Sunday, 7 November 2010

How Not To Dive

I’ve seen some crazy stunts over the course of 275 dives. And I’ve taken the odd chance myself. But nothing quite prepared me for the way Yudi and the staff at the shop wanted to dive the wreck of the Sophie Rickmers. As the only customer interested with enough experience, I was to dive it one morning with Oliver and Carine, two trainee Divemasters. This wreck sits at a maximum depth of 70 metres, with the dive planned to almost 60m. Way too deep for relatively inexperienced divers, especially with no wreck training.

I asked Yudi if we would have stage bottles of extra air suspended below the boat for any emergencies. He told me that they didn’t use this system, and dived with twin tanks. Fair enough, I thought. Until I saw him strapping two tanks onto a flimsy BCD (the jacket you wear for buoyancy control) and using a weightbelt to secure them at the base. The rest were carrying their extra tank slung below them, tied to their metal D-rings with fishermans twine. I was incredulous. I questioned the safety of diving to 60m+ with most of the divers carrying a tank under their arm. Oliver was having a quick-release knot on his tank, so he could release it as it lightened as the air was used up (an empty tank will float, believe it or not), thus preventing him being dragged to the surface and getting bent. I asked him what he’d do if he got separated from the group, ran low on his tank of air, and then the knot slipped, dropping his tank to the sea bed? That was a life-threatening scenario. He didn’t have an answer. I asked the guide what would happen if he had to rescue one of his DMs, and he laughably told me he’d drop his spare tank and rescue them.

I wasn’t having any of this, and told Yudi I was cancelling the dive. The other guide laughed, and said something to the boat crew which made them all snigger. Something along the lines of pussy, no doubt. I posed a scenario for him, involving a panicking diver going below the safe limit on air (66m) and losing their spare tank. His answers became less and less cocky as I pointed out the domino effect this could have: one panicking diver is enough to set someone else off; over-exerting at 60 metres is going to massively increase the already serious effects of nitrogen narcosis; making a bad decision down there has consequences for everybody. An out-of-air situation for one or two divers is going to lead to a life-or-death scenario with only one outcome: bent divers if you're lucky...and dead divers if you're not. I wasn't prepared to take a chance.

Diving without the right gear, in dangerous conditions, and not even having both hands free isn’t just stupid…it’s suicidal. Yudi pointed out nobody had ever died; I think it’s just a matter of time if they carry on in this manner.

The DM trainees didn’t get any marks from myself or Grumpy, who is as fastidious an instructor as you are ever likely to meet. If you don’t do it right, Iain will not be happy. We had a customer fall overboard into rough seas trying to retrieve his hat. Obviously everyone laughed, and an Irish DM who was diving with us was first to react and help him aboard. Oliver sat and laughed with the rest and when I asked him why he hadn’t helped he said “I’ll leave that to the real DMs.” Quite. The two of them just seemed to be diving for fun, and not taking their responsibilities that seriously. Being a Divemaster means looking out for your charges; you’re responsible for other divers' safety. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

As it turned out, Carine was even more negligent. On one particular dive, we’d just finished and were hovering at our first decompression stop at around 15m, as the dive had been fairly deep. I floated around behind her and was puzzled to see her starting to take off her equipment, which should only be done in an emergency. Holding it in front of her, she hugged it beneath her chest and proceeded to unzip her wetsuit and roll it down to her knees. She suddenly remembered me, and I saw her looking left, right, behind and below her before she thought to look up. She certainly looked relieved to see me hovering there, arms folded. I waved sarcastically, waggling my fingers.

We broke the surface, and floated in the swell while we waited for the boat to pick us up.

“What was with the wetsuit removal routine?”

“Ah…I don’t like to pee in my wetsuit” she explained.

“And if you’d looked around and seen me 10 metres below you, unconscious and without my regulator in my mouth…what then?”

“I would...erm...I don’t know...”

“How would you possibly rescue me with your wetsuit around your knees and your equipment in a bear hug, especially if the current took me?”

She apologised, saying she hadn’t thought of the risks. I was exasperated by this point at her stupidity and, it has to be said, selfish diving.

“A smelly wetsuit is better than a dead diver on your conscience for the rest of your life, surely?” I relented, and cracked a slow smile. Lecture over. No point me getting wound up. Hopefully she'd think a little more when guiding people in the future.

It’s one thing removing the kid gloves for experienced divers on your shift; quite another to think that, because of their experience, nothing bad can happen. Preparation is everything. Stay switched-on, and stay out of danger. And as far as danger goes, they certainly saved the best dive for last.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Diver

Solo travel is liberating. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and making a split-second decision to hit the road and move on. No debating, no compromising. Lone wolves are a breed apart from other travellers, a little more independent. It was nice to have the company of friends when I first set out in Vietnam; everything is bewilderingly new, and the support is welcome and reassuring. Meeting up with my closest friend in Colombia was great, too…despite some of the rows, myself, Jocky, Garfield and Speckled Jim had a great time. Most of the time.
In Thailand, in September 2008, I took my first tentative steps on my own. Jocky had woken up to heavy rain and told me “Fuck this…I’m off up to Chang Mai.” I’d said I’d come with him if my laundry was ready. Thankfully it wasn’t, as we both knew the time had come to head off alone. It was strange, after being together a couple of months, to walk up to the bus and watch him go. Before leaving London we’d both agreed we wanted to see some places alone, and that we’d know when the time came. The sunny afternoon as the clouds broke over Koh Tao was that time. And it was the best thing we did, any longer together and it would have been too easy to keep going as a pair. Obviously our experiences from then on were vastly different. I took my Rescue Diver course, smashing five ribs in the process, and ended up recuperating on various islands before heading for Australia. Jocky escaped the clutches of a rampant, middle-aged Glaswegian woman (“Nice body on her, like…but…”) in Krabi, and ruined his camera and iPod in the process (wading out to a boat with them in his pockets). He ended up meeting a cute girl and spending a couple of months with her in various beds and hot tubs from Thailand to New Zealand, smoking twice his body weight in weed. I know which experience I’d have preferred. You learn a lot about people when you travel, and it was good that Jocky and I only knew each other vaguely through work; we’re solid mates now.
So self-reliant is the way to go, for me. It’s a challenge, but it presents more opportunities for meeting people. It also forces you to make more of an effort to speak to others. And the most interesting people I met on the road were almost always travelling alone: Karl Biller in the Philippine Cordilleras, Jonathan Brodeur in El Nido. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone on their own. And don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking anyone who travels in groups or pairs; I just think the experience of doing it on your own is more rewarding. Of course, there are times when you wish someone was there to share a moment, but sitting alone and isolated on the edge of Bromo’s volcanic crater and watching the sun rise over distant Javan hills will stay with me for the rest of my life. I met an American in Siquijor this year, and he said he has what he calls the Two Week Rule: he’ll travel awhile with anyone he finds interesting, but after a fortnight it’s time to break up the party. So you get the best of both worlds.
You learn a lot about yourself on the road, too; you really see what you are made of. Not in that clichéd “finding yourself’ bollocks kind of way. Just organising yourself, getting around difficult areas unscathed, keeping yourself safe and out of trouble. I think if anyone needs to “find themselves”, they should be heading for the nearest Mental Health Unit, rather than the nearest airport?
Now I’d be lying if I told you travelling alone didn’t get lonely sometimes. It does. There are day you might be wandering a region and not meet anyone to talk to for a day or two. That probably explains my 52 books read in my first year away.
I’d break my rule on solo escapades for the right woman. I imagined I’d meet some hot Latina on my way around last year. Being with the boys didn’t do much for my Spanish, though…and believe me you need it there. And it’s no fun if you can’t communicate properly, is it? I went on a date with a Colombian air hostess on my arrival in Bogota (she'd actually chatted me up), but the prospects didn’t look good: a teenage son, and impending divorce from a hot-headed, jealous Colombian Marine sergeant. Leave well alone, I decided. There were other interesting girls I met on my way around but, like in England, it’s all about timing. They’re either attached, off somewhere else the next day, or not interested. I met a cool architect from Stoke Newington when in Coron. I’d seen her around, but our paths only crossed the day before she left. We arranged to meet up in Bali, but I was waylaid by Javan mushrooms and grass before we could meet up. That’s the way things go. No concrete plans.
Without diving, I don’t know if I’d be heading off as much as I do. There are so many places I want to see, but these could be done in short bursts between contracts. It’s likely I’d be living in Barcelona by now. I’m lucky enough to be able to get enough freelance work both to finance these trips, and also to allow myself as much time out, so for now I’ll go with the flow and literally see where the current takes me. Once the instructor course is out of the way, I may be spending 6 months a year away, or may simple keep going and enjoy that life awhile. Can I be a drifter for much longer, though? Who knows. Anything can happen. That’s the beauty of it.
Time seems to be flying by. Friends are getting married. Having kids. While I love what I’m doing, I’d like to have a Significant Other in my life. Especially if she travelled and dived. This life I’ve chosen leaves me feeling a little rootless: I have no base, no immediate plans to make one. I experience the odd moment of doubt in what I’m doing, but I think it’s just a case of social conditioning nagging at me. I didn’t for a minute think I’d still be single at 40. If you’d told me this as a schoolboy, I’d have laughed at you. It just seems the done thing to meet someone, get a place to live, have kids and watch the waistline expand. So when you choose not to follow suit, people question it. A girl at work, when told of my plans, raised her eyebrows and asked me “Don’t you think you should be settling down at your age?” Kids these days, eh?
The trouble is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; I’ve lost count of the number of married friends who tell me they envy me my adventures. But, equally, I see them in a happy relationship and think that I’d love that, too. It’s been a long time since I split with a long-term girlfriend. So has this wandering life I’ve chosen made it more difficult to find the right girl, as some female friends are endlessly pointing out (and Mum’s given up, she said)? Time will tell. Travel has got a hold on me at the moment. And you only get one life; we’re here for a good time, not a long time, after all. I’ll take it as it comes, for now.

The Earth Moves

No, unfortunately it wasn’t that kind of an experience, but rather a frightening first for me. And this one above water, for a change. A case of terra-not-so-firma.

Indonesia sits on the western edge of the Pacific Ring Of Fire, which forms an open loop from the west cost of the Americas, over and down through Japan and Southeast Asia. These areas suffer 90% of the world’s earthquakes, the results of tectonic plates constantly shifting miles below our feet. Volcanoes pit the face of this island nation like burst blisters, where the pressure from the depths has forced itself through the earth’s crust. I’ve always been fascinated by them, and their violent displays of strength; I was pleased to see a few on my way through the Philippines and Java last year. Sumatra is particluarly susceptible to seismic activity, and this year has been unfortunate enough to suffer yet another tsunami and two volcanic eruptions.

I’d intended to be home for the World Cup Final, foolishly believing England had a chance this time. In the meantime, I’d imagined being in Thailand watching the group stages. But the beauty of travelling is that you never end up quite where you expected; I’d had no intention of visiting a tiny Indonesian island in the time I’d had left. Ley, the resort (and I use that term loosely) owner, had been a bit peeved after the tournament started; the island is so quiet that it’s always obvious where the best place to eat and drink is, as everyone is there and the other restaurants are dead. Ley’s had been busy but , as she had no satellite package, people disappeared into the village once the games started, to a makeshift café operated from a local house. Just about every man from the surrounding villages descended on this place to watch matches at ridiculous times of night. Being strictly Muslim, there was no drink on offer…just cups of tea. Not ideal, but better than nothing. I’d had The Fear in the days before the big kick-off that there were no TVs available in the village.

We were sat around at the house one night, waiting for a game to begin, when I felt a rumbling beneath me, not unlike a passing tube train in London. Only this one grew steadily louder. People sat down quickly, and moved away from the house. It stopped momentarily, then began again, stronger this time. Children looked around nervously, but the locals I made eye contact with just smiled reassuringly; it was obviously a mild one. The ground seemed to move from side to side, and any longer I’d have felt nauseous. It’s disconcerting to have the one thing we think we can take for granted in nature, that solid ground below our feet, threatening to disappear from beneath you. As quickly as it had begun, the movement ceased, to my great relief. I wouldn’t want to be around for a big one, I can tell you.

The island is quite steep, and Ibioh resorts lie inside the woods covering a hill which slopes down to the sea. We had storms so severe over a couple of nights that trees were felled, one narrowly missing a guest’s bungalow. Electricity cables were down for a day, thankfully not when a decent game was on. Not that there were many decent games. Ley bought a satellite package, cannily calculating she could make more money selling beer and food if she had football on offer. The Shariah Police arrive to check up on the place at times, but the jungle telegraph usually warns of their approach. It can mean a long prison sentence for those caught.

It wasn’t an enjoyable World Cup from our point of view, but it was amusing to see the French and Italians going out in a worse shambles than ourselves. And don’t even get me started on those bloody vuvuzuelas.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Getting Carried Away

Pulau Weh’s diving is famous for its raging currents, which can change direction quicker than most girls change their handbags. Arus Paleh is one of the more renowned dives here, its name in Sumatran translating as Bastard Current; not being averse to the odd expletive, I liked the sound of this one.

Yudi gave us a sagely dive briefing, his earnest warnings countered by toothy grins and pulled cheeky faces. It’s hard to take him seriously, it really is. We had a plan, and knew what to do in the case of us getting dragged away from the dive site by the flow of water from the West. And in we went. The currents were moderate, and Iain shrugged at me…a bit of a disappointment. But you can’t rely on Nature to do what you want, and it always makes me laugh when divers complain of things like shitty visibility underwater. What do you want, Sonny Jim…your money back? Hilarious.

So we didn’t complain (a first for me), and it was two more dives on this site before we got what we bargained for…and then some. Arus Paleh is a spot between two tiny islands off the coast of Weh, and is set around a small, spiky pinnacle of rock. At certain times of day, the water rushes through this point at incredible speeds. When we arrived for this dive, it was raging: excellent. We jumped in, and quickly made our way to the bottom. Sheltering as close to the bottom as possible, we moved from rock to rock in the face of a strong current. Kicking hard against it as we fought for the next objective, it was hard work, and I was going through my air like cold beer. We tried several times to get over the ridge and down into the next valley, and it was absolutely impossible. Iain and I were laughing into our regs as we hung onto rocks for dear life; let go here, and by the time you surface, you could be a few miles away. This happened a few years ago at the shop, when they lost two divers; as night fell, the boatmen simply gave up and went home. After a bollocking by the boss, they went out at dawn, and found them alive but shaken up, drifting at sea. A bit dodgy, but I suppose the money they saved on accommodation for the evening could have gone towards another dive? I shouldn’t laugh. But I do.

I managed to make the top of another smaller ridge, and was cowering behind a huge boulder, getting my breath back and marvelling at the schools of fish nonchalantly swimming against these currents in search of food. A plateau streched out below me, sea fans waving in the face of this ocean might, the rocks sloping up to the next island; the cause of this liquid bottleneck. I popped my head over the top of the boulder. The current rushed past my ears like the fierce wind on a hilltop, those that fill your head and cut out all other sound, the warm water buffeting my face. It’s a rush to feel that kind of power, and actually feel the roar of the sea envelop you. As I turned, coming back to the present after being lost in my own thoughts, I saw my companions signalling we were making a move. I stayed a moment or two longer, enjoying the feeling of solitude, clenching my teeth on the mouthpiece of my regulator to prevent the sea ripping it from my mouth…one hand holding my mask as I felt the water tugging it from my face like some aquatic poltergeist.

Diving is meditation. Even in the face of hazardous nature, you feel free. It’s something to do with the feeling of weightlessness, the lack of man-made sound, the immediacy of the moment. People take to diving to escape. Whatever problems you may have on the surface, these are rearely dwelt upon below it; you forget all else. My mentor, Gerd Schulte, loves wrecks for this reason. We’ve both dived them alone. As contemplation goes, nothing beats drifting slowly through a submerged hulk and imagining its last moments, and those who perished as it did so. they don't call it The Cruel Sea for nothing.

We had another dive nearby a few days later. This time, the current was even worse. I’d jumped in too soon, and the boat had to come round and pick me up. The guide said he hadn’t said to go just yet. I’d just heard “We’ll enter the water here” and that was good enough for me. You have to make a pillock of yourself now and again, though.

Myself and Iain were diving with Carine, a French woman my age, who was taking a leisurely Divemaster course for the inclusive diving. A bit too leisurely for my liking, but more on that later. We jumped in and, as we made our way to the bottom, it became apparent that this was going to be somewhat of a challenge. Iain became separated from us, out of sight within seconds; and as myself and Carine tried to move behind some boulders for shelter, the current had us. Torn from our grip on the rocks, we were ushered out to see rapidly, the slope of the island disappearing deeper and deeper below us as we fought to stay together. Quickly, the sight of the bottom was gone, and we were out in blue water. Ascending to the surface, Carine began panicking about Iain. I told her not to worry, Grumpy is a good instructor, has lots of experience, and can look after himself. The boat picked us up, and minutes later Iain was safely back on board, too. We shared a laugh at the impossible dive we’d just attempted: I reckoned we needed a drink after that. A few days later, we were to make a dive that would make these two days pale into insignificance.

Diving With A Gremlin

We were down at Rubiah Divers within an hour of arrival, dumping our kit into crates and grilling the staff and fellow divers about the various sites. We were assigned a guide named Yudi; a tiny, scrawny fellow with wild streaked hair and a constant lopsided, toothy grin. You could have told Yudi that the world was going to end in half an hour, and he’d just grin at you. He immediately reminded me of Stripe, the leader of the Gremlins: mischief personified.

Up and out at 6am the next day, the shop was a hive of activity, Divemasters rushing around kitting everyone up. Myself and Grumpy, being working divers, don’t like anyone touching our kit. I just prefer to be the last one to check it before I jump into the ocean. As Scarface said “Who put this thing together? Me. Who do I trust? Me…that’s who.” We were to be plagued by the boatboys during this fortnight, constantly twiddling the valve knobs behind our heads as we prepared to dive. It annoyed me, but really riled Grumpy.

But I digress. We headed for Canyons and Tekong for the first day’s dives. I was not to be disappointed. Dropping to a maximum 36 metres, we were pushed and pulled by the surge close to the rocky shore; the seas are pretty fierce around here, this being the first land the vast sea meets as it hits Indonesia…it’s literally the front line. Canyons’ topography is amazing, huge crevices and gullies between boulder formations, the flanks lined with rows and rows of huge gorgonian fans waving in the current like small trees on a blustery day; truly stunning. Visibility was good for at least 25m, and I had never seen such a wide variety of fish species in one dive before. We drifted on the strong current, and I could see plateaux below plateux underneath us. This site goes down to around 55m, if my memory serves me correctly. On finishing this dive, I encountered a beast I had been longing to see: the Napoleon Wrasse. These creatures can grow to 2m in length, and are a myriad of blues and greens. Beautiful in an ugly way, their heads are dominated by a huge hump and lips Mick jagger would be proud of. They are also fairly tame, and will hang around as long as you don’t make any sudden movements. This character was happy to let me swim around and float alongside him for a good ten minutes before he tired of me and dropped into the depths. I surfaced elated: not bad at all for a first dive. My log for this dive actually states “Indonesian diving is the best in Asia.” This place is unmissable, believe me; especially when you consider that it works out around £12 per dive with pro discount, and us having our own gear. Cheaper than chips.

There are a few average dives arund the island, but even these are better than a lot of places you may dive in Malaysia or Thailand. The other standouts for me were Shark Plateau at Tokong, and Peunateung. The former was where two of my favourite experiences occurred; on our first dive there we were drifiting with the current, and I was a little further out than the pack. Someone drew my attention to a huge marbled ray travelling alongside us, closer to the group than myself. I cursed myself for being so distant, and sped up to keep pace with the creature. In a flash, it banked like an aircraft, and hurtled past me; one huge eye rotating to examine me as it cruised within a couple of metres of me. To look into the eyes of a huge creature underwater really is a special moment in your life I can do no justice with words; you feel a connection with it that you immediately think impossible: that you acknowledge each other. Sometimes you catch yourself saying “Hello, mate…” in your head. I know how that sounds. This benign animal would bear me no malice; I would prefer to look into the eyes of the Great White (from inside a cage, obviously). To stare and be stared at by the ultimate apex predator of the ocean would be incredible. I’m told it is quite a thought-provoking experience to be scrutinised by something which is figuring out whether it can devour you. Barracuda also stalk the waters of the island, and at Tokong I fought to hang onto a rock, observing a 100+ strong school effortlessly facing into the speeding currents, their sleek missile-shaped bodies perfect for mocking all that nature could throw at them. At one point I ascended, and drifted through them, amazed at the fact that there were two species in this school, separated by an invisible line. A baby blacktip shark completed a great dive here.

Peunateung has immense vertical drop-offs and walls covered in fans. This site is deep, dropping down to around 75m in places. There was a deep wreck I wanted to dive, and the shop insisted myself and Grumpy do a “check-dive” to make sure we could cope with the narcosis and challenges this presents. This was despite the pair of us haughtily showing them our logbooks; Grumpy’s an experienced instructor, and I’d done 134 dives in the last 5 months, one of those to 60m, and 80% of them wreck penetrations. So we were a bit pissed off at the perceived slight, but had a good dive. I was thankful I had none of the bad ju-ju I’d had at Apo Reef at 60m; I’d gone 20m beyond my previous limit in one dive there, and had scared the shit out of myself. I’m adventurous, but not suicidal. What I was going to witness in the few days before the wreck-dive was going to reinforce that.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Food For Thought In Paradise

The other day I was berated by a screaming old lady on a deserted beach footpath. She howled at me and pointed at my cargo-short-clad legs as she shepherded her two grandchildren past me, shielding the young girl’s eyes. I was a bit bemused, never having had this effect on an old woman before. I’m sure Wayne Rooney’s experienced something similar. Now my Mum’s always said I’ve got skinny legs, but I’ve often countered this matriarchal critique with the fact that a lesbian friend at work loves seeing me in shorts; this doesn’t really get me anywhere on the romance front, obviously…but I think it’s just as flattering as a gay man saying you look hot. Don’t knock any attention, as you’ll be old one day, and women will walk past you in the street as if you’re not even there. I’m not looking forward to that. Not that I’m constantly mobbed now, but this old lady’s reaction still perturbed me a little. I mean, like she had room to talk? She had a face like a blind cobbler’s thumb, but I wasn’t going to stop dead and howl at her like Donald Sutherland in Invasion Of the Body Snatchers. Looking back, I think it was her Muslim sensibilities, rather than my knobbly knees, which had really got her goat.

I’d arrived in Banda Aceh, right at the Western tip on Sumatra, Indonesia, a couple of days before. Iain had suggested we head there for a bit of diving, as the Malaysian reefs are shot at, what with the rising temperatures. I couldn’t finish my trip on that depressing note. So we’d arranged visas at the embassy in KL (only to find you could get a visa on arrival at the new airport for half the price…the office opened the day we landed). Incidentally, I’d turned up like a right plum at the office to collect the visa, in my shorts; I mean, come on…it was absolutely roasting in Kuala Lumpur. And these bastards expect you to turn up in a fucking tuxedo to collect an overpriced stamp in your passport? Luckily a Russian I was chatting to outside the embassy had a bright orange sarong he lent me to cover my offensive legs (I’m seeing a pattern emerging here). I couldn’t help but grin as one of the guards nodded appreciatively and smiled as I minced past him.

Flying in to Banda Aceh is sobering. As the plane banks over the Andaman Sea and drops into the city, the contrast between rusty old tin rooves and the newer, green-tinted ones paints a stark picture of how the 2004 tsunami tore through this community, killing 167,000 people. The city sits in a horseshoe of hills, and the people of this lowland did not stand a chance. A fishing boat ended up on top of a house two miles inland, such was the irresistable force of nature. Everyone I met lost someone. Every single one. It really makes you wonder what it must be like to suffer so much loss; I can't begin to imagine. Yet they are a resilient people, and have recovered as swiftly as they can; and they are still quick to smile. Of all the peoples I’ve encountered in Asia, I like the Indonesians the best.

We arrived at the ferry port, and had to run for the slow boat about to leave. Old Grumpy complained he wanted to take the faster boat, which left a little later, but myself and a stray traveller we’d picked up at the airport, Little Ian, were happy to take the big boat and just enjoy the ride. We smiled apologetically at the hundreds of locals waiting for the four sweating white men to board the boat and let them get home. Sharing a bit of banter with the locals, as well as the hardest doughnuts on the planet, made the journey pleasurable.

The usual palava awaited us on Pulau Weh, the small island ninety minutes from Aceh: the minivan drivers eager for your custom. Ours was so eager, he actually drove off without Little Ian’s rucksack, but luckily it was still there when we returned five minutes later. Always, always make sure you see the bag go into the van or onto the roof yourself.

Another diver joined us, and we immediately hit it off. I’d taken him to be Scandinavian, and his name was Roman. “I’m French” he told me “but I fucking hate the French.” I laughed. He lives in Paris, so I can see his point. And despite my French-baiting, I don't mind them, really...in fact, I even quite like some of them (especially you, Coralie) So myself and Roman were going to get on, alright. After a scenic hour in the van, we arrived at what felt like the end of the line. Rubiah Beach is a quiet little place. A dirt car park by the beach and a small row of local food joints gives way to an up-and-down ramshackle pathway through another private cove and some of the most rundown accomodation I have ever come across. Luckily we found a place with a good restaurant and some new huts run by a cheeky, and rather sexy diminutive woman called Ley. She had three impossibly cute kids, and was divorced from an Austrian man. I liked her straight away, she was straight and talked no nonsense.

So, gear dumped in our mosquito-riddle abodes, it was time to arrange some diving. I picked my way down the 40° slope between the huts, the turquoise sea visible in the gaps between the trees below me. I was going to like it here. And from what I’d heard of this place from other divers, it should have been magnificent. It was.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Diveboat Characters #9: The Hooligans

My narrative jumps back to the Philippines for a moment now; for good reason, as I’d forgotten to mention the wildest, rowdiest bunch of divers ever to set foot on The Emily.

In a Coron dive season, you can usually count the number of English passing through on the fingers of one hand. On meeting one, you tend to savour the laughs and the banter you only get with your own kind. Not that I don’t appreciate my mates in the town, or some of the very entertaining Europeans diving there. But there’s none of the knowing in-jokes or mutual cultural reference points you’d share with Our Lot (and I’m including the Jocks and Taffs, though still refraining to mention the B Word).

So after shepherding several varieties and nationalities of divers around the wrecks, I was quite excited to hear that there was a gang of English divers heading over. We’d only had a few large groups previously.

The German wreck-freaks were first, who spoke of nothing but wreck dives. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll waffle on about it a lot, too…but will always find the space to chat about drugs, booze, music, film, beautiful women and football, too; I’m no Dive Bore.

The Cathay Pacific group were Australian and American, and largely entertained themselves. A pilot named Adrian was the de-facto leader, and self-styled uber diver. I didn’t take to him at first, as loudmouthed Aussies sometimes take a little time to warm to; but we got on in the end. Adrian has guided for Rocksteady now and again, and knows the wrecks very well; he’s based in Hong Kong, so makes regular visits. As such, he doesn’t like being babysat. This led to a very amusing incident.

H is a responsible Divemaster. She’ll always make sure she is last out of the water, no matter the level of diver she is chaperoning. Adrian made it clear he didn’t need this level of attention. H had dived with Adrian many times before, and had explained it’s just what she does. We were surfacing from a dive on Irako where, as H would put it, Adrian and his team had over-cooked it ie. stayed down too long for their air supply and de-compression requirements. I won’t knock it…I’ve done it myself. The Slovenian divers with me were at a decompression stop (hanging at one level in the water for a set time, to rid the body of nitrogen bubbles before surfacing), with me just below them. Adrian’s group were above and slightly to the side of us. A flashing silver object dropped by us, a few metres away: some clumsy bastard’s dive knife spinning into the depths. A few seconds later a diver chased it in a rapid head-down descent, dropping at least 10 metres. I peered down and watched, amused, as he got angry with himself after checking his dive computer. To drop to that depth while you’re supposed to be heading for the surface after de-compressing means only one thing: more time waiting to be allowed to surface safely after your computer punishes your rash stupidity. All fine: as long as you have enough air left to wait out the extra deco time.

Adrian made his way back up to our level, slowly. The Slovenians indicated they were done, and I motioned they should exit the water and swim to the boat. I moved towards the drop tank (the extra tank of air with regulators to breathe from in case of emergency, suspended 6 metres below a boat). Suddenly Adrian was swimming hell-for-leather towards a puzzled H, making rapid throat-slashing motions with his hand: he was out of air. H gave him her spare regulator, and they shared her air while moving towards the drop tank. Signalling to ask if she was OK to handle the situation, her wide eyes and exasperated shrug made me chuckle as I ascended. Her body language said it all: “What the fuck?”

Back on Dos Hermanos, I was drying off and wolfing down a portion of Dennis’s (by now) internationally-renowned pumpkin curry, plotting mischief. I shouted over to Adrian’s friends on the Emily “Who dropped the knife? You almost killed Adrian.” None of them had even noticed; so much for the dive-buddy concept, eh? Fuck you, Jack…I’m alright. Wouldn’t catch me diving with them. A sheepish Adrian climbed back onto the boat, and H shot me a mirthful look as she got out behind him. “Hey, No Bar, did you get your knife?” I queried (pressure is measured in Bar, and we ususally surface with 30-50 in our tanks...bviously Adrian had ended up on empty) He pretended not to hear me, and H shook her head and smiled. But I couldn’t help it; I am not one to pass up an opportunity for a wind-up, especially a gilt-edged one on an uber diver. To be fair to Adrian, he held his hand up to H and told her to say what she was thinking. They had a good chat, and he said that now he understood why she was always last out of the water. His friends hadn’t waited around, and he would have been in serious trouble if alone. All H said to him was “Is a £40 quid knife really worth fucking dying for?”

Back to the English reprobates; a motley crew of blokes ranging from 35 to 65, single to married, but all misbehaving themselves to various degrees in the Philippines. Obviously the wives weren’t here. The dive leader, as he referred to himself, was a guy called Gary. He’d brought along his partner; well, the lads pointed out that she was a spare partner, as he’d left his long-term girlfriend at home. Twat. I think men like that are cowards: if you think you’re with the wrong woman, be brave and let her go to find happiness with someone else. If you’ve made a mistake in leaving her, then deal with it and move on. Some people don’t want their partners, but are afraid of the unknown, and certainly don’t want their partner to have anyone else. It’s pathetic. I nicknamed him Off-Gas Gary. His mates loved that. BSAC divers are far more organised and formal than PADI counterparts. Some would say anal and stuffier…everything has to be done a certain way. Despite being a BSAC member too, I find it all a bit much at times. In diving off-gassing is the term given to what your body is doing in between dives. You should have an interval of at least an hour on the surface before diving again, to let your body release some of the built-up nitrogen in your system. We suggested schedules of wrecks to Gary. Olympia first, then Morazan after lunch, as it was slightly shallower and not too far from the first site. But oh no, Off-Gas knew better. “No…we’ll dive Olympia twice. The bow section first, then we can off-gas during lunch, then dive the stern.” I suggested two dives on Olympia may be a little repetitive, as there wasn’t too much to see. “We’d prefer to off-gas while stationary, we don’t want to be doing it while the boat’s in motion.” But the second wreck was 10 minutes away? Off-gassing was again mentioned and I gave up. Despite it being his first visit to Coron, he obviously knew better than all the DMs at the shop.

As there were so many divers, their group was split across the two boats: the older divers who didn’t like noise, and Off-Gas and his squeeze on the Emily; the naughty boys and piss-takers on Dos Hermanos. You don’t win a prize for guessing which boat I wangled my way onto. I don’t know quite what everyone made of this English group, with the constant shouting of abuse between the two boats, swearing every other word, and vulgar comments galore. I’ve never heard so much bad language, outside of an East-End boozer. I found it all hilarious, and made me feel right at home. Miro, being German, was a little taken aback by it all, but found them likeable; when I asked him his opinion he just said “These people are fucking crazy.” Gerd just looked a bit shell-shocked by it all when he was on the boat.

They were here for almost two weeks. My favourites were Sean, a complaining photographer (“This visibility here is shit!” he said on the first day “This is Coron, mate…didn’t you do any research?” I retorted) and Dickie, somewhat like Ray Winstone in manner, but slightly shorter, fatter and somewhat less sexy. Dickie and myself had a right old laugh, being Off-Gas Gary’s chief tormentors, but also winding each other up. My walk along the dockside towards the boats in the morning was usually accompanied by jeers from a few of the lads and a “Wozzzaaaa…you wankaaaaa!” from Dickie. “Morning, you old slag” I’d smile.

Internet connections being sporadic, everyone was keen for football news wherever you could get it. Dickie asked me how Tottenham Hotspur had got on the previous evening? “You won 3-0” I told him. Cue much exuberance from Dickie, dancing and making wanker signs in front of his Arsenal and Chelsea-supporting mates’ noses. My team, Preston North End, received some jibes from him too, until I pointed out that we were the first club to do the League and Cup Double in 1888, and that Spurs nicked our kit design when they formed several years later, inspired by our successful team. Didn’t shut him up for long, though. Beers that day were on him, insisted Dickie, and we were treated to several songs and chants from him as we neared the wrecks. He wasn’t too pleased that evening after checking his mails and realising that, in fact, I’d lied: Spurs were on the receiving end of that 3-0 drubbing. But, like me, he can take all the stick that he dishes out. All part of the fun.

Approaching Akitushima one morning, we discovered that the marker buoy was missing. Sometimes it’s the waves which rip it from the wreck, other times it’s local fishermen who don’t like our dive boats scaring the fish away. As none of the shops in Coron use GPS, the Emily and Dos Hermanos sailed around the bay, dragging anchors to try and locate the wreck the old fashioned way. It took an hour. Off-Gas and his crew were already geared up to dive, and Dickie and the lads took great delight in hurling abuse across the water as Gary became more and more irritable at the delayed diving. They looked very hot and bothered. “Cam on, Gary…where’s this wreck, you caaant? Look atcher…all dressed ap and no place to go…” cackled Dickie. Myself and Miro eventually had to jump in roughly where we guessed the ship sat, and send up a marker when we found it. Off-Gas entered the water before the boys and, to a chorus of cat-calls, had descended with a one-fingered salute.

Over lunch, the digs continued. I laughed as the banter flowed back and forth, before spitting rice everywhere when Sean said loudly “’Ere, Wozza…tell Gary what your nickname for him his…” Never a dull moment.

Their approach to the diving was simple; they wanted to be left alone to look around the wrecks. Myself and Miro had been booked to guide them, but Dickie said "Nah, you boys fuck off and do your own thing...have a bit of fun." Fantastic for myself and my German mate, we went off to explore. The first dive was on Nitrox, which contains more oxygen and less nitrogen, allowing for a longer dive with less decompression. The second dive was on normal air, and my computer should have been re-set to allow for this. I forgot; schoolboy error. So my computer assumed I was still diving with Nitrox, and after the second dive I came up a full 8 minutes ahead of Miro, believing I'd decompressed safely. He climbed out of the water and asked me if my computer had been reset? My heart started pounding. Although I didn't feel any effects which might indicate Decompression Illness, better known as The Bends, I was paranoid for a good twenty minutes...we were miles from an emergency decompression chamber. And my compatriots' response to my situation?

"Wahaaaaayyyy!!" "Cant!" "Wozza, you waaaankaaaa!" "You're probably gonna die ha ha ha!" accompanied by simulated death-throes by Dickie. It made light of a potentially serious situation, but I'd have know about it if I'd had a bend (although it can happen hours later if a nitrogen bubble blocks an artery). I laughed it off, making a mental note to avoid making that mistake again; once is enough. Sean pressed a cold beer into my hand "Here, mate...if you've got a bend, this'll sort you right out." I stretched out in the sun, and took his advice.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Literary Garbage

Shantaram. Read the back cover, and it sounds like a rip-roaring tale. The Telegraph describes it as "a literary classic". At 900 pages long, it's one of those books lots of travellers recommend, but you never meet anyone close enough to the end to swap it for one of yours. I saw many copies last year, and finally got my mitts on one this June. I wish I hadn't bothered lugging the weighty bastard about. I usually mention good books on here, as they are gold dust for people on the road. Gregory's long-winded tome is 900 sheets of spare bog-roll but, honestly, you'd be embarrassed to wipe your arse on it.

My mate Kit actually congratulated me on finishing it. She got to page 80, and couldn't stop laughing. His prose is quite laughable, Kit described it as being written by a 15-year-old schoolboy. Indeed, if I'd seen the guy's website, I'd never have picked it up: what a first-grade tool.

The story tells of how he beats heroin, escapes from a maximum-security prison in Australia, makes it to India and lives in a slum, learns Hindi and sets up a free clinic, works for the Indian mafia, fights for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, falls in love, falls out of love etc etc. All this before tea-time. Bollocks.

If he cut the book down to 4-500 pages (believe me, he could) then I wouldn't have had an issue, as the overly elaborate descriptions would have been stripped out. Every time his beloved appeared, I took a deep breath before wading through the paragraph-long description of her eyes, hair and skin. His underlying themes of Life, The Univers And Everything make your eyes bleed, quite frankly; I've hear less fishy philosophy in a Broadway Market cafe.

It recently won a Guardian bad sex award. If these paragraphs don't make you want to become a monk and never look at a woman again, nothing will:

"I held Karla as if holding her could heal me, and we didn't make love until night lit the last star in our wide window of sky. Her hands were kisses on my skin. My lips unrolled the curled leaf of her heart. She breathed in murmurs, guiding me, and I spoke rhythm to her, echoing my needs. Heat joined us, and we enclosed ourselves with touch and taste and perfumed sounds. Reflected on the glass, we were silhouettes, transparent images - mine full of fire from the beach, and hers full of stars. And at last, at the end, those clear reflections of our selves melted, merged, and fused together. 
(p658)

I pressed my lips against the sky, and licked the stars into my mouth. She took my body into hers, and every movement was an incantation. Our breathing was like the whole world chanting prayers. Sweat ran in rivulets to ravines of pleasure. Every moment was a satin skin cascade. Within the velvet cloaks of tenderness, our backs convulsed in quivering heat, pushing heat, pushing muscles to complete what minds begin and bodies always win. I was hers. She was mine. My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea. And the wailing moan that drove our lips together, at the end, was the world of hope and sorrow that ecstasy wrings from lovers as it floods their souls with bliss."

Pass the bucket, dear boy.

On his website he waxes on about how his book is a "20-layered novel". Crawl out of your own arse, pal; it's got two layers. Layer one is a barely-believable but entertaining enough action tale. Layer two is a pretentious load of hackneyed and plagiarised philosophy an undergraduate with a stupid beard would be ashamed to spout in a London Fields poetry meeting.

Utter shite: avoid.

Second Time Around & The Wicked Witch Of The West

You meet some interesting people on the road; some bizarre people; funny people; inspiring people. And then you meet some downright horrible people who poison the air around you. Miro’s German girlfriend unfortunately fell into the latter category.

I’d got to know Miro pretty well. A thoughtful, interesting lad who loves his diving, and wouldn’t let me win at chess. Ever. He’d told us about his girlfriend back home, Henrika. They’d not been together long, and he’d been reluctant to leave Germany to come and work in Coron. She’d been keen to come out with him, but had changed her mind at the last minute, which he’d been upset about.

Things started out well enough, it was nice to see them all over each other and happy when she turned up unannounced one night; a great surprise for Miro. It wasn’t as nice to see them all over each other every waking minute of the day afterwards, though; whether it was gazing into each other’s eyes for prolonged periods of time, stroking each other’s faces and gazing, or exchanging kisses and gazing. At a christening party for the shop’s new boat, a gobsmacked Filipino gentleman gestured to the star-struck lovers canoodling in front of everyone and asked me “Is this normal in your country?” I told him theirs wasn’t my country, but Westerners can sometimes behave this way when drunk. They weren’t drunk. This uncomfortable behaviour continued while he was working, and customers even began commenting on it.

To cap it all, Henrika decided she wanted to become a Rescue Diver. She’d been strutting around like she owned the place for weeks, and Karin, Rocksteady’s boss, was also getting more than a bit annoyed with her demands about Miro’s working hours and days off etc. She ignored the fact that he was there to work. Iain, my instructor friend from London, refused to take her Rescue course; he couldn’t stand her from the first minute. Gerd avoided it, but eventually relented to get rid of her. Satan help him if she ever wants to be a DM, not that she'd make it.

To begin with, I’d got on fine with her. But she was about to do something which would stir up a hornet’s nest at Rocksteady, and almost make me quit my job there. We’d also come to see just how controlling she was with Miro.

Sometimes things aren’t the same second time around, are they? Films. Books. Relationships. Work. Now being a Divemaster sounds great, but it’s not all rosy. Sure, you get to spend the day on a boat, surrounded by natural beauty above and below the surface (unless you’re diving in Plymouth), and you’re usually in the sun. But a lot of work goes into it. A 6am start, to begin with; loading and unloading heavy gear; entertaining customers, some of which you may not like the company of; and washing the gear at night before a 6pm finish. If you guide a single diver on two dives, you earn the equivalent of 4 quid. Take three divers out, and it’s accommodation, dinner and beer covered for one day. For a 12-hour shift. Fancy it? We do all this just to dive. If you descend with experienced divers, it’s great, and it’s like diving for yourself. Take inexperienced divers down, and situations can arise where you earn that money…it’s definitely still work.

The main reason for working as a DM is that, should you not have any customers to guide, but a boat is going out anyway, you can dive for free. It’s the only perk, full stop. When I arrived back in Coron this time, Rocksteady had decided DMs had to pay 8 quid for a day’s diving. I understand 4 quid a dive sounds reasonable to most of you reading this, but Dean and Helen actually ended up in arrears, owing the shop money the month I arrived. No dive shop I’ve visited since charges DMs to dive, and some were quite shocked. It makes it all the more galling when you’ve paid almost 600 quid for a flight to go and work there in the first instance. And surely, the more experience a DM has on the wrecks, the better service s/he offers? How can you find other places to show divers if you are not allowed to explore?

We’d had a German group in, very experienced divers, who knew the wrecks better than we did. So they didn’t need guides. We wanted to dive, so ended up doing the rest of the job, but paying for our fun. Sat around in a bar one evening, I brought the subject up. I said we were effectively paying to work. Miro agreed, as did H and Dean. The next day at work, I decided to raise the issue with Karin.

“When we dive with the Germans, we don’t get paid…as we’re not guiding them?”

“No” she said.

“But we get up at 6am, load the boat, serve lunch and entertain, before washing all their gear each evening.”

“Yes…” she said, uncertainly.

“So we’re doing the same work as usual, and the only bit we aren’t getting to do is the bit we love…diving?” I asked.

“I see what you mean.”

She actually agreed with me that we were still working and, as a result, we were paying for the privilege. Miro actually benefited the most from my intervention when she back-paid us, as he’d worked for the group more often. Karin accepted we weren’t happy about paying to dive, but wouldn’t budge on that front.

So now I’m seen as something of a rabble-rouser at the shop. But I wouldn’t call standing up for my principles, and arguing the toss over something I believe is unfair, inflaming a situation. Even customers at the shop thought this situation unfair. But whatever.

I returned to Coron after Truk Lagoon to an uneasy atmosphere at Rocksteady, and gleaned from Patrick that Karin had been told I was slagging the shop off, and saying things on Facebook. I went straight up there to deal with the situation. I asked her what had been said. She’d been told I’d said some bad things about a customer, and complained about the shop. She hadn’t seen this for herself, but had heard a story. I showed her what had been written, which was actually just a tongue-in-cheek status update where I called a French diver a silly bastard for not listening to my advice about Coron’s boring reefs, and booking me for two reef dives the next day (She knows I hate taking people on the reefs…I complain about it often enough) Nothing more, nothing less. She’d obviously been told it was far more than this, judging by her expression.

“But she told me…”

“Who told you?” I cut her off, knowing the answer before the name escaped her lips.

“Juliet.”

Juliet being my nickname for Henrika, because of the way Ro-Miro and her were always pawing and mooning at each other like a pair of 15-year-olds.

I was fuming. Talk about shit-stirring.

Miro was the Golden Boy at the shop, being German. As I said above, he’s a very good diver, and a competent DM. But while she was in town, standards began slipping. Gerd actually made them dive from separate boats at one point, as there had been complaints about both her attitude on the boat, and Miro’s work. The most serious error of judgment came when he had a group of friends diving with him. He briefed Henrika to dive solo, and told her where to wait for him and the group. According to these divers, he was only focused on her as they followed him down to the wreck a few minutes later. Two divers followed him into a hole, another two were struggling with a light and their buoyancy. By the time they adjusted this, Miro and the other two were gone. Instead of getting his two divers to wait in a safe place while he doubled back for the lost pair, he continued the dive to find his girlfriend. They eventually just headed back to the surface, and to say they weren’t happy is putting it mildly. Compromising your customers’ safety is not high on the list of things to do if you don’t want to end up in a court over someone’s death. The fact is, Henrika should not have been on that boat while he was working; she was a major distraction, and as far as his diving goes, he was taking his eye off the ball.

I didn’t rock the boat, as I didn’t want to fall out with Miro. Whether he reads this and falls out with me is another matter. But I regard the girl as poison, and just chose to completely blank her whenever she was around. It didn’t make for a nice atmosphere.

I was freelancing for another shop one day, and the two Rocksteady boats were at the same site. Down I went with my divers and, at the 5m safety stop, I noticed pieces of white material slowly sinking around us. It took a moment for it to (literally) sink in, and the brown matter sinking with it spurred me into motion. I dragged the divers out of the way, and moments later we surfaced, as one of the Rocksteady boats was leaving. I shouted over to the captain on the remaining boat.

“Which dirty bastard just took a shit on our heads?!” I demanded.

“It was one of the girls on the other boat, Sir.”

“Which one?” I groaned, knowing the answer.

“The tall blonde.”

Fucking bitch. I had to laugh, though…talk about adding insult to injury.

Things came to an almighty, nuclear reactive, head in their final week. We had a few customers on board the bigger boat, Dos Hermanos, and we were loaded and ready to go at 8am. There was just the Witch to arrive. She came goose-stepping down the harbour wall, and her face changed when she got to the boat. I knew straight away she would have been happier to see Hitler on board than me (they’re probably related, anyway). She exchanged a heated conversation with Miro, while the paying, confused customers waited for their day out to begin. Someone asked what was wrong.

“It is my last day diving, and he is here” she gestured sulkily at me.

“Look, Henrika” I leaned over and hissed “I can’t stand you either, but we have customers on board, and Miro is working, so let’s just avoid each other. It’s a big enough boat.”

She looked close to tears, the stroppy mare.

“But you don’t understand, I can’t even look at you.”

“Believe me” I laughed, mirthlessly “you’re no easier to look at.”

Miro told me to shut up. I told him to shut up, and reminded him he was working. The boat was going nowhere, and customers were confused and embarrassed. I was embarrassed, myself. And, considering she wanted to be a DM, she could have acted with a little decorum. Everyone at the shop had been putting up with her primadona behaviour for the last few weeks; she could have just got on with it and dived. At one point, Miro phoned the shop and asked if I could guide, so him and Henrika could get off the boat. I couldn’t believe it. Truly professional. No taking turns wearing the trousers in that relationship, then?

“My last day, and now it’s completely ruined” she huffed, puffy-eyed.

To think, there's people starving in Africa?

The customers who stayed at Crystal Lodge were laughing about the episode the next morning; turns out even her fellow Germans couldn’t stand her. A few of them had her number right from the start, with the obvious advantage that they understood every word the controlling harridan said. I’d apologised to them about the incident, as it reflected badly on ourselves and the shop. Those who’d been on the boat with her said they understood.

On a brighter note, those of us who couldn’t understand her pseudo-hippy-flower-girl habit of walking around Coron barefoot (you just wouldn’t, believe me) were massively amused when, as she left Patrick’s place one night, she stood in a huge wet turd left by his dog. Good dog.

Beijing Butlins

I like winging it most of the time, heading from place to place at the drop of a hat; it certainly feels good to be free. Planning too far ahead and buying tickets in advance is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse. Wake up in the morning bored of your surroundings? Pack your bag and do one.

After diving for so long in the Philippines, I was quite excited by a change of scene, above and below water. KL is a pleasant city; there are not many sights, but after the Philippines, it was just good to be somewhere with decent infrastructure, fantastic bookshops, and food you could actually eat without wanting to cry; it was almost a culture shock, in reverse. There’s still the seedier underbelly, and I was offered “girls…very young girls” outside my hotel one evening. Obviously he got a frown and an invitation to fuck right off. And a nice old lady greeted me one evening with the glassy-eyed mantra “Suck you…suck you…I suck you” as I came back from 7 Eleven in the wee small hours. I waved my Toblerone and strawberry milkshake at her and shook my head, as if to say I only came out for these, love. A girl’s gotta make a living, I just think her approach needs some work.

So wing it we did, heading for the bus station one evening to catch an overnight service to Tioman island. Shouldn’t be full, this late at night, surely? It surely was. So we had to head back on the half-hour trip back into town and re-take our rooms at Comfort Inn. The loveably cheeky staff there found this very amusing, and I’d walked in saying “No laughing!” mock-sternly. They joined in, and as we headed for the lift, one of them chipped “Oh, and forgot to mention…welcome back to Comfort Inn” in a sing-song voice. Their giggles followed us into the lift.

When we finally arrived at Tioman, we were to be disappointed; not by the place, as the island is lovely, and peaceful. But the onset of the next Ice Age has increased the sea temperature by two degrees centigrade, and one is enough to cause coral to bleach. I came up off the first dive, spluttering “Fuck me, it’s like Christmas down there…” Two dives the next day, and we’d seen enough. Abandon island, and head up to Redang.

Where Tioman was peaceful and laidback (so laidback that it was almost impossible to get lunch if the locals couldn’t be arsed to open), and rough around the edges (the town dump was near our beach, and mornings saw monkeys and monitor lizards fighting over the scraps of food), Redang was a different story. The diving had been recommended by fellow divers, but the island is looking to dispose of its backpacker accommodation and cater purely for the richer weekend visits of Malaysians and Singaporeans. As a result, packages of transport, diving, accommodation and food are the only ways to visit.

Leaving the ferry, we were greeted by the sight of Chinese families with screaming kids:
thousands of them. I saw four other honkies all weekend. This would mean karaoke, amongst other painful sensory torture. A slouching Chinese booked us in, and pointed out the daily itinerary.

“Breakfast at 7am, snorkelling at 9am, Lunch at 12pm, snorkelling at 2pm, Tea at 5pm, Dinner at 8pm.” Eh?
“We” peered Iain, over his spectacles “do
not…snorkel.”
Quite right, too. Snorkelling to diving is like building a joint, and leaving the grass out.

This was going to be a painful few days. The food was shocking, and for a vegetarian like Iain, rather limited. The Chinese shuffled round the place in their flip-flops, shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff, as if they were sanding the floor with their feet; the sound was a backdrop for every waking minute. I took a walk around the resort, and was horrified. A tractor with two trailers ferried fat tourists the 200 yards between beaches. The shops sold all sorts of trinkets and tat. Get me out of here. Between meals, a siren sounded, and queues of orange lifevest-clad Chinese queued for the boats waiting to take them snorkelling. Very amusing. I suppose different cultures enjoy their free time in different ways, so who am I to judge? The break had cost us a packet, and the sloping floor in our room testament to the fact we were being mugged over the course of three days. At least in London you just get a knife at your throat and it’s over in minutes.

The diving was marginally better than Tioman, ie. not everything was
dead. But with the exception of one dive, we’d seen it all before. The jaded cynicism increases as the tally of dives rises, I suppose. And I’d been spoiled with Truk Lagoon and Malapascua.

Big Mount was the exceptional dive. An underwater pinnacle, it was late afternoon when we visited. Diving without a guide, we’d been briefed on the site and where to look. Dropping to 30m, we weren’t blown away at first. But as we rounded the pinnacle, a black-tip reef shark glided behind Iain, barely 5m away. Dropping deeper, we were treated to huge tuna, jacks and trevallies; a few of the black jacks fought amongst themselves as we passed through; barracuda hovered in the currents, silver against the darkening water. A great dive, but small recompense for the torture of three days as prisoners on Redang. I was truly glad to see the back of this polished Tourist Ghetto, which is a real shame as, with a backpacker crowd as the population, it would be a great island; it’s stunning. But that’s Progress for you, isn’t it? As Arnold Schwarzenegger did not say “I won’t be back.”

Small World & Larging It in Kuala Lumpur

I’d been in Kuala Lumpur a couple of days, and met up with a diver I know from London, Iain. He loves KL as, being gay, he can get up to all sorts of mischief here. Saunas and gay gyms abound. From what he told me of his dalliances, it certainly sounds fun being gay; apart from the shagging men bit. He told about the, quite literal, gay abandon of these places. For a fiver he can use the gym for a while, sit in the steam room and relax afterwards, spot a bit of something he fancies and be getting up to no good within minutes. Why is the straight world not as easy as this? Gym memberships would rocket, and my beer belly would be no more, I can tell you that much. Well…

We’d met a couple of expats, Chris and Helen, who ran a financial investment business here. Helen was a bit odd and intense, but Chris was very funny, and generous with the drinks…which is nice in KL because the price of alcohol is close to prohibitive. They had a Glaswegian called Andy in tow, who was new to the city. Talk about trying too hard, this fellow was a nightmare; one of those people who has to dominate a conversation and be the funniest chap in town, wringing a vaguely amusing story for laughs which turned to grimaces and knowing looks between the rest of us after a few nights of it. Chris said Andy was fishing for business with their company, and seemed to be reading from a script when discussing finance issues, as it was the same patter each time. Chris said there was no way he’d employ him. Aside from the bullshit, the lad was an alcoholic; not exactly unique in Glasgae, but stands out here. He turned up at the pool one afternoon, stinking of yesterday’s booze and carrying a can of beer…the other eleven of a double six-pack in the carrier bag. He looked a mess, and the pleasant conversation we’d previously been having was soon a distant memory as he took over.

I took to avoiding him wherever possible. We were in a bar one night, people-watching and playing Sex Tourist Or Not over a few beers. It’s not a game, more an observational time-waster, which involves one of you pointing out a Westerner with a local, and the others judge the relative ages, good or bad looks and affluence levels of the respective partners and decide whether he’s a seedy old bastard and she’s in it for the money, or not. Alky Andy approached the man we were quietly discussing, as he drank with a younger lady, his back to us (judged Not by the panel, by the way…she was no oil painting). He put an ice cube down the bloke’s back, and turned and ran back to us. He found the quite puerile prank incredibly amusing, unlike myself and Chris; safe to say the Non Sex Tourist wasn’t laughing. As Alky tried to chat to the man and smooth things over, the rest of us melted away. Quite enough of the irritating Scotsman had been had by all. I’d initially been under the impression that Chris had known him awhile, but later on he told me the guy had only been in KL four days, and they couldn’t get rid of him. (Myself and Iain were in stitches a few weeks later, on returning from Redang, to hear he’d headed back home to Scotland. Obviously the financiers of KL had seen through him, as no offers of work had arrived, and he’d spent the money meant to keep him going for a month in just one week; talk about pissing it up the wall.)

Anticipating Alky’s return from placating the wet-backed gentleman, I moved to the periphery of our growing group to avoid him. A tubby fellow called James, with a shared Lancastrian accent, introduced himself. He frowned a little, his head tipped to one side; wagged a finger at my chest.

“I think I know you” he said with a degree of certainty. He did look vaguely familiar to me, too.

“Where you from?” I asked.

“Nelson.”

“Burnley Bastard, are you?”

“Yeah.”

We both laughed as I made a face like someone just farted.

“You?”

“North End.”

Football was discussed for a minute, but this wasn’t the connection, and we were still puzzled.

“How old are you?” I tried.

“39.”

“Same here.”

I suspected I now had the answer.

In the early 90s, Manchester University finally tired of sending me letters asking me to return and avoid wasting what creative talent I had. They’d sent me three before I received one telling me they gave up: I was out. It took me ten years and several shit jobs to realise this huge error, returning to MMU to study for a part-time degree and finding my way to London. But back then, I couldn’t give a toss about studying. In those days, you lived for the weekends.

The summer after being kicked out, I was working in the sun as a landscape gardener on a pleasant housing estate in Blackburn. Tending a footpath border between leafy streets, the strains of a favourite House record drifted on the breeze from a nearby garden. Laughing voices, and the smell of barbecuing chicken drifted with it. Bastards. As I moved up the path, breaking and turning soil with my hoe, the music got louder; and better. I needed to know where this mix was from. I approached the wall and popped my head over. Several lads of my age were sitting in the sun, drinking beer and passing joints around.

“Hey mate” I called to one of them “that tape’s fucking ace…where’s it from?”

“Monroes, in Blackburn.” He walked over.

“Heard of the place, whereabouts is it?”

He gave me directions, then paused. “Fancy a smoke?”

I grinned. “Too right, cheers. Can my mate come?”

“Sure.”

“Neil!” I shouted down the pathway. My co-worker looked over, and smiled as I climbed the wall. Downing tools, he ran over to join me. An hour later, we were pleasantly stoned, drinking cold beers and eating chicken, and I had some new mates. The toil in the hot sun went out of the window for the afternoon. The lad I’d initially chatted to was Chris, and between mouthfuls of chicken burger, his mayonnaise-smudged mouth offered “We’re going to Monroes this Saturday night…why don’t you come with us?” That was the start of a great summer.

Returning to 2010, I posed a question to James. Being the same age, and from towns 10 miles either side of Blackburn, there was only one possible connection: the Rave scene. “Did you go to Monroes?”

“Yeah.”

“Whereabouts?” Every group of mates naturally gravitated to the same area of the club every week, dancing and sweating out chemicals for hours on end. You knew the same faces, exchanged broad grins with the same eyes when a certain track was dropped. It was a brilliant club, a brilliant summer; some of the best days of my life.

“On the left, just as you walked inside” he said.

“So you may know my ex, Claire Holden? Used to go out with Jack?”

“And Damien, and Chris Reed?” he asked, and chuckled when I told him how I met Chris at his barbecue.

Despite being only on nodding terms at the time, it was quite bizarre to bump into each other in an Asian city. James has worked in KL for three years, and rented a nice pad in Sentral. He kindly offered me one of his spare rooms any time I’m in town. We had a great night reminiscing, aided by the few records he’d brought over from that era…it was the first time in eighteen months that I’d touched a pair of 1210s, and I couldn’t wait to mix a few tunes.

The summers of 1989, 1990 and 1991 are indelibly etched on my memory. I don’t regret getting kicked out of university, as I was part of the biggest youth movement since the ‘60s. If you weren’t there, it’s hard to communicate the excitement House music had generated in us as it escaped its relative anonymity in America, to be wrapped in loving Northern English arms. Saturday nights were never the same again; dancing for hours in a club; the waiting at motorway service stations for a car to streak through and lead us to a secret location; illegally-breached industrial buildings echoing with the hypnotic sounds of techno; gaunt masks in the early morning light, hallucinogens wearing off, seeing frightening faces and knowing yours was among them; the agony after the ecstasy, of swinging truncheons and banging shields as the police break in.

It all flooded back that night, and it was hard to believe it was half a lifetime ago. We reflected long into the night; 20 years; where have they gone?