Thursday, 29 April 2010

First Dip

Our dive guide, Drop Tank (as he became known later, after a potentially life-threatening balls-up), sat at the front of the small speedboat as we headed away from the resort on a glorious morning, bound for the Fujikawa. He was a big fella who didn't say much, content to sit and spit red betel nut juice into the sea at regular intervals. Our briefing for the first dive could be described as thin, or could be described as a joke; when guiding on the wrecks in Coron, we're aware of each diver's experience, and tailor the dive accordingly. We'll show a diagram of the wreck, explain precisely where we're going and indicate points of interest. There's a plan, and we stick to it...so the divers feel confident in our ability. Drop Tank was clueless, and got worse by the dive.

He told us the depth of the wreck, and which end was the bow and which the stern; then explained we'd enter through a hole made by a torpedo entry. That was it. Fair enough, we tumbled backwards into the water and dropped to the wreck. Regrouping by the jagged metal wound, we entered the ship. Drop Tank and Dean's American mate, Dave, just vanished; H disappeared too, after realising Drop Tank was useless and deciding she'd dive alone; myself and two experienced Aussie lads, Steve and Donk, went looking around on our own, too.

The wreck was no disappointment. The ships I work on in Coron have been stripped, and only the Irako retains much in the way of interesting artifacts, as she was too deep to salvage at the time. My first view of Truk's made my heart leap: a tank on the bow; bullets and shells throughout the holds; pieces of Zero fighter planes in the forward holds; intact bridges; radio rooms; saki bottles and old Japanese manuscripts. These wrecks are fascinating. If only the American salvagers in the 60s, and free-diving Filipino locals had had the foresight to leave Coron's wrecks well alone, the dive industry there would be far bigger than it is, and the town would have prospered through it. It's a real pity. One dive in, and I was wondering how I'd feel about going back to diving empty shells, compared to these history capsules.

Drop Tank got no better. He'd led the five of us to the engine room of the Fujikawa, which gets tighter and tighter as you follow the walkways and encrusted rails deeper into the ship. As we got to the end, Drop Tank and Dave had to come back on themselves on the other side of a small railing: he'd led us into a cul-de-sac, and we were all now trying to stay neutrally buoyant without kicking up the silt and reducing the visibilty to zero: the last thing you want in the engine room of a dark wreck 34 metres below the surface. They managed to squeeze past us and head out, leaving myself and Donk at the back in a cloud of rust and silt. Great.

On surfacing, H gave me a What the fuck was that all about? look, and the Aussies didn't seem so impressed with our guide's performance, either. Allied with the fact that we'd asked Drop Tank to stick with Dave, who is partially disabled and therefore a little more vulnerable than the rest of us, and this had been ignored, we came to a mutual conclusion: we were diving these wrecks on our own from now on. No more engine-room bun-fights for us.

Busman's Holiday

I've always had an (unhealthy?) interest in the Second World War. From an early age, all I drew were Spitfires, Me109s, Tiger tanks and German soldiers. They had the best uniforms, after all...we had those shit helmets like soup bowls and stupid puttees over our boots. When I was 13, my old Physics teacher, Mr Landau, peered over my shoulder in the library and saw me drawing a battle scene featuring several SS men. Considering he was a childhood survivor of Treblinka, it's little wonder he went absolutely fucking ballistic and ripped up my drawing (good one it was too, you touchy bastard) whilst making growling noises, before directing me to the headmaster on tip-toes (me, not him) using my ear as a handle. Sorry about that, Sir.

Anyway, since getting into diving, it was pretty obvious I would be setting up a hit-list of war relics to visit. Truk Lagoon has got to be No1 on any such list, although some would argue Scapa Flow is better. I'll let you know once I've visited the Orkney's dark, cold waters for myself.

Truk saw some 60 Japanese supply ships and 200+ aircraft sent to the bottom of the sea on February 17th 1944 during Operation Hailstone. The Americans saw Truk as a vital staging post vital to attacks on Japanese soil. The warships in the area made a run for it, leaving the supply ships and crews to their fates. Incidentally the Akitsushima, lying in Coron Bay, was attacked here and in Manila before being sent to the bottom.

To dive Truk from England is expensive. A week's break could set you back almost 2500 GBP. H had made enquiries about flying with Continental from Manila, and found flights for 400 quid. I knew the diving was expensive at 35 quid a pop, but it still meant ten days of diving these wrecks would be around 1500, including the flight. As soon as she mentioned it, I invited myself along. Bit cheeky, but I'm a cheeky young monkey; besides, Dean had an American mate turning up in Truk, so H needed some (relatively) sane company.

I'd always thought Micronesia would be an island paradise with a dinky little airport, beautiful girls in grass skirts throwing garlands round your neck on arrival, plentiful weed, delicious fresh fish and abundant fruit. I was right about the airport, and that's about it: what a fucking toilet. Imagine Toxteth in the 80s transported to an island (wouldn't have been a bad plan during the riots?). Boarded up, derelict houses; people living in metal shipping containers; fat, toothless people everywhere (that was just the sexy ones); gangs of listless teenagers sniffing solvents. Myself and H gawped that much on the shuttle from the airport, eyes wide and mouths gaping, that our bus might has well have had Sunshine Variety Club down the side of it.

Arriving at the extortionate Blue Lagoon Dive Resort, we had a heart attack at the $120 nightly rate (worked out OK in the end when some clown charged us 10 nights instead of 12). But as there are only two resorts, and the other is stuck in town, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. We grudgingly took our room after searching round town for cheaper places and homestays; and after being told it was unsafe to walk around at night, and witnessing the state of the toilets at the airport (how much worse might a homestay be?). Still, we had a great view and we were just here to dive.

Dropping the gear at the shop, we went to bed early like children on December 24th wanting to make Christmas come sooner.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Smasher

Coron can be a trying place to spend your time; it's deadly dull if you're not diving, the same faces populate the same spots at night, sometimes even the same chairs, and the small-town mentality of some people could drive you insane. As Olivier, my French instructor mate, told me "It is one thing to listen to the stories...the time to leave is when you are in the stories." Quite.

So it was some relief that myself and Helen hit it off so well. Similar dark senses of humour and sarcasm, mixed with a love of wrecks, means we'll be friends for life. She kept me sane here, and I reckon I did the same for her. You don't have to be mad to live here, but it helps.

I can well imagine H as a kid: climbing trees, coming home with dirty knees, riding BMXs and wrestling the boys in her street; and I bet she won. Her and my sister, who grew up the only girl in a street of ten boys, would get on like a house on fire. Em was fond of building dens and getting into trouble with me and my brother, Scott.

One fond memory involves my Dad and a neighbour spotting a plume of smoke beyond the orchard at the bottom of our cul-de-sac, in the direction of the bridge over the disused railway line. They raced through the woods to help in what they thought was a serious accident, only to find my ten-year-old self and siblings adding to a fair-sized fire we'd got going underneath the bridge. Traffic had stopped either side of the crossing because of a dense plume of acrid black smoke visible for some miles, apparently. Dad asked me what the bloody hell I was doing, to which I obviously replied Nothing, as if the fire was invisible. I was marched home for the hiding off my life; well...one of them (Incidentally, the only fire I ever started bigger than this one was on the railway embankment itself a couple of years earlier, which took four fire engines and crews an hour to put out. We'd actually phoned them from a call box once it got going properly. A fireman asked my sooty-faced self who'd started it, and of course I told him Big boys. Dad didn't find out about this one) Dad had a nice line in mental, as well as physical, punishment for my many misdemeanours: I'd be sent to his wardrobe to pick which belt I wanted my backside tanning with. The thick belt had greater impact, but its larger surface area meant there was no afterburn, whereas the thinner belt made you think actually, that wasn't too bad for a split second before the pain arrived. Dad denies all this these days, of course. But he needn't worry, as I don't think Social Services will take me away on a holiday and give me a Playstation at almost 40 years old. Might be worth asking, though?

That digressive, pyromaniacal tale and shadows of my abusive childhood aside...H asked me if I wanted to come to Truk Lagoon with her. A Busman's Holiday, two weeks of wreck-diving as a break from wreck-diving in Coron? Count me in.

Dark Clouds

I've debated writing this story for a while, but have held back because the fellow involved was still trying to get out of the country, and there was a fair bit of fallout from this incident; both legal and personal. But it's an example of how, just when you think you're in paradise and all is well, something awful can change your life overnight. I think it's a tale worth telling: judge for yourself.

Dean, the American Divemaster we'd worked with, lives pretty fast and lose. I'd been witness to a particularly reckless episode when he'd taken off his scuba gear before climbing into a 2' square hatch to the boiler on the Kogyo; I'd stuck around, wasting the best part of my dive, to make sure he could get in and out, at one stage having to push his tank and jacket in after him. Had he got in, and not been able to get back out...he'd have needed all the help he could get. All that to look around inside a boiler for 30 seconds?

He's a man looking for love in all the wrong places, illustrated when he paid for two girls he'd met in the notorious city of Olongapo to come visit Coron; it was obvious they were bar girls taking advantage of a westerner willing to splash out on them. To cut a long story short, he was getting nowhere with the one he liked, but decided to follow her back to Olongapo after the pair were asked to leave the island by a couple of locals. We were due to meet him and another diver to head for the wrecks of Truk Lagoon a few weeks later. These plans soon altered irrevocably.

Dean likes a drink, amongst other things. I've been on the back of a scooter with him late at night after a drinking session, and it was certainly a one-off. In Olongapo he took delivery of a fast bike, and it seemed he'd be there a while. It was little over a week later, after I asked how things were by text, that I got a message that everything had changed: Things have got far worse, I'm in hospital with a broken back and a dead girl on my hands.

He'd been hanging around the floating bar in the city; bar being a very vague description for this establishment. At 1am he'd offered a girl a lift home. Soon after, on a long stretch of road, a driver ahead performed an illegal U-turn ahead of Dean, completely misjudging the approaching bike's speed. Dean was thrown from the bike; the girl hit the pavement and was killed on impact. He was rushed to the local hospital.

This came as a shock to everyone, but not as much of a surprise; to neither people in Coron or Olongapo. He'd been drinking, despite his claims to the contrary, and had a reputation for speeding on his bike already. To make matters worse, the guy who'd made the illegal maneuvre leading to the accident was related to the Chief Of Police: this could get messy very quickly. It was pretty clear that the portion of blame was 50-50, but there was no way the locals would let go once they smelled the white man's cash. Getting out of this situation requires paying off the police to make evidence disappear, and paying the family blood money. She left behind a daughter, no-one knew where...and it would not be long before people started coming out of the woodwork to lay claim.

I got in touch with H, as she was flying into Manila from Borneo after a week's trekking. She knew Dean better, and it made more sense for her to go see him. We were under the impression at the time that the girl who'd been killed was a local he'd fallen in love with. H was quite shocked to walk into the hospital room to find the girl who'd visited Coron eating pizza and watching TV, and said she'd thought she was dead? It became clear that this girl had come back on the scene after the accident, and had possibly been sent by the madam of the floating bar to make sure Dean was not leaving; with two broken vertebrae and a fractured foot, this was unlikely.

Within hours, H found herself in a situation which did not sit well with her. A local from Coron had asked a friend in Olongapo to help, and he was doing all he could. Waton explained that the dead girl was not registered at the bar, and the madam and her henchmen wanted Dean out of the city as soon as possible, before the police started looking into her activities. Waton also told H that they would have to buy the police evidence and photographs of the crash scene, effectively erasing the incident, and then meeting the family to negotiaite a settlement. Often, working girls are disowned by the family, but they will still require compensating for their deaths. H is a social worker back home, and told me in an emotional phone call that she could not go through with it. On arrival, she thought Dean had tragically lost a lover, the reality was he'd been involved in the death of a young hooker, and the vultures were circling. She decided to leave and let Waton handle the business, but felt she was letting Dean down and worried everyone in Coron would think she'd abandoned him. This clearly was not the case: Waton had things under control, as long as Dean wanted to be helped.

H had clearly been upset by the fact that Dean was asking how he would recover his motorbike and helmet, and was concerned about his dive gear at the shop in Olongapo. The bike and helmet should have been the last things he'd want to see. A phrase he used implied he was lucky that the girl had no immediate family in the city, and that it should make things easier to settle. He also mentioned the fact he may still be able to make the Truk Lagoon trip. Strange things to consider with a dead girl on your conscience.

Life can change pretty quickly, and this is a tragic example of that. And life is cheap here, the blood money being a tenth of Dean's hospital bill. There's a family in Olongapo which considers the matter settled, and an orphan with an uncertain future. Dean's future is also uncertain: I hope he recovers from his spinal injury, and that time heals the mental scars; it won't be easy. He'll have to learn from this experience: a life-changing one. The last I heard, he'd made it back to the States, where they'd had to re-break his foot after the Pinoy doctors had botched the op; he's lucky they didn't operate on his spine, so hopefully he'll walk again.

Some of you may think this tale should not have been published, but it had a big impact on me...and I'm just telling it as it happened. I've tried not to be too judgemental; it was an incident which could have been avoided, with many contributing factors. If nothing else, it's a sobering example of how you just don't know what is around the corner in life.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Every Day Is A School Day

The thing I love about diving is that you never stop learning. If you think you know it all, you're wrong. Just when you're taking a nice relaxing dive for granted, you can be tested; the training is all on the job, every immersion.

A friend from London visited me, and she'd done some diving in Thailand before heading out to see me here in Coron; she's got the diving bug pretty bad. We'd done a couple of easy wrecks before heading for the Akitsushima, a slightly deeper ship. All went well for the first few minutes, I kept checking over my shoulder to see Lisa (not her real name, but she feels embarrassed about the incident, despite me telling her not to be: these things can happen to anyone) and the Slovenian fella I was guiding were behind me. Suddenly Lisa was swimming towards me frantically, pointing to her regulator, shaking her head and whimpering. She was wide-eyed, and tried to ascend. I had to react quickly to stop her going straight up, and didn't want to get her to switch to her reserve regulator, as she was panicking; maybe this would make her worse? On the surface she told me she'd had water coming in, and had panicked. I could have reacted differently, in retrospect, but the main thing is to make sure a diver is safe. Lisa swore she'd never dive gain, she'd been so terrified. H convinced her to do the second dive though, and Lisa's since fallen in love with diving again after visiting Boracay. I was just relieved a mate was OK.

The job can be stressful at times: you're constantly having to calculate how quickly a diver is consuming air, and figuring out if they are mentally prepared for a tight swim through a propeller shaft. It's a challenging environment at the best of times. And sometimes you make the wrong decision.

I've worked freelance this season, and was out with another dive operation with three divers: one Finnish DM, and two novices from the same country. The DM had told me he was a technical diver and wreck specialist, so when one of the younger lads burned through his air I indicated I'd take him up and the other could stay a few more minutes around the stern shotline. I was soon to rue this decision. I'd imagined that, as a professional diver, the DM would keep an eye on the inexperienced lad. Not that it was his job, it was my responsibility, but all the same. They didn't stay together coming up, and the young lad was soon floating up to the surface far too quickly. I swam rapidly towards him and brought him down to a safe level and made him stay a few minutes longer to try to compensate for his rapid ascent. The lesson learned?: Don't expect a fellow pro to do your job for you.

I had a nasty incident with a bad air fill on another dive, while guiding an old Frenchman named Nardy. Akitsushima was beginning to become something of a bogey dive by now. As I dropped into the gloom, sunlight disappearing behind me, the air tasted a little metallic. Not wanting to abort the dive for the sake of the customer, I decided to see how it went. At 32 metres, my blood was pounding in my head, and I experienced similar effects to those at 60m on Apo Reef. I grabbed hold of the wreck and indicated to Nardy that we had to go back up. Quite a horrible morning. The lesson from this one was to check your air is breathable before going down below. Thankfully the Bad Ju-Ju didn't start once we'd got inside the wreck itself: that would have been a nightmare. Bad trip inside a sunken ship? No thanks...

Suicidal Tendencies

Coron was busy when I arrived, even the hovels were booked solid. Patric had space for a few days before I'd have to move out for one of his bookings. The options were: sleep on the floor in his kitchen, or take a place on Dive Cal's five day liveaboard trip to Apo Reef. I decided on the latter, especially as a French instructor I know from my time last year, Olivier, would be leading the trip.

We set off late at night, our preparations accompanied by the usual caterwauling from distant karaoke bars, the wails carrying across the water of the bay. Underway by midnight, we were due at the reef for our first dive at 7am; I took a bunk away from the opening to the engine room, and attempted sleep.

The dawn broke through the gaps in the tarpaulin, the engines were cut and the only sounds were waves lapping the sides of our wooden bangka and the frying of eggs. Breakfast was wolfed down as introductions were made. Juri was Yugoslavian, Paul I already knew was an old friend of Gerd's.

The other three were Ace, Frank and Julie from Korea. Frank was a young instructor, though Ace had more experience. Julie had little experience, but possessed the kind of dive kit most serious divers would salivate over, including a computer designed for mixed-gas diving...something she certainly neither needed, or knew how to operate. The three of them were what divers refer to as Christmas Trees: covered from head to toe in unnecessary kit. Ace had three knives, three lights, a compass, two computers and a camera: he was the least equipped of the trio.

The first dive set the tone of the trip: myself, Paul and Juri dived fairly conservatively, while the Koreans were down to 30m, then up to 20m...then back to 35m: up and down more often than a Dutch whore's knickers. As a result of this, they would all gather around Julie's computer and press all available buttons, obviously trying to figure out why they had 25 minutes of decompression time, while we could surface for lunch?

Apo is a fairly pristine reef, and sharks were seen on every dive; only white tips, the grey reef sharks were a little bashful by comparison. We even saw an eagle ray at one point, but while we waited for it to get closer, Ace decided to smash through the pack and swim full-pelt at it with his camera outstretched in front of him. As a result, no-one saw it properly...and Ace was very apologetic once he realised how pissed off we all were back on the boat.

I was in front on one dive, and we descended a huge drop-off; there are points on Apo that drop beyond 100 metres. I was a little bored on this dive, as we hadn't seen much of interest. So I checked my computer and noted that I was at 38m; Irako is Coron's deepest wreck at 42m. I decided I'd see what it was like beyond. Descending to 45m, I decided to try a little more. I bit off a bit more than I could chew.

Nitrogen narcosis affects divers below 30m, Jacques Cousteau called this effect the raptures of the deep. The deeper you go, the more the gas affects you and your perception. Sometimes this can make you feel over-confident, as you would after a few drinks; indeed, sometimes it is referred to as Martini's Law: for every 10m after 30m, you feel like you've had a drink. As I headed deeper, I began to feel strange sensations: my body felt swollen, lips tingled, and as I exhaled bubbles they rang metallic in my ears. As my heart raced, I tried to calm myself. My depth alarm began bleeping on my computer. Slightly panicked, I saw I was now at 60 metres below the surface. That's the equivalent of a 20-story building: a long way down. Alone. And almost at the point of Oxygen toxicity, another danger at depth. I didn't know if this was what I was experiencing, and would soon black out.

I approached an overhang on the reef, it plunged me into shadows, heightening my fear. Having the presence of mind to try and keep calm while heading upwards, I realised that to panic now would see me in a recompression chamber at best; dead at worst. I'd liken these moments to a bad mushroom trip. My voice told me You're going to die here. I had a brief vision of my Mum screaming at my Dad, him sat with his head in his hands. My voice again What you do in the next few minutes decides whether you live or die. It might sound dramatic, but I was paranoid I was going to make a mistake that could cost me my life. I cursed myself and my inquisitive nature: how could I have been so stupid?

As I ascended to 50 metres, the symptoms began to ease. I checked my computer and air, all seemed OK. Looking above, I could see the rest of the group above me. Signaling to Oli that I was fine, I sat at around 12m for the rest of the dive. Relief washed over me. On the way back up to safety, the terror had decided for me that I would never dive again, but now I realised that I'd just pushed it a little too far. I apologised to Oli, as my stunt put him in a predicament; if something had gone wrong, I would have put him in danger if he'd come to rescue me. As a DM, I'm responsible for my own safety; and as a recent father, I would not have expected Oli to come rescue me...it would have been my own fault. Oli just laughed and said he thought I'd spotted a shark, they'd all followed me down to 40m initially. As lessons go, it was a valuable one. It's wise to increase your depth 4-5 metres per dive, until you get used to the sensations. Going 18m beyond your previous deepest is a bit daft.

My death wish seemed to be nothing on Ace's, though. The main reason I had joined the trip was to dive the Kyokuzan, the only Japanese wreck I'd not been inside as yet. We hit this site on the final day of the tour. Juri was to dive with Oli; myself and Paul decided we'd try a propeller-shaft entry. The ship's holds are full of asbestos which has remained since it's sinking in 1944...white clouds of it sit at around 28m. It's very creepy, and downright dangerous to enter. I checked the shaft, and signaled to Paul that going in this way was a big no-no. We made a simpler dive around the bridge and exited. Coming up, we saw Frank and Julie ascending, casting glances back at the wreck. On the surface they said Ace was gone, but didn't seem unduly worried as he was experienced.

A good ten minutes of nervous glances and watch observation ensued. Who was going to go back down there with no surface interval? A splashing of water indicated Ace was up. Climbing aboard with a grin, he answered our queries in pidgin English.

"So where did you get to, Ace?" asked Oli.
"I went...I go inside. Down. I see white cloud, so I look..." he mimicked swimming "...inside I go, more. I no see, and I swim...and swim...and swim...BANG!"
He mimed hitting a wall. Oliver looked at me, horrified.
"So I feel like dis..." he showed us how he felt the walls and ceiling of the hold, absolutely blind "...then I feel and feel, but no hole. I think SHIT!" Shit indeed, mate. "Then after ten minute, I swim out of hole." Frank grinned, obviously pleased Ace had had an interesting experience. Julie beeped on her computer, oblivious. Oli looked relieved he hadn't lost a diver, the rest of us laughed incredulously. I'd know Koreans were the world's worst trained divers, but this was just beyond.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Toad Rides Again

Quite literally, as it turns out. On a new bike, though...

Some of you will remember my encounter with this individual last year. He's in his late fifties/ early sixties, and strutted around town with a slip of a girl a third of his age, and a quarter of his size, named Zandy.

On my return to London, I'd received a mail from this lovely chap. He'd pointed out that my story about him was libelous; but the truth is not libel. I took the photo of him off the post though, as that was a bit naughty and could have landed him in trouble. I'd wrongly assumed that this trouble would be with his employers, who I can't name...it actually turns out that it would be his girlfriend back in Germany who would be most pissed off. Anyway, we'd exchanged emails where he put his side of the story, and I told him that the Europeans I see in this country, smugly parading girlfriends their daughters/ granddaughters age, turn my stomach and make me ashamed to be white. We agreed to disagree. Or at least I think we did...he didn't answer my second mail.

So, by popular demand, I can now update the story.

Toad would tell all who would listen in Coron, that he was going to smash me to pieces. I'd be slightly annoyed if someone pointed out to me that shagging a girl 40 years younger than me was wrong if I was having a good time with her, I suppose? He'd have a few drinks and get a bit brave. Now I'm no Rocky Balboa, but a fat man the wrong side of 50 doesn't fill me with dread. He knows where to find me.

The other person Toad fell out with is a mate of mine named Patric. Pat is a solid ex-kickboxing champion from Sweden: if you spilled his beer in a bar, you'd buy him a couple back and a tequila chaser. There are a couple of people on his Shit List, and I wouldn't like to be in their shoes. But we get on just fine. Him and Toad, on the other hand? Toad had a run-in with Pat's wife, Tess...and he said some nasty things, to which someone pointed out that Pat wouldn't like what he'd said. Toad laughed it off, and said he would beat Patric up. Big mistake, my warty friend. The Swedish Pitbull was on his motorbike and up to the shop in minutes.

What happened next sounded priceless, and I'd have paid to have been there. The shop was fairly busy with a few customers, staff, and Toad at the bar. Pat walked in, and the atmosphere became a touch fraught. Denis, the diminutive boat captain, sensed a fight and held Pat's arm, saying "Patric..." The Swede turned to him and said "Go. Away." Poor Denis beat a hasty retreat, and the fireworks began. Toad received a bloody nose and a couple of blows to the stomach, knocking him off his bar stool. I don't advocate violence, but he deserved this. Not just for the insult to Pat's missus, but his general behaviour. No-one in the town likes him.

Big Pat blowing his top aside, the news didn't get any better for our slimy hero. A fierce argument ensued with his young hooker, Zandy, late one evening. Her screams alerted neighbours, who ran to the house to find Toad throttling her. The local bobbies decided it best Toad spent a night away from her: in a cell. She's since left the island with another man, and Toad has another bike to ride. All this despite telling me that they were just friends, and he was simply a benefactor who looked after her and paid for medicine she needed? Oh...I feel so cheated. How could you lie to me like this, Mr Toad?

The Irresistible Lure Of Coron

I told him I'd be back, but I don't think he believed me. As the minibus pulled up outside Rocksteady, Gerd was straight across the dusty road to give me a bear hug and grab my bag. It was great to be reunited with my diving mentor. Nothing's changed at the shop, or indeed in town. Still dusty, still polluted, still crazy.

There were no guarantees of work at the shop, but I'd known this before setting out. In front of me were three other DMs: Dean (name changed for reasons to become apparent), a overly talkative American with a suicidal diving style; Miro, a flaxen-haired and mild-mannered German of some experience; and Helen, a robust Brummie tomboy destined to become my best mate here, and a friend for life (much more on her later). So I grabbed a crate and decanted my kit, ready for a dive the following day.

The town has suffered recently, the electricity being cut every day between 7am and 7pm. The authorities were in dispute with the power companies, who decided to show them a thing or two. There was allegedly 60K GBP of relief money in public coffers, but the Mayor and Governor, the Reyes Brothers, allegedly used this fund for alleged personal projects. Corruption? Here in the Philippines? Surely not? And that's quite aside from the fact that the Governor and Mayor of a town are not allowed to be related (would be difficult in Burnley). So it's been a pain in the arse getting something to eat during the day, and it's a good job I like tuna sandwiches.

One laughable change in the town centres around the waterfront. A new pier was under construction when I was here last, and one small corner of this twin football pitch area has been completed. It looks nice enough,with wooden benches, trees and paved areas. The trouble is, the grassy area needs watering every day to cope with the heat...and this is costing thousands of Pisos in water. Didn't really think it through. The Mayor's latest idea is for the redevelopment of the current waterfront buildings, stratched out on stilts and concrete piles around the bay; apparently he's seen some photos of Venice he quite likes, and wants that here. The mind truly boggles...I'll believe it when I see it. Which is highly unlikely, judging by the current snail pace of Filipino construction.

So it's a bit of a dump, but it's homely. I know people here, and it certainly feels good to be back.

Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends...

I suffered the winter of my discontent; being back in London was great (bitterly cold weather aside), as far as seeing old friends and enjoying the culture goes, but I found it hard being sat behind a desk rather than on the deck of the Emily heading into Coron Bay to dive the wrecks. I love working as a designer, and it wasn't hard to slip back into it in the capital; but I'd known since Vietnam in September 2008 that my life had changed irrevocably. Diving my way around the Philippines had reinforced this and, as sad as my farewells were to the gang at Rocksteady, I knew I'd be back.

And so to the familiar streets of Manila. The city doesn't grow on you, it's not pretty enough, though this is the fault of the Japanese and American armies who fought over it in 1945. At a count of 150000, more civilians died in this battle than perished in the atom bomb strike at Hiroshima: a horrific death toll. The city, once leafy, cobblestoned streets of Art Deco architecture, was duly flattened. As it has been rebuilt, there has been no discernible city centre...and I think this is where it's problem lies. There is nowhere in this warren of streets that you feel you are in the heart of the city, and what is a city without a heart? No plazas, no squares, no parks to speak of...you never feel you have found the point it all comes together. It is a pity, as the Manilenos are, in the main, warm and friendly people...and deserving of better.

There is little of the menace or danger I felt when first arriving here last year. The place hasn't changed at all, I'm just hardened to the pressure of these streets. It's a pity my lungs haven't hardened to the excrement-riddled stench, but I instinctively hold my breath whenever approaching one of the sewer entries on the roads these days. I couldn't stifle a horrified groan as I passed a man in the street, trousers round his ankles, letting last night's dinner go. I don't have a problem with a grown man shitting on the pavement, but in broad daylight? That's just ill-mannered. To be fair to the town, it's not limited to here. My Dad recounted a tale one day a few years back. He'd been shopping in Preston, and had nipped into a bakers for a pasty. While queuing, he noticed a tramp outside the shop, squatting in the street. On standing, the man was holding his keks up with one hand while reaching inside with the other. On this Saturday afternoon in a Northern town, he then proceeded to scoop handfuls of shit from his undercrackers and flick it towards the gutter, to the open-mouthed amazement of passers-by on Friargate. Dad said that it was at this point that two women in the bakers started screaming.

The hawkers are still ubiquitous in Manila; peddling cheap watches, girls, boys and viagra. I used to give them a polite smile and shake of the head; it's not forceful enough...now the persistent get a polite Fuck off, mate. I don't like being rude, except when necessary. Honest.

Manila will never occupy a special place in my heart, but it certainly gets under your skin...the order amongst the chaos and confusion, the noise, the appalling smells, the vermin. It's an interesting place as far as the wide scope of humanity occupying it goes, an hour is easily spent nursing a drink and watching it drift by in all its forms. And, let's face it, if you want to experience the Philippines, you can't ignore it.