. When you try to get his attention, he moves his whole body to look at you, instead of turning his head. When I asked him why, he said the regulator kept popping out of his mouth. He hadn't realised that the mouthpiece is ergonomically designed to be held between your teeth. So no wonder he'd been frozen in fear half the time.

Manuel was nearly done though, and it was satisfying to see him improve. Only a few simple skills to complete, one of which was the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent); this involves a vertical swim to the surface on one breath of air, simulating an out-of-air emergency. It's usually done over 10 metres, you make a sound to show the instructor you are slowly exhaling, so that the expanding air in your lungs doesn't burst them (if you hold your breath and ascend, you're going to be in serious trouble). It's not difficult. You ascend as slowly as you can to prevent nitrogen bubbles coming out of solution too quickly from within your body's tissues and getting trapped in them. This is the dreaded Bends. I'll give a basic explanation: the air we breathe is under 1 Bar of Atmospheric Pressure. For every 10m you descend underwater, it increases by 1 Bar. So if you're 30m below the surface, you're breathing air at 4 Bar of ATM. Four times the pressure equals four times the density of the air you breathe (you get the same volume in a breath through the scuba unit's regulator). This means you're getting four times as much Nitrogen. When we breathe normal air, 21% is Oxygen and 79% Nitrogen. Oxygen we use and absorb into the bloodstream. Nitrogen is uselss to us. On the surface we simply breathe it back out; underwater at depth, we absorb it into our tissues in solution. There is a limit to how much we can safely absorb in a given period of time, and a dive computer will tell you when you should be making your ascent. The deeer you go, the quicker you absorb Nitrogen, and the shorter the dive. Now when you decide to come back up, you do it very slowly; a rate of 18m per minute is considered safe. Through respiration the Nitrogen comes out of solution back into the lungs, and we expel it. Come up too quickly, and the Nitrogen comes out of solution too quickly and larger bubbles form. These can then block arteries or chambers in your heart. Deadly. Think of shaking up a bottle of Coke and then taking the top off. That Carbon Dioxide has been locked into the solution under pressure, and fizzes violently on coming out. Much the same would happen to your blood in a rapid ascent. It's not a nice way to die.

I hope that didn't bore you too much; back to Manuel. So the skill involves a slow ascent, not holding your breath, keeping one arm up above you like Superman (to protect your head from surface obstacles)...and your other hand on the deflator button to release expanding air from your BCD as you come up, thereby keeping your ascent rate safe. Gerd demonstrated it 3 times. Manuel fucked it up completely 3 times. I demonstrated it and waited at the surface for the fireworks.

Manuel came up and floated on his back, looking exhausted. Eyes raised to the sky, maybe he was looking for help from The Boss? Gerd slowly pulled off his mask. "Father Manuel, I must ask you to concentrate. Already I demonstrate this skill three times" he said, tether end reached. "OK" said Manuel "I finish. Is enough for me." Gerd was a little shocked, but I'd seen it coming. The Filipinos are very respectful to each other, and don't understand our Western aggression and forcefulness. He'd had enough of being shouted at. I could see both sides to this one. Gerd gets frustrated, and Manuel just wasn't cut out for learning diving in this manner. A pity. I tried to convince him to finish the course, and told him Gerd only gets annoyed because he wants to turn out good divers. To no avail; Manuel was finished.

Gerd asked me what I thought as we walked back from the pier. I said I could see both sides of the story, and maybe he'd better stop teaching Discover Scuba and Open Water if it got to him. He said that's what he was thinking. I reckon life'd be a lot easier, if a little less lucrative, if he does.

The Most Revolting Dish Ever Invented

My apologies to any Filipinos reading this, but your cuisine is the worst in Asia. I've never eaten so much Western food in an Asian country, and it pained me. I like to try the local dishes, but when the national dish, Adobo, is just whatever meat you pick soaked in vinegar for a while and served with rice...I'm not going to be queuing for it. It's not exactly a Thai Green Curry, that's for sure.

But that's not the worst of it. No, that title is reserved for Balut, the local delicacy. You hear the chaps walking around town, ringing their bell and calling its name. Filipinos are supposedly impressed by Westerners (or Joes as they call us, after the American G.Is) who eat it; I'm impressed by dogs who eat it. Balut is a large egg. With a duck foetus inside it. You peel it, and bite into it, cruching the fragile skeleton and spitting out feathers and beak as you encounter them. Whose revolting idea was this? Was it a bet? What's wrong with letting the duck be born, feeding it up for a while and then eating it?

The top picture shows Anders, a very brave Swedish dive instructor (and I mean brave for actually putting this thing in his mouth, I don't mean he's an underwater hero), who was game enough to eat it. Watching him peel it made my stomach turn; you can see it hardly looks appetizing. But when he started crunching through bones, I couldn't take any more...I was about to be sick before he was. So I don't have a shot of him actually vomiting, but Bjorn insisted it was suitably projectile in nature.

If a Swede named Anders tries to kiss you in a disco, girls...smell his breath first. You don't want to be spitting out bits of duck foetus beak now, do you?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Divemaster completed

It's finally done. After 6 weeks of diving, 8 exams on Equipment, Physiology, Physics and more; stamina tests like a 400m swim, 800m snorkel and a rescue scenario; practical tests such as assistance on DSD, Open Water, Advanced and Rescue courses; leading qualified divers in open water. I enjoyed studying for the exams, and found them disappointingly easy. I'd been having mild panic attacks about them, re-reading the dive manuals and encyclopedia I'd been given. So much to learn. The exams are just 20 multiple-choice questions, and if anything I'd over-studied. It made it feel less of an achievement, if I'm honest: a monkey could have done this course. Provided you could find a wetsuit with long enough arms.

But it's one of 3 objectives I set myself completed. The other two being to find somewhere else to live and have babies with an Argentinian model. Two out of three wouldn't be bad. At least now I can work my way around the world. The money won't buy me a one-bedroom flat in Hackney (not even Leytonstone) but if it extends time away from the grind in London, that will do for me. It pays for roof, food and beer...I could handle a couple of years living like this.

So what next? Well...a year of diving experience. Maybe South America, maybe back in Coron...we'll see. 2-300 dives under my belt and then it'll be time to head for somewhere like Honduras to do the Instructor course. Free diving course for Our Kid and Lewis (my nephew) soon after. Friends in deep places, eh?

Diving Characters #5: The Filipinos

The Flips aren't as bad as the Koreans. But they're not much better, either. Same dodgy swimming skills...it seems it's only the lads who grow up working on boats adapt to the ocean. Sink or swim, after all.

We did a Discover Scuba course for three very nice young people. The boat was full of their noisy and boisterous friends; never easy trying to teach underwater skills when their mates are swimming in between you snapping away with their cameras. It was my task to introduce the basic scuba equipment, and I was constantly interrupted by one of their friends who was diving later with another lad. "I'm not paying you to be my assistant, do you want to teach this?" I said, in apparent good humour but actually meaning Shut The Fuck Up, Please.

Instruction over, and it was swim time. The two divers came along. Descending, I went down slowly...whereas they sank like stones, crashing into the (thankfully) dead reef several times. Once they'd sorted themselves out, I took them round the Tangat boat. They wanted to go in, so in we went. Swimming through the hold, the fat lad I named Oddjob (after the Bond baddie) indicated to his friend he had a cramp in his calf. I waited while his buddy relieved it. Next minute Oddjob is looking at his air guage disbelievingly...suddenly giving his friend the throat-slashing hand signal meaning "I'm out of air" What the fuck..? I'm over like a shot, his buddy already giving him his alternate air source. Holding them both, I steadied their acsent and took them up to the surface. Once he'd got his breath back, I asked him what had happened. He'd got a cramp, then panicked and thought he'd run out of air. He actually had 40 bar left. I asked how much weight they'd put on the belts, as they'd had trouble getting off the bottom. Turns out they'd put 11 weights on, at 1 kilo each. They'd been thinking in pounds, so had effectively doubled their weight needs. No wonder they went down like the Titanic.

At least it was an effective Rescue exercise for the DM course, I thought...

Diving Characters #4: The Koreans

Korea seems to keep a lot of things secret from the world; intercontinental ballistic missiles, human rights abuses, stuff like that. Maybe I'm tarring the South with the North's brush, but I'll generalise anyway. I, and many other divers, believe we should have kept scuba diving secret from them. They're bloody useless at it. I met a Divemaster in Ko Tao last year who told me she charges more to lead Koreans on dives, as their general incompetence puts them, and sometimes others, in danger. Her boss got sick of the extra charges one day, and asked her to escort some Taiwanese on a dive. She hit the roof on the boat when she'd asked which part of Taiwan they were from...Seoul not being part of Taiwan.

They just take a lot more looking after, and you end up swimming along holding onto some part of their equipment to prevent them shooting up to the surface and getting the Bends. Or even worse, dragging someone with them. They are not usually good swimmers, and think that the inflator button on their BCD (a diver puts a little air in this jacket's bladder to offset his own weight, and that of his equipment, to achieve a state of neutral buoyancy underwater...floating apparently weightless and effortlessly) should be used like an elevator button. The correct way is not to touch it once you have achieved this desired state, and use your lungs to move up and down as you swim; inhaling will make you more buoyant, and you rise...exhaling will see you slowly sink. It's a skill which takes some divers a while to master, but it's the most important in diving.

Just one diver bucked this trend; I was very impressed by a young lad called Ben, who'd done his Open Water a month ago. Meeting him at the shop, I thought we may have our hands full that day...we already had a Filipino couple named Karina and Kristian diving with us who were problematic at times; Kristian was always taking photos and ignoring pleas to stick near Karina in a buddy team. Meanwhile Karina was doggy-paddling underwater and using her inflator too much. One occasion she went all the way to the surface, luckily not from too deep.

First dive out, we dived the East Tangat wreck. It's stern lies in around 6m of water, and she angles sharply down at 45° to around 25m. Not a tough dive, she's only small. There's a couple of places to get inside, and it's open and light. Some nice corals and fish life abound, and we set off to check it. Karina is what I have come to term a "Reg Grabber", in other words she is always keeping her regulator in her mouth to ensure it doesn't come out; despite the moulded silicone mouthpiece having pieces for your teeth to grip to prevent this. It's a sign of underconfidence. She was up and down like a Dutch whore's knickers, and crashing into delicate corals...actually using the edge of the wreck as a bannister as we swam. I was relieved when Artur took the two of them and indicated to me I could take Ben off on my own. Easier immediately. Ben was comfortable in the water, great buoyancy control...a pleasure to dive with. I shook his hand after we got out and told him to consider doing the Advanced course as soon as he could. At Barracuda Lake on the next dive, he went one better when Kristian went to take a photo of him. Indicating for Kris to wait, he sat on a rock, took off his mask, popped out his regulator...and grinned for the camera. I was laughing to myself: very confident diver.

So, in the main, don't dive with Koreans. Unless it's a friendly young bespectacled chap called Ben.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Health & Safety Revisited

I was chatting to Bruno in the Bistro last night. Apparently, the lifeless form I'd seen being carted off to the hospital via tricycle was, indeed, lifeless. Poor fella had no chance, and was only in his twenties. A waste. Bruno said the week before I arrived, three people in a week had been killed on the main road in Coron. And this town is tiny, a series of smaller roads criss-crossing a single lane main road and one junction the size of which you'd expect in a small Cotswolds village. Just seems to be a lack of safety awareness. Or just a lack of people giving a shit; maybe life is cheap.

But it's not just locals.

I'd met a Slovakian fella in the Bistro. He'd actually become my first paid client as a a Divemaster when I took him to the Olympia Maru and Barracuda Lake. A good lad, with impeccable English and a bit of a thinker to boot. He had that Eastern European Style (an oxymoron if ever there was one), so I guessed at his roots before he told me. The Hawaiian shirt, pinstripe shorts, white socks with running shoes and felt hat gave the game away (I later talked him out of buying a pair of shorts which looked like my Nana's least favourite tablecloth). We got on very well and, besides arranging some diving, decided we'd hire a scooter each and head to Concepcion Falls one morning.

Setting off one sunny morning, we found the concrete road ended 8km outside Coron, to be replaced by dirt road. We took it easy, as the back ends of the bikes were slipping from under us on some bends. We'd ridden 15k from Coron when my bike conked out. I suspected spark plug trouble. Having no cell signal, we had to ride Mario's bike to the nearest village. A local shop owner showed me the spot in his tree where I could make a call. Unreal. Help contacted, we rode back and waited in the sweltering heat for the cavalry, who duly arrived half an hour later. The mechanic looked in the fuel tank, rocked the bike and then put his mouth over the filler hole. Sucking away until he cleared the fuel line, he spat out the petrol he'd almost ingested with a grin "Is fix..." I thanked him, and he showed me how to do it if it happened again. Obviously, I hoped it wouldn't.

Off we went, and arrived half an hour later in Concepcion. We ate at the Pierhouse, as it's the only place to eat. If another place opened up, they'd put this place out of business. I ordered fresh pineapple juice, and was presented with a plate of sliced pineapple after about 40 minutes. I resisted the urge to ask where the straw was. One waitress told Mario the shake machine wasn't working, so he couldn't have an iced tea. This was while the sound of crunching ice came from the bar where the other girl was, in fact, currently making his iced tea. We wasted a good 90 minutes here.

Back on the road, we asked directions to the falls. Taking the bikes over a rocky footpath, I was beginning to wonder how we'd get back up without damaging ourselves or, more importantly, the bikes. It began to rain as a series of bemused locals gave us a variety of directions. To call the falls an anticlimax after these trials would be a gross understatement.

Heading back was painful. I'd ripped a flip-flop getting back to the road, and binned the left one, too. Should have kept it as the bike gears were stiff, and it was killing my feet to change up and down. As was steadying myself when the back wheel slipped on the stony road...the soles were getting ripped apart. So stopping by Coron Market was wise before we headed to the hot springs, 5km outside Coron.

I'd recommend visiting these. Hot salt water from underground thermals supplies 5 pools of varying intensity. Great for relaxing after a hard bike ride. An hour later, we headed up the coast to kill some time before the bikes were due back. Heading down the hills in the dark, I was struggling to keep control of my bike on a heavily rutted section. Mario suddenly overtook me at speed. As he'd been showing off on his bike all day, I thought it was just another stunt; he had, in fact, lost control completely. He rolled off in a whirl of light and dust, skidding across the stones on his knee, the bike on top of him. I stopped. he quickly stood, counted fingers and feet...then saw his knee dripping blood. The bike seemed intact, and we headed back to the lighter road to take a better look. We did, and I just said "Hospital" as we examined a 10p-sized hole in his knee below the cap. Nasty.

He looked horrified at the state of the hospital, and even more horrified when I was asked to go buy the medical supplies needed from the chemist's across the road. His 30 quid bill looked pretty painful, too. I asked him about what happened, and mentioned I thought he was showing off again. Turns out he'd jammed his front brake on, not realising there was a rear brake pedal by his right foot. No wonder he'd come off. We were just lucky he'd not crashed into me, too...could have meant a lot more damage.

The funniest part of the tale was the fact that, back at the Pierhouse, he'd mentioned he'd not had Travel Insurance in 3 1/2 years but was unworried as nothing ever happened to him. Unthinking, I'd given him the hospital bill and told him "Never mind, you can always claim it back from your..." and we'd both stated laughing. Could have been a lot worse.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Diving Characters #3: Verbal Diarrhoea-ists

Some people talk too much. Like I've got room to talk; at London web agency GT, I was voted Biggest Mouth (narrowly out-gobbing Sime White...he was mortified). But at least most of what I say is vaguely interesting, or at least funny. If you disagree, you've probably already stopped reading. But Americans talk far too much for my liking. And not many of them are as cool as my mate Shawntelle in San Fran.

We had a family of them on the boat. Norm Snr ("Norm The Great" he'd said, so I wrote that on his kit crate) and Norm Jr ("Just Norm" he said. Crate duly labelled). The daughter was in tow, too. Mum had stayed back in West Virginia. Probably for a bit of Peace & Quiet, I reflected by the close of the day's diving. The ride out to Akitsushima felt like an eternity once they got going. I was treated to lots of facts and figures about Virginia, how clean and friendly it is.

"It's so safe I leave my keys in my ignition overnight..."said Just Norm. "And I never lock my house. You know the film Dirty Dancing?"
"Unfortunately. I dump girls who think that film is a classic."
He wasn't listening. "They filmed that right nearby us. About 20 kilometres."
"Oh..."
"Actually, it's around 25K" said his sister.
"Yeah, around a 25 minute drive."
"There's one of the biggest dams in America near us."
"OK..."
"They found a body in there once. They suspected foul play." She'd started making puppy dog eyes at me as she pulled on her wetsuit.
"They find bodies all the time where I live in London. In the canals. Hands chopped off, teeth smashed out...stuff like that..."
She looked shocked. Just Norm never missed a beat.
"Our county is the biggest producer of peanuts in the United States."
"But they don't roast them there..." Great Norm pointed out.
"No, they do that in the next state."
Kill me now.

Not only did I determine never to visit said county, but I was starting to consider actually descending to the ocean floor without an air supply. Or staying down there til it ran out, rather than surface to this.

At the end of each day, myself and Gerd have a little debrief. How the dives went, problems encountered, who impressed us, who needed an eye kept on them in-water. Also who was good for a laugh and the like. He asked me what I thought of the Americans. "Nice" I said "but really, really dull..."

Part of a DM's job is keeping the clients entertained. I enjoy this, and usually have no problems being sociable. One guy who was a definite struggle was a man I nicknamed Mr Chatterbox within 10 minutes of meeting him. Chatterbox entered the shop, a small but pretty hefty 61-year-old Texan. He was returning to diving after years out of the water. The info he gave us about the old days of diving was very interesting, and I thought he'd be great to have on the boat. But then he digressed into his lack of reading and writing skills until he was 15, and the fact he now has 7 degrees, including one in swine management and another in sleep apnea. "You know what sleep apnea is?" He makes sure you don't know first, then explains...because he does! We raised eyebrows as he went to sign his Liabilty forms for the Advanced course. Immediately he was talking to Gerd's wife, who'd been manning the desk not 3 feet away. "One of my degrees is in sleep apnea..." Very bizarre. He talks. And talks. And talks. I actually had a sweepstake going with another diver on how many times he'd mention the 7 degrees.

Now this odious fellow lives in Angeles, and constantly sang its praises. You all know my feelings on this shithole full of losers and I couldn't believe he was waxing lyrical about the town. On his last day with us, Gerd decided it was time for my official Customer Liason rating test. So I had to chat to him between dives while Gerd smirked and relaxed at the other end of the boat. Chatterbox shared some details with me I'd rather not know. His girlfriend is 21 and "far more fun" than his last one, of 20. He says there are some sick guys in Angeles (pot and kettle, mate) and one case in point being his best friend. "I think he's a paedophile" he told me as I choked on my Coke "he's always nudging me and telling me a girl smiled at him. When I look round, the girl's usually around 12 years old." And he hangs around with this person? I told him pointedly that I'd have decked the guy. "He's OK...his new girl is 18." This was some test for me, and I kept comically glaring at Gerd, who was loving this. I think the most stomach-turning sentence this creature uttered was in answer to my question about the age differences between the men and the girls. He said "Well, usually when they get past 21, they've been moved out of the circle." That phrase "out of the circle" made me want to throw up. Or throw him off the boat.

I know business is business, but if it was my dive shop a guy like this wouldn't get any diving with me. A local who lives over the road, Jim, is from the States and told us "This guy is full of shit". His diving notebook looked like an ink-covered spider had had a fit on it, so I think the guy is a bit of a Walter Mitty character. He said he used to teach Survival years ago. Well if you'd seen him underwater on his Navigation dive as part of the Advanced course, you'd have swallowed as much seawater as me laughing at him. He didn't know what to do with the compass. Gerd gave up with it in the end, he didn't have a clue. "Remind me not to get lost in the wilderness with you" I quipped when back on the boat. "We wouldn't last long." Gerd said I shouldn't be so hard on him. But the image of his fat, sweaty carcass rolling round on top of some poor young Filipina makes it very hard to disguise my contempt.

Settling In

Coron grows on you very quickly, and I see why plenty of people extend their stays. Or maybe I'm just blinded by Wreck Lust. Probably the latter. Either way, I'm glad I chose to do the DM course here. The people are very friendly, and it's nice to have the same people shouting Hello as I walk to "work" at the shop. The cheeky kids in the street, playing games with stones, broken toys and bottle-tops; "Hello, hello...give me money" they greet me, with their hands outstretched...and they laugh when I return "Hello, hello...give me beer" and proffer my own. It's also nice to have a bit of routine for a while. The old lady at the fruit stall holds up mangoes and gives me a quizzical look as I pass each morning, knowing full well I'm stopping by for some.

One of the youths at the local gas station always shouted Hello and then said something in Tagalog, which his friends all laughed at. The same thing happened every day, until I decided to play him at his own game...shouting back "Good Morning, Squeaky" in mockery of his pre-pubescent voice "got any hairs on those cohones yet?" The boys erupted. He didn't look amused. I don't know if his mates understood the last bit, but they definitely got the first. When I walk past the garage now, they point at him and say "Squeaky" in a high-pitched voice.

I had to move accommodation. Another week at Sea Breeze, and my nostrils couldn't take the low-tide stench any longer. Plus, the local guy playing shit R&B full-blast at 6am wasn't really doing it for me. I'd changed rooms once, and the owner had been bemused as to why until I beckoned her into my room, the temporary early-morning disco. The clientele was a little questionable, too. I knew it was time to move when I heard a couple in discussion on the landing one night. The key sentence being him asking "I'm a little short, I think. How much is it just for a blowjob?"

I'd been told Crystal Lodge was a nice place to stay, frequented by many working divers. It's a family-run place, and so friendly. All wood and bamboo, built a little bit further out over the sea and away from the din of central Coron. A basic room, but a very nice communal area with a TV and English Tea all included. It's dominated by Swedes: two dive instructors named Anders and Bjorn and a grizzled Viking of a man named Peter. Pete's adopted the family's dog; they were going to give it away because the spoilt brat of a kid, Borgy, teased it until it barked at him. He cried like a girl, and the dog's fate was almost sealed until Peter stepped in. Borgy's dad is working in Singapore, so Uncle Ray is bringing him up. A nice enough kid most of the time, but a pain in the arse when he's not getting his own way. All in all though, Crystal's a great place to be...so I'm settling in for 4-6 weeks.

Big Fat German Sex Tourist

I'd seen a big, fat, middle-aged blob of a man walking around Coron with a slip of a Filipina who looked around 17; not a pretty sight, it has to be said. He'd been in one of the dive shops when I was shopping round on arrival. She was very beautiful and looked very bored. He was a bit of a boor and, while out with a few mates one night, he took it upon himself to plonk himself down at our table uninvited. How rude, dear boy?

We'd been discussing the couple before he sat down. The girls were horrified (see opposite) at the waste of a beautiful girl on this toad of a man. I was in no mood to mess around and, as I'd had several beers, cut straight to the chase.

"How old are you then, mate?"
"I'm 52" he replied.
"And yer bird?" I nodded towards where the unfortunate wretch was warbling into a karaoke microphone (and trying not to mentally swap a phallic image for a real one belonging to him).
"She's 21" he beamed proudly.
"Bit wrong that, isn't it?"
"No, no, no" he insisted "it's the way it is here."
"Because of this" I rubbed two fingers together.
"Of course" he laughed.

He told me he was here regularly. With the same girl?
"No, of course not...I get a new one each time" he sounded amazed at my stupid question.
What a delightful chap. His mother would be delighted with the way he turned out. I think the best part of him ended up on her sheets.

He left for the toliet. The girls wrinkled their noses in his general direction as Zandy (the girl) sat down, having just successfully murdered Blondie's Heart Of Glass. They told me I should rescue her "like Pretty Woman". Not likely, girls. I asked Zandy if the toad was a good boyfriend?

"Him?" she thumbed over her shoulder at the toilet door "That guy is a fucking idiot." We were still laughing as Toad made his way back to the table.

Health & Safety In The Philippines

Or rather, a distinct lack of it. The Accident Waiting To Happen actually happened one night while I was sat in the Bistro. An almighty crash of colliding metal sparked a mass exodus into the street from surrounding shops. Pieces of glass and twisted scooter were scattered across the road. One rider was being carried to a tricycle for a trip to the hospital up the road; he flopped into the back like a rag doll. The other guy was suffering from a serious gash to the head...I assumed it was his blood puddling the dusty concrete road.

People here ride scooters with no lights at night. No helmets. And sometimes after too much local rum. Walking to the shop one morning, my shoulder was brushed by a passing wagon as it hurtled up the street. If I'd stepped left to avoid a puddle or a dog...

Kids run around in the street amongst the constant traffic of scooters and tricycles. I'm surprised no-one is killed. But they get on with it, it's accepted as the norm. And, having been to the hospital for a medical before diving, I know I don't want to be an admission there. The equipment is rudimentary and anachronistic. Having an ear infection recently, I was glad the young doctor examined me instead of the older Doctor Death. He examined one of Gerd's previous DMCs, puncturing his eardrum in the process. You don't get that with BUPA, do you?

I think I'm safer swimming around inside rusty, crumbling wrecks under the sea...

If Carlsberg Made Wankers...

...they'd struggle to top this one.

I'd wandered into the Bistro one evening, and took a seat at the bar as it was busy. I ordered the Thai fish and fries. A chap next to me said "You ordered that last night". I laughed, and said "And you sat there last night". We got chatting. Nathan is an architect from Nottingham (correct me if I'm wrong, fella?) living in Saigon, Vietnam. Being a designer myself, and having been to his adopted city, conversation was easy. Well it would have been, had we not been constantly interrupted by a big Aussie to my left who seemed to know everything about everything. I was beginning to tire of politely turning round and listening, but I wasn't sure if Nathan knew him...so he continued to be involved in our chat.

I related a story Jim Davidson told me about a dive that went wrong when he was in the Navy. Inside a Portsmouth training wreck, he'd lost his buddy, and had a serious equipment malfunction. Running out of air and fighting rising panic, he was weighing up the options and contemplating finding religion when he found an air pocket. Lucky man. Popping his head into the space, he waited. Minutes later, his mate's bubbles announced rescue.

"I'd have just free-dived out of the wreck" interrupted Aussie Bullshitter.
"From inside a wreck 30 metres down? As if..." I replied.
"Yeah"
"After breathing compressed air at depth? And you'd find your way out and just swim up?" What an idiot.
"You could do it" he told me.
"No chance. I can only get down to around 10 metres on one breath if I'm lucky."
"You can. Anyone can. You could dive to 30 metres on one breath, no problem."
What a berk. "Look...I think I know my physiology and limits a bit better than you do. I've just sat down next to you fifteen minutes ago."
"I suppose..."

Myself and Nathan started discussing the Divemaster course, and he asked what the requirements were before starting. I said you had to complete the Rescue course first.

"Rescue course?" asked Bullshitter.
Fuck me sideways, here we go again. "What's that about, then?"
"Rescue." I sighed.
"Yeah, but like what? Rescuing idiots who can't dive?" he asked?
"Well, self-rescue first and foremost...then helping others if there's a bad situation or an accident."
"Rescuing idiots, then..."
Strewth, as his ilk would say.

Discussing the part of the DM course which required a dive site to be mapped, I told Nathan I'd had to go down alone on the Olympia Maru a couple of times so far. It's not recommended, but there are only two potential equipment-related failures, and both would give me approximately 60 seconds to get to the drop-tank suspended below the boat at 5 metres with emergency air. That or it's a controlled ascent immediately, risking the Bends. A small emergency tank would be ideal, but expensive. If diving alone regularly and staying to work the wrecks, I'd buy one.

"I'm wondering what the SSI Solo Diver course is all about" interjected our Antipodean Arse-Pain.
"Diving on your own?" I offered.
"Yeah, but what exactly?"
"I'd imagine it's about all the knowledge and skills you'd need to dive solo?"

The next interruption was during my description of a tough part of the DM course: exchanging equipment with each other at depth while buddy-breathing from one regulator. It's tough, and I wasn't looking forward to it.

"Nah, it's easy...even new divers should practice that."
Here we go again. "So why's that?" I asked.
"You know what a bommie is?"
No, but I was pretty sure I was due a lengthy and tedious explanation.
"It's a space inside a coral reef. We get loads o' bommies back home. What you do, you get off all your scuba kit off, push it under the bommie. Then you slide under the bommie while breathing from your reg. Bommies are like a bar. It looks good from outside, but through the door is where the life is at. Under a bommie, you get crayfish...we grab a few every time we're down there. Take 'em up, crack a few beers and back in for more. The best bommies..." I'd never heard the word bommie before, and by now would be glad never to hear it again. I tuned out, and after a while he tailed off.

Thankfully, he paid up and left. Nathan raised his eyebrows as we watched him depart.
"Thought he'd never leave..."
"Fancy diving some bommies, then? Full of life, you know..."
Nathan told me he'd started blabbing half an hour before I turned up. Apparently he'd been bragging how he manages to smuggle a knuckle-duster onboard planes. "Know why? Because I can...carbon fibre!" Great. Does it with a hunting knife too. Allegedly (my arse).

Speaking of knives...what a tool.

Diveboat Characters #2: The Pros

Some divers are not as skilled as others, and if you are escorting a few of them it can be like herding cats; a nightmare. But every now and then you get to chaperone some divers who make the job an absolute pleasure. Before diving, we check the forms divers fill out to see their level and experience. Anything above 30-40 dives and we usually have no trouble. Above that level is a bonus. Two Swiss joined us for a few days: Aris and Elena. They were a really nice couple, had a load of new gear, and it was a relief to read that they were both Rescue certified. So out on the wrecks with these two, it was more like fun diving with friends; nothing to worry about, and no need to be constantly checking on them. If all customers were this good, life would be so simple. But maybe no challenge would bore me? The jury's out on that one.

Another excellent diver we had through the door was Nicolai, a Danish Divemaster making his 100th dive with us. He'd learned back home where conditions are a lot tougher, so he makes diving in the Philippines look effortless. If you can dive in very limited visibility, in a dry suit and in bloody cold water, this warm water is a doddle. I like diving with people like him, it makes me up my game.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Diveboat Characters #1: The Racist

You meet a wide variety of people on a dive boat. Most of the time this is one of the most pleasing aspects of diving; occasionally it's not.

I'd wandered into the shop to find a Cockney in a Chelsea shirt selecting his gear for a dive. I don't like Chelsea, and once had a few of their fans wanting to kick my head in for asking directions down the King's Road one afternoon. Norvern Cant, I seem to recall being called. Not pleasant people, in the main. We got chatting, and this guy seemed OK. On the boat that morning were an American man and his two twenty-something offspring, and a trio of Spaniards. After we'd completed our first dive, a short storm blew in as we ate lunch. A few moments of silence were interrupted by the Londoner. "Here's one for you..." What followed was the type of joke I thought had died out in the 70s. I'd heard it at school, and knew it a couple of sentences in. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion...I had to walk to the back of the boat before the punchline. Polite laughter was followed by an uncomfortable silence and exchanged glances between divers. Deary me. Jim Davidson was the nickname from here in.

I was in the Bistro bar later that night, and he came in with his local girlfriend. Wandering over in his 3/4 length pants and Reebok trainers, he asked if there was anywhere else to drink. I told him the town was limited for nightlife, but that he could try Bottleground over the road.

"Just been in there, they were playing that American nigger shit" he said.
"You daft racist" I said, looking away.
"I'm not racist" he assured me.
I raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

Conversation obviously lapsed for a few minutes, as I turned my attention elsewhere. I could hear the wheels in his tiny brain going round. Louis put some reggae on from behind the bar, and this was his cue to tap me on the shoulder.

"Just to prove I'm not a racialist" he said, at a conspiratorial level "I do actually like this music."
"Oh, I get you now" I replied "Jamaican niggers are OK, you just don't like American ones?"
That seemed to close the conversation, and he left soon after with the Filipina.

I left it at that, and was my usual professional self on the boat...I just avoided him wherever possible. But I couldn't resist one last dig. I was still reading What Is The What, the book about Sudanese refugees, and had my head in it at every possible minute on the boat. He had wandered over, and leaned back trying to see the cover.

"What is that book? You never seem to put it down."
"Oh, you wouldn't like it..." I sighed "...it's about niggers."

Job done.

Divemaster: First Week

Gerd was out diving when I got to the shop in Coron. I hung around, and he was pleased to see me when he returned; I think he knew I'd be back. When asked about the start day I fancied I just smiled "Tomorrow". No point hanging around. The sooner I qualified, the sooner I could dive for nothing and earn some cash into the bargain. My big plan is to get to South America and see if diving can extend my stay indefinitely. All depends on the taxman back home and how quickly I'm reduced to borrowing money from Uncle Visa in the meantime. Coron's very cheap though, I'm spending around 6-8 quid a day on board, food & beer. Bargain.

So. First up we had a nice couple named Stefan and Tony on the half day Discover Scuba course (you teach the very basics, and then take the for a 12m-deep swim around a reef). Stefan was Austrian, and plainly terrified of sticking his face in water...not cut out to be a diver. Tony was his extremely skinny Indonesian boyfriend, a very nice lad; we struggled to find a wetsuit that didn't look baggy on him. Gerd told me he couldn't swim but, as diving is primarily about being able to sink, this was OK. He picked up the skills very quickly and was very confident in the water, but he couldn't stay horizontal or kick his legs enough to move. Underwater he reminded me of a Daddylonglegs caught in the blast of a large fan; he was all over the place. I nicknamed him Puppet Boy almost immediately: Pinnochio with the strings cut. Needless to say, Stefan gave up withough getting his hair wet. Discover You Don't Like Scuba course, then? He looked very proud of his man, though. And Tony decided to take his Open Water course, joined by a tough little Austrian cookie named Sandra.

The Divemaster course stipulates that a candidate is involved with open water sessions of all previous courses prior: Open Water, Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver. So I'll basically assist, demonstrate PADI skills and supervise divers while the instructor's busy with any individually. It can be a good laugh, or painful if they don't quite get it. I'm pretty patient; Gerd less so. He gets a bit narky if he demonstrates something and the student doesn't get it right first time. While he swims away slowly, banging his fists on his head, I simply shrug at the wide-eyed novices and wave a hand at the exasperated Bavarian as if to say "Don't worry about him...he's a big pussycat, really..." Or just shrug nonchalantly and point at a fish to distract them. It seems to work.

I could see my course was going to be hard work, but ultimately rewarding; when a student struggles with their diving, and you assist them in perfecting a skill...witnessing the moment they actually get it, and their resulting elation at the end of a session, makes it all worthwhile. I can understand Gerd's wobblers when endless repetition doesn't work. I've suggested Temazepam or Moggadon before Open Water sessions in future. Or maybe Prozac?

Back To Busuanga Via Manila

Nothing quite sharpens the senses like walking around Malate with 400 quid on you. There being no ATM in Coron, there was no other choice but to withdraw all the cash required for four to six weeks' stay on the island. So I'm reduced to strolling unevenly around the district like a man with a badly-fitting corrective shoe; your money is safe in your trainers, though...Filipinos wouldn't rob a man of his shoes if they weren't going to fit now, would they? Most Filipinos wouldn't rob you of anything, to be honest...but the ones in Malate just might.

While in town, I thought I'd go to the flicks. They like big blockbusters here, and I was torn (hardly) between car chases and explosions, or a Nicholas Cage film called Knowing. He's consistently shit (Raising Arizona aside), but the entrance fee was around 2 quid so I coughed up. What a load of nonsense it was, but I laughed all the way through...so it was worth the money. Just about. I don't think it was supposed to be funny, though...the locals gave me some quizzical looks. "Watchable Shit" is the category I put this waste of celluloid under. Nice effects, just make sure you're under the influence of something if you pick it out of the bargain bin in Blockbuster.

That laughable tale didn't deserve a digression of that magnitude, but there you go. Back to the (vaguely) interesting stuff...

I spent a few hours to-ing and fro-ing over the Divemaster course location. Coron's not exactly Party Central, but 6 weeks on the Gilis would cost a fortune in booze...and wouldn't do me any good. So I bit the bullet, paid the extortionate visa extension fee for 30 days (65 quid), and bought a few diving bits and bobs for the course. A tenner flight back to Coron softened the visa blow, and the following morning saw me scanning the screens at Ninoy Aquino airport.

A tepid cuppa and tuna sandwich later, I was sat reading my book at the departure gate. An English fella nearby was reading a dive mag, and when he settled down for a nap I asked if I could read it. A short time later, he and his two companions were off for a fag "Could you watch the gear for us?" asked one of his pals in a Yank accent (I thought). Sure. On their return we got talking diving. They'd come from Boracay, and this flipped a switch. Especially when the fella said he was involved in work with whalesharks. "You're Canadian, then?" He was. "Is your name D'Arcy?" It was. I introduced myself and we both started laughing. A mutual friend had put us in touch via Facebook, and we'd been texting and mailing since I got to the Philippines; travel advice, arranging a meet to dive and the like. It truly is a small world.

The lads were hungover, and regaled me with some recent tales involving fire-extinguishers, escaping from irate hotel owners, drink-related injuries etc. Probably a good thing they were only out for a few days. Not that I got off to a good start with D'Arcy's mate, Jon; I don't think me telling him he reminded me of a cross between Michael Elphick and Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast was much of an ice-breaker. It was either that, or me enquiring about how he'd lost half his ear. "Bitten off in a fight" he said, without a glance in my direction. Oh.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Love At First Sight

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I've fallen in love. As soon as I saw her, I was captivated. She's bigger than I'd usually go for, and a fair bit older than me. But she's in good shape for her age. Exotic and exciting, the moment I touched her I knew forever wasn't going to be long enough. Dad said she sounds interesting, but Mum doesn't approve. She thinks she's dangerous and will get me into trouble.

Her name's Irako; she's Japanese. She's been in Coron 65 years, and lies in 30 metres of warm Philippines water in Coron Bay. Her darker points are at a good 42 metres down, around her salvaged propeller shaft. Gerd told me she's the Three Ds..."Deep, Dark...and fucking Dangerous" he cackled. Red rag to a bull...I wanted in. Top of my list since the first day in his shop, Gerd had steered me away from her until I'd proved myself on the easier wrecks. But after our first dives together he'd told me "I like British wreck divers...strong" while tapping his temple and smiling. So I'd earned my spurs. Divemasters at other shops don't penetrate her, as you only get a bottom time of around 15-18 minutes before you have to come back up; Gerd's actually dived her on his own, exploring. So he knows her intimately, and I'm her jealous suitor. He has around 12 bottles from her stores...green or brown glass with Nippon Breweries around the base. I'm not leaving the country until I own one.

Artur was guiding me on this one, as Gerd had other business that day. I was a little wary, as I trust Gerd implicitly...but he assured me his Divemaster had over 1000 dives on these wrecks. A night on the booze wasn't really great preparation for this one, and as we hit the deck at 30 metres down, I wasn't sure if it was the narcs or the alcohol making my head spin. But no turning back now, he gave me the signal. I responded in the affirmative, and into the dark hatch we went.

She was no disappointment. The foreboding darkness enveloped us, machinery and collapsed metal highlighted by the beams of our torches. Not having much ambient light to guide us, each sweep of our lights revealed something else; wreckage, switches, doors we dared not enter, pitch black beyond their frames. Conscious of time, we headed through the transmission room; masses of twisted metal, remains of machines, wheels and tilted beams abounded...you could almost sense the souls of the dead in this cast iron crypt. So much to see, but so little time. We entered a decompression dive before we knew it, our beeping computers urging our escape and indicating the several minutes of boredom we'd spend hanging on the line on the way up, nitrogen bubbles escaping our systems via our lungs on the way up to safety. But no matter...it was worth every nanosecond. Adrenaline flooded my system as we found our way out and located the shotline.

Irako was a refigeration ship, and Gerd told me there's much more to see. She's huge at 147m long. We barely covered a sixth of her. He has an American client who comes back every year and does 200 dives on her alone. Sounds excessive, but I'm beginning to see where he's coming from. I wanted more within seconds of getting inside her bulk.

Heading back to Coron Town, I sat at the stern of the Emily and watched the islands pass, the sun set. And I started weighing up my options. Indonesia, the Gili Islands and my Divemaster course were my next planned stop...I'd booked a flight to Manila in the next few days, as the visa was running out within days. Another visa extension would cost me 65 quid for a month. Coron was a dusty little place, and wouldn't have the entertainment of Gili Trawangan. There certainly wasn't much action here. But could I leave the wrecks and a mentor like Gerd Schulte? I think my mind was made up before I got on the plane back to Manila.

Akitsushima

Wrecks don't come much prettier than the Akitsushima. A seaplane tender, and the only true warship of the collection, she met her end that fateful day in September 1944 with the rest of them. The aircraft was never found, and stories about about its final location. Nevertheless, she makes a great external swim...her crane and radio tower as still in place, and one or two gun emplacements can still be viewed.

She lies at a maximum depth of 30 metres. The visibility isn't great outside, but gets much better inside. Just forward of her crane is a huge crack which spans the complete beam of the ship. It looks like she was opened up with a giant can-opener. Heading inside, it's a simple swim through her second level deck to her engine room. Being a diesel engine, she was never bothered by the salvage teams of the 50s and 60s who plundered the steam engines of these wrecks for their brass and aluminium. So instead of an empty shell, a diver is treated to a sublime penetration through the guts of the ship, complete with wheels, boilers, a maze of pipes, and even some intact guages in the control room. It's breathtaking; a dive through here is impossible without thoughts for the men who struggled to escape this iron coffin as she descended. The panic and confusion, combined with the rushing of water, must have been intense. It's not a pleasant way to die, thrashing around for a few desperate moments before unconsciousness provides mercy. The silence as you pass through these spaces once inhabited by Japanese sailors certainly adds to the atmosphere; alone with your thoughts.

Once is not enough inside these submerged leviathans. I could see Coron was going to dent my budget somewhat. But then, maybe I'd tire of them eventually and move on?

First Wreck

We arrived at the first dive site: the Kogyo Maru. Being first boat there, we were assured a decent dive, there being no other divers to kick up the silt and obscure the view. Gerd's brief was thorough and precise. He gave me the history of the ship: Kogyo had been a supply ship used to carry construction materials. She'd been full of wire, cement and other supplies when she went down. Gerd showed me exactly where we'd penetrate the wreck, and where I could see the interesting stuff like the tractor in her forward hold.

We geared up quickly, Gerd casting the occasional eye at me as I did so. You always feel you're being evaluated on a dive boat. There's good reason for it...and you get an idea of someone's standard as soon as you head down the shotline to the bottom. Hand signals were re-iterated, the main one being the sign for my tank being half-empty; he'd have to calculate the rest of the dive by my air consumption so far, and therefore know when to head back towards the shotline and the surface. A giant stride off the boat later, we gave the OK sign...and down we went.

Visiblity isn't great in Coron Bay. The close proximity of so many islands ensures a run-off into the sea to cloud the view. But this only makes it a little more edgy and therefore exciting. We dropped into darker water, and my heart skipped a beat as the rusting hulk appeared from the gloomy depths. Gerd had warned me that I'd consume my air more quickly the first few times on the wrecks. He wasn't wrong...I was excitedly sucking in breath like never before.

Dropping over the side, we approached a cargo hold. He asked me via hand signals if I was happy to go in. Too right I was. In we went, the light disappearing behind me as we pulled out our flashlights. He pointed out the wreckage of the tractor and we swam above this and through a large hole into the next hold. No sound accompanied us, bar the hiss of inhaled gas and the trickle of bubbles heading up and away. The atmosphere in the wreck was beautiful; passages opened up before me as we headed for the engine room and its two impressive furnaces. Beyond was a hole which led further through the remains of the boat. It got darker, my heart hammering in my chest and the blood pounding in my temples as we found our way through to the farthest holds.

Time flew, and all too soon we exited the wreck, to swim across the hull and see the fish and corals that have claimed her as home. Beautiful schools of fish drifted around as Gerd made the OK sign in a questioning manner. Fucking right I'm OK, my friend...let me at the next one as soon as humanly possible. Arriving at the shotline, we carefully made our ascent to the surface. I looked back as the wreck disappeared from view. I was hooked.

"Nice dive?" asked Gerd as we climbed out of the sea. My grin said it all. The smell of frying fish teased my nostrils as we got out of the wetsuits, and Dennis laid a right old feast before us. Lapu lapu and pumpkin curry, fresh mango and banana. Far and away the best food I'd had in the Philippines. We discussed the wreck, and the next dives, over lunch. I'd definitely made the right choice with this bunch. Great guys, great banter and great food.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Emily

The deep jade sea was like glass as our banca, the Emily, parted the water between us and our first dive. A warm sun kissed my skin, and I stretched out on the bow to enjoy the view and an hour of anticipation.

Gerd used to play in a reggae band in the 70s. He's yet to play me anything they put together; but white German men playing reggae? That I have to hear. Or maybe not? The boat is painted in Jamaican colours, just like the shop. It's certainly eye-catching compared to the standard white and blue bancas. He just needs some engine mounts and a sound system on there...to beat the noise and vibrations which set your teeth on edge at times.

The crew are as much fun as Gerd. Dennis is the captain and resident cook. I've nicknamed him Masterchef. He cooks the best food I've had in this country. That's not saying much, I know...but his pumpkin curry is something special. He giggles when I tell him that if he was a girl I'd have to marry him. He's a bit of a character, and speaks good enough English to take the piss every five minutes. I like him a lot. He's made himself some custom fins from fibreglass and tyre inner tubes. I first saw these in action when he swam under the boat, with a scuba tank under one arm. No need for proper kit, then? I'll be posting a video soon...it has to be seen to be believed. The other member of the crew is William, or Billy Boy, who doesn't speak as much English but shares unspoken laughs with me. Like raising his eyebrows and grinning when we have a shapely white woman on board (not frequently). Two cheeky Irish girls made him come over all shy recently. Very amusing for me and Dennis...especially when they were chasing him round the boat.

A local guy built the Emily, and Gerd's had a few problems with it. Lazy Filipino carpenters, apparently. Dennis told me that the toilet cubicle at the stern of the boat actually fell into the sea a couple of weeks before I arrived. Not very amusing for the woman who was taking a piss at the time, minding her own business one minute (literally) and performing her ablutions for an audience on neighbouring dive boats the next. I think I'd have died laughing; I'd even have paid for schadenfreude of that quality. No physical pain was suffered by the poor woman, luckily.

Artur is the shop's divemaster. He's a fairly quiet lad, but also very amusing when you get to know him. I'd be diving with him in the next few days. All in all a very good combination of characters, and I just knew I was going to have a good time with this lot.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Wrecks Of Coron Bay

On the 24th September 1944, a large swarm of US Navy aircraft filled the skies above Coron Bay, in the Philippines. Their target was the Japanese supply fleet which had fled air-raids in Manila. A total of 96 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter escorts and 24 Curtis SB2C Helldiver dive bombers took off on a flight to their targets 340 miles away: the longest carrier-based air operation in history. Due to the distance and fuel consumption, the pilots would not have long to engage their targets. Many did not make it home after the raid, running out of fuel and crashing into the sea.

These ships were essential to the Japanese war effort, and their sinking was a bitter blow they wish to forget. Indeed, one ship was only recently identified, having been wrongly named for several years. Twelve craft were hit in total, and few vessels escaped. Those hit took hundreds of terrified seamen to a watery grave in the cloudy waters of the bay. Some of these ships have never been found.

Rocksteady Diving

It was a blisteringly hot walk around town to find somewhere to dive the Japanese wrecks around Busuanga. There were a good few operations offering good deals, most around 42 quid for three dives, which isn't bad.

Staff in most shops didn't know where the next day's diving would be, and couldn't tell us that much about the sites. Others just didn't seem bothered and told us to come back later. One shop told us about the further flung establishments, and we decided to have a good look round all of them.

Rocksteady was a ten minute walk out of town. The shop's decked out in Jamaican colours, the reason for which I'd learn later, and contained allsorts of rusty relics from the ships: radios, lights, beer bottles, rusty bits of unidentifiable metal (lots of those)...you name it. Gerd, the owner, had obviously been busy.
We started chatting about the wrecks, and he impressed me with both his knowldge and passion for them. Books and charts were brought out, recommendations made. Gerd's very laidback (not with incompetent students, but more on that later). He spent a good hour with us, chatting about this and that. Apparently he was Bavarian, and he informed that this was different from being German "like the Scottish are not British". I said "Or the English British...we don't like getting lumped in with those Welsh and Scottish types, old chap." He laughed.

I liked Gerd straight away. He leans across the counter on one forearm when making a point, examining you pointedly with his piercing blue eyes as he waits for a response. I could easily picture him in the Kriegsmarine uniform of a U-Boat captain. And for a German, he's very funny. We'd been chatting about diving experiences, great places we'd dived, and various pains-in-the-arse we'd encountered. He'd had some hard work with an awkward Austrian customer some time back "Bloody Austrians. Those bastards" he sighed to the ceiling "Never trust an Austrian. My wife is Austrian..." he gestured to the office behind him. Before I could chip in with a water-testing joke, he beat me to it "...Hitler was a fucking Austrian!" he roared, eyes twinkling. I grinned so widely my face hurt. A German who makes jokes about Hitler; we'd get along just fine. Next he'd be telling me he supported Preston North End.

He also told us a little about his diving history. Like me, he'd been a late starter at 37 and, also like me, got hopelessly addicted immediately. The Instructor who'd taught him was actually the model for the Jethro Tull "Aqualung" album cover opposite. Very bizarre. He'd done his Divemaster course in Coron years back and got hooked on wrecks. Despite a couple of short spells back in Germany, he's been here 8 years and has no intention of leaving the boats. His wife, Karin, has got used to his other love taking up his time.

Will said he'd like to check out the other dive shops first, and Gerd was fine with this. We thanked him and left. It wasn't far up the road that we turned round after Will had asked for my impressions of him and the shop. I told him I felt Gerd was the only person who seemed interested in us diving with him, knew his stuff, and was a bit of a character into the bargain. Will agreed. We went straight back and arranged a schedule to dive over the next few days.

I hardly slept that night; this was the main reason I'd come to the Philippines. After reading and researching these warships, I was finally going to get my hands on them.

Jabba The Hutt

Most of the locals were friendly, as I say. Exceptions to every rule though, isn't there?

Will was hungry, so we headed for a local joint for some food. There was a small place which was clean enough, and Will liked the look of the gaff...so in we went. At the far end was a table with a row of metal pots, a very large woman face-down on the table behind them. She looked less than happy at being woken to actually serve some people in her cafe. How rude of us.

She wasn't pretty, and pulled a face at us which reminded me of a particularly loathsome character in Star Wars. I think she was a bit heavier than him actually, and Jabba would be the more upset of the two by my comparison. We asked what was on the menu and she waved a wobbly arm across the pots and scowled. Will began lifting he lids one by one as I eyed the hairy tufts sprouting from beneath her arms and watched sweat trickle down her face. I wasn't keen on the fare; some of the pots looked like they contained the remains of Dennis Nilsen's lunch. Content she'd done her bit, she promptly tutted and went back to sleep. I was charmed, and found myself pitying the poor bastard who wakes up next to this.

Deciding a glass of Coke would meet my current nutritional needs, and keen to prevent the contents of my stomach squirting through the cheeks of my arse at a later stage, I declined the food. Will didn't, and it was quite amusing to watch his face as he begrudgingly ate his "pork".

I'd have paid to have Gordon Ramsey turn up and tear a strip off this woman on Kitchen Nightmares. But frankly, I couldn't see her giving a flying fuck.

Coron Town, Busuanga

The pier came into view, the sun beating down as we edged closer. It's a fairly small, nondescript port, and the surroundings were hardly inspiring. Myself and a Frenchman named Will shared a tricycle into the main town, which was a light improvement. Coron is a small, dusty, ramshackle place. The tricycle depot and market form the hub, and a small number of cracked roads lead off to the 23 barangays (districts). There's no beach here, so the place has never suffered from extensive modernisation, though Korean investors are doing their utmost to change this by building a large hotel and flattening the market. They built the airport on Busuanga, the island Coron sits on, so their money is talking. I hope they don't ruin it.

There's not a lot goes on here, besides diving. The only bars to speak of are one attached to Bistro Coron, owned by a very nice Frenchie named Bruno, an upstairs videoke bar full of hookers called Bottleground (be a fitting name fo a Preston pub), the Helldiver Bar next to Sea Dive, and the Prostitute Disco. Needless to say, I stick to Bistro, it being the only place to hear decent music too, as Louis the barman likes his Funk and Soul.

The food here is as appalling as anywhere else in the country. I haven't eaten so much Western food in any foreign country, you can't do anything else. It's cheap enough in some of these local joints, but keeping it down could be a challenge. Besides, Bruno does a mean Crepe Suzette...so I'm sticking with him.

Myself and Will found rooms at Sea Breeze, a cheap place with a friendly lady called Auntie Betty running it. They should rename it Shit Breeze, as it sits over the water...when the tide goes out the mud stinks. And you're lucky if you can only smell the mud; toilets in these places empty directly into the sea below. The mosquitoes are ravenous, and pigs and cockerels vy for your attention at all hours of the day an night. Then there's the catfights which take place every night, otherwordly screams breaking the silence. Not to mention the local who started blasting R&B at 6.30am. No need for an alarm clock to get up for diving. Like I say, the place was cheap...and I didn't plan on being here long.

The locals in this scruffy town are very friendly, everyone says Hello on the street. It feels more real than your usual Filipino seaside towns, the absence of a beach is a good thing; otherwise it could end up another Panglao. Despite initial misgivings, the place would grow on me, I later found.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Boat To Busuanga

I thought the bus trip to El Nido was hellish. This cargo boat escapade beat it hands-down. At 800 pesos, it's a third of the price of a banca...and a lot safer. Well, as safe as a boat gets in the Philippines. There's just one weekly, leaving at midnight on a Friday.

I sat on the beach with Rik and Naomi, who'd caught me up. I only bumped into them an hour before departure; I'd been sitting in the seafood place having a beer with JB and discussing Indonesia with him and an Irishman who'd just dived in Nusa Lembong and recommended it to me. Any place with "bong" in its name sounds like a suitable destination to me. Finishing up and saying my Goodbyes, I sat on the beach with Rik's Swedish mate, who treated me to a much-needed joint before we departed; it had been a month since my last one.

At the harbour, we had to present our tickets to three separate people. High security, or just keeping people in jobs? The latter, I imagine. There's people on the islands who are responsible for collecting fees for tourists landing on their beaches. Sitting on a beach collecting money? I must inform Garfield Hodgson that there's an ideal job for him here.

As we're on Filipino Time, services leave when they're good and ready; in this case that meant after 3 hours of pissing about with cargo (it's a working boat, not a ferry). Cockerels, pigs...you name it, it was being loaded on. I was stuck in a corner of the upper deck on one of the cots which lay next to each other along the edges and centre of the deck. Every available space was utilised, and families slept almost in a pile. Before we got underway and I had the pleasure of a breeze, I was sweating like Gary Glitter in Hamley's. I was going to enjoy my shower at my next destination, and was looking forward to it already. The boat stank; a mixture of sweat, animals, engine oil, and fish. The two toilets at the back of the boat served 100-odd people. Thankfully I was in flip-flops as I exited the loo to find a small queue outside. A woman held a little girl's hand, and obviously this little mdam was in no mood for waiting; as I closed the door, she squatted down and I felt a stream of warm urine cascade over my toes. Maybe she just didn't like me?

Needless to say, sleep was possible for just about everyone on the boat bar me. So I just took advantage of nearby electrical outlets, and charged all my gadgets. Then it was almost dawn, so I went and sat on a crate, silently sharing the sunrise with a crewman. It was an amazing sight.

Coron Town came into view on the distant horizon, the passengers began to stir. I scanned the dark blue waters and wondered what adventure lay in store for me.

El Nido: Not What It Says On The Tin

The Rough Guide (spits) describes Palawan as "the last frontier" of Philippines travel. That may be (vaguely) true in southern Palawan, but Up North, it's hardly the case at all. Besides, surely somewhere like the Sulu Archipelago, southwest of Mindano, is more fitting of said description? After all, there are Muslim separatists fighting a civil war and occasionally beheading kidnapped foreign aid workers. Sounds a little bit more hardcore to me. Not that it's on my list, to be honest. My head is no match for Brad Pitt's, but I'm pretty happy with its current location on my body, thanks.

El Nido is a long, dusty bus ride from Roxas, a jeepney ride from Barton. It was a beautiful morning, and we sat on the roof all the way to Roxas. Stunning scenery from every angle. Deposited at a barren, dry junction we waited for the bus. Never mind air-con, this one had no glass in the windows. Never mind lunch, chew the dust if you're hungry. We were filthy. A short break at Tay Tay provided lunch; I asked if the prawns were fresh. Yes, I was told...but they didn't say when they were fresh. JB declined an offer of a prawn with a wry smile: I was on my own. Thankfully there was no need to hang my arse out of the window on the second leg of the journey; the Philippines has toughened my intestines.

Besides chewing dust, the worst aspect of this journey was the local penchant for waiting until the bus has set off after the last shouted-for stop before shouting that they wanted off, too. Roughly 20 yards down the fucking road? Lazy bastards, I tell you. One woman berated the driver for going past her house when she called, and he had to reverse approximately 30 yards...I couldn't believe it.

We eventually arrived, after the driver had wrestled the bus around various breakneck bends on the gravel-encrusted road. It didn't have the vertical drops of the Baguio to Sagada trip, but it was still pretty hairy. Always nice to get to a destination alive. I had a laugh with a local chracter who worked as a desptch rider in the town; I told him he was the Filipino Keith Richards and insisted I have his photo. He loved that.

Capitalism has come to El Nido in a big way, and it took a while for us to find somewhere with cheap rooms. Chip and Kiwi Kris from Malapascua found a really nice place called Cliffside when they arrived, but too late for us. Stuck with a shithole for a week; the shower in our place was in a tiny, windowless box next to the family kitchen...you had to use a candle to see what you were doing...it was like the Black Hole Of Calcutta in there. On one occasion there were no candles, and one of the teenage girls asked me if I was Ok with no light. She blushed and giggled when I said it was OK, I knew whereeverything was.

The town isn't too exciting, and the nightlife is limited to the beachside bars and restaurants. There's a particularly good seafood place at the bottom end of the beach, and myself and JB were there most nights eating the very reasonable fresh fish. We met an Italian and his English girlfriend at our accomodation, both divers, Govinder being an Instructor; we arranged to go island hopping. The natural beauty here surpasses anything I've seen in Asia. The limestone karsts and islands in Nido's region better those of Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. We did two island tours, A and C, which are widely agreed to be the best. Hidden lagoons and great visibility for snorkelling. There is a place called Secret Beach, which was supposed to have inspired Alex Garland's novel. If this was the case, I'm sure the book would never have been written; the entrance is small, but anything but secret...Stevie Wonder could have spotted it. It was nice enough, but I was expecting an underwater tunnel or something a bit more risky; I'd liked to have earned the right to sit on the sand. Ho hum.

Govinder's girlfriend was driving me mad with a prolonged, drawn-out Wowwww at every corner we turned. Even if it was just another little cove much the same as the last. Lunch was Wow. The boat was Wow. The birds nesting above our chosen spot for lunch were Wow. I was in the Cult Of Wow, and less than happy about it. It died off a little towards the end of the day, until we arrived at our final beach. I jumped off the boat, and turned to look back the way we'd come. It was certainly a stunning view across the bay...tiny islands as far as you could see. "That looks amazing" I said, and instantly bit my tongue for its haste. It happened in slow motion, her turn and squint, beaming smile. "Wooowwwwwwwwww." Oh, please. On he way back, she started telling us a tale about how a German dies every day in the Philippines. JB and I exchanged a doubtful look. Someone had died in heir last hotel she informed us, and the staff had said he was cut from his abdomen to his chest. But no-one had seen anything. Gullible is not the word. I asked her if she didn't think there'd be some sort of news frenzy if a European of one country died here every day? Especially seeing as one kidnapped German aid worker in Mindano was headline news? Tsk tsk...

We spent our last night doing a home-made BBQ. A large snapper, and mango salsa created by yours truly. Delicious. I was off to Coron the next night, JB was staying to finish his Open Water course, and Govinder and Gullible were heading North. I needed to dive, and arranged to meet up with JB if he was going to decide on Coron over Tubbataha Reef.

Now let me at those wrecks...

Monsieur Brodeur

Every so often, if you're lucky, you meet someone on your travels that you immediately click with. Jonathan Brodeur was certainly one of these people, and I reckon we'll be friends for life.

I spent 4 hours on a bus from PP to Port Barton, a quiet village on the northwest coast of Palawan where nothing much happens. It's a quiet bay with some family-run resorts and no bars to speak of; a great place to relax and unwind.

I'd decided to stay at Elsa's Place. They do the best food there, so good that people from other resorts eat there regularly. I be the owners love that. On my second night, I'd been sat on the next table from a French Canadian who was speaking to a Swedish couple. When they left, there were only the two of us remaining. We struck up a conversation and shared a few beers. He was very similar to myself on his outlook on life, his passion for travelling. I think it's a mark of how good the conversation was that we didn't even touch on musical tastes or films, and that's how I usually guage compatibility. Wine, weed and women seemed to be enough to keep us rabbiting on for a bit. He's a keen sailor, and is toying with the idea of sailing acroos the Atlantic to visit England. I suggested coming to Colombia to pick me up first, and he told me he may be heading down there at the back end of this year. That'd be some way to end the trip? My Dad's even keen to come over to help sail her, but I reckon Mum'd veto that one in a flash. Unlucky, Dad.

We finished the beers and agreed to go island-hopping the next morning, as the Swedes were interested...four of us could hire a banca. An early start saw us heading out for a morning of snorkelling. For lunch we were taken to the hideously expensive Coconut Island Resort, which sits alone on an expanse of rock a couple of km from Barton. The sign outside told us it was the Number One Restaurant on Coconut Beach. It only took a second to scan the beach for the non-existent competition. But the food was OK, and they had a well full of baby turtles we could play with...they had a taste for human fingers. Very cute.

There's only one dive shop in Port Barton, and a cursory look around the place told us all we needed to know: it's not worth diving. The shop was a large bamboo house inhabited by an emaciated, almost toothless Belgian sexagenarian whose stick-thin legs defied the laws of Physics to keep him on his feet. And the equipment pre-dated him, I reckon. Surprised there wasn't a brass diving-helmet and lead boots on offer. And no-one wants to wear a wetsuit with mold on it, do they? Save my money for El Nido, then.

After a few days in Barton, I craved a bit more excitement. JB and the Swedes were also heading for El Nido, and we arranged to reconvene the next morning for the 7am jeepney and a dusty ride.