Monday, 31 May 2010

Getting Technical & A Dirty Job

Wrecks are the main lure for me when it comes to diving and, after spending time in Truk Lagoon with H, I'm probably even more focused on them. I've been happy working on the wrecks in Coron, and to see Truk in only my second year underwater was amazing. I have Scapa Flow, Scotland, in my sights...but H mentioned a couple of others: HMS Repulse, and HMS Prince Of Wales. Both lie off the coasts of Malaysia and Singapore. The only trouble with these wrecks is the depth...Repulse's maximum is 55 metres, POW's is 69m. Both are diveable on air, to a maximum of 66m; after that, the dangers of oxygen toxicity loom. We'd dived the San Francisco in Truk, which has a maximum depth of 63m, and because of these depths, you do not get long down there, especially on a single tank; your body loads nitrogen so quickly that you are looking at a 15 minute bottom time at around 45m. And the narcosis hit me pretty hard on that dive, I was off it. The visibilty on the SF is stunning, the wreck visible as soon as you drop below 15m on the vertical shotline. The dive not being anywhere near long enough, it was time to consider technical diving and trimix if I wanted more time with these sunken hulks.

I won't bore you with too many details. Basically, in technical diving, we replace nitrogen with inert gases such as helium to reduce the effects of nitrogen narcosis at depth, making a deep dive much safer. At depths below 60m, the percentage of oxygen is also reduced to prevent oxygen toxicity. Twin tanks are used for a longer dive, and a higher mix of oxygen-rich air is slung beneath the diver in another tank to aid faster decompression at a certain safe depth on the way up from the dive. This type of diving is safer in some ways, and more dangerous in others...if you overstay beyond your plan on the dive, or lose the decompression gas. Planning is essential, and contingency plans just as important. It's certainly more disciplined than standard diving.

I decided to head for Puerto Galera on Mindoro, for a few days of diving. I knew they had a reputable tec diving shop there, and after a brief chat with the two English fellas running it, signed up for the Advanced Recreational Trimix course. My knowledge of diving physics is OK, but this course was something else...my brain was inside-out by the end of the second session. Getting used to the new equipment was even harder: twin tanks take some getting used to, and on the first dive I was all over the place It was like learning to dive again: rolling around desperately trying to stay neutrally buoyant and stable in the water, while having my head between two tank valves felt a little unnatural. Dave, the owner, had said this was like the Open Water course for tec diving, and he wasn't kidding. After 20 minutes I felt like giving up and sticking to recreational diving, thinking Maybe this isn't for me? But I don't like defeat, and so stuck it out; things got easier.

The hardest drills were on the first couple of dives. You are trained to dive as part of a team, but to be self-sufficient if anything goes wrong. So there are drills for checking your air-supply should a piece of equipment malfunction. The main valve drill involves turning off one of two valves, waiting for the air to stop before switching to your reserve supply and regulator, then repeating the procedure for the opposite side. It's a lot to take in, and on my first attempt I closed a valve without re-opening it, and did likewise with the reserve. Suddenly I had no air, and quickly switched to the reserve, which I'd unknowingly closed off. Oops: nothing to breathe. Sam sat in front of me, frowning through his mask, arms folded, letting me frantically try and open up something to breathe for a few seconds before helping me out. Tough love, as the Yanks call it. I did better the second time, obviously.

The worst part was the out-of-air drills, especially the one where I had to swim along a line on one breath for 13 metres, without a mask. When you get the urge to breathe while breath-holding, it is the body telling you the brain has too much carbon dioxide present, not that it needs more oxygen. Sam had told me to fight this urge and concentrate on swimming to my buddy for the drill, making a sawing motion across my throat to indicate I was out of air. It's not easy, and your chest convulses as your body tries to overpower your will, and breathe. It's deeply unpleasant, the blood pounding in your skull, screaming white noise: you feel as if you're going to black out. Twice I almost reached the other diver, a blurred figure a few metres away, and twice I stopped and had to take a breath from my regulator and put my mask back on. Sam pulled out his underwater slate, and I thought he would write that we'd do this on another dive and leave it for today. I watched the letters form Are you going to stop fucking around and do this? He raised his eyebrows and I laughed to myself. Indeed, it was third time lucky. I knew from then on that Sam Collett does not give away certifications easily, I'd have to work for this. But I prefer things that way.

The diving went pretty well, so well on one later dive that Sam laughed as we got back on the boat and asked if I had an evil twin? I was getting more confident. There was one moment of bad ju-ju though, and I indicated I wanted to abort the dive as my breathing increased and I felt strange sensations again. We came up, and Sam made me continue the exercises: a gas-switch at 21 metres, deploying a surface marker, and controlling both our ascents. I thought I'd fail on it, but Sam told me he'd rather a diver in a bad way told him to abort, rather than continue on and put us both in a potentially hazardous situation: common sense.

A tough course, but rewarding...I've taken my diving on to another level. There are two more courses to complete before I can reach 70m+ and penetrate the wrecks I'd like to see, and there is plenty of practice to come, but I'll get there. Sam was off to dive the HMS Hermes, a British aircraft carrier sunk off the coast of Sri Lanka. Sounds great. It's been added to my list.

Sam was diving another wreck pretty soon after I left him, this one less pleasant. The MV Princess Of The Stars sank in the path of Typhoon Frank in June 2008. 700 people lost their lives off the coast of Romblon. I've met residents of these islands who told me some heart-rending stories: a pregnant woman dead on a beach and found by children; two boys around 7 years old caught up in fishermens' nets weeks after the sinking. Horrific. Along with several other divers, Sam has volunteered to perform the grim task of retrieving the human remains still inside. Diving a wreck is eerie and frightening enough, but entering one full of decomposing bodies is a daunting prospect. Sam told me they will have to avoid the ceilings of compartments, as it is likely the first 6-10 inches of liquid in these areas will be mainly human fat. The grimness of this task is difficult to comprehend. Rather him than me.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dive #203: Unforgettable Moments

I've dived many wrecks now. But Irako will always be special; by far the most intimidating of Coron's ships due to her depth, darkness and limited visibility. I know her well now, but her novelty has not yet worn off. Some of the wrecks I could dive blindfolded, but there are still areas of Irako I am yet to visit. She still has the capacity to frighten me at times.

Due to the amount of plankton in the water at times, whale sharks have occasionally been sighted off her bows. She sits in 42m of cloudy water, and once 10m away from her, you're in the blue. Finding the dive boat again is one thing, seeing one of these huge creatures requires more luck. Bjorn from Dive Cal saw one last year, Miro had seen a few this year. Me? None.

Today would be different. I'd guided a Slovenian couple, both Divemasters too, through Irako's transmission room and kitchen corridors...a great dive in itself. I'd promised them a viewing of the huge school of jacks who swim in two balls, in a figure of eight formation, on the bow of the ship. Exiting the wreck and swimming around the bow gun mounting, there was no sign of them. I indicated we should head back to the masts, where the boat was anchored to the wreck with a shotline: the jacks were always there if not on the bow. No sign of them as the masts came into view. I was puzzled.

One of my divers pointed beyond me, and I turned to see a school of smaller fish right behind me. I nodded to say I'd seen them. Then he gave me an open shrug and tapped his mask and pointed at me, to say Did you see? The fish? I thought. I shrugged, tapped my mask to say See what? He made a blade of his hand and put it to his forehead to say Shark. I shook my head and whirled around: nothing. I felt like crying...a week before I left Coron, and a whale shark had swum right behind me, unnoticed. Looking up at the direction of the shotline, I could figure out exactly where our boat sat. It's standard practice to follow the line up, but there was no current. I shrugged and then pointed my arm in various directions to ask him Where? He stopped me when I was indicating where he'd last seen it, and I beckoned him and his wife over. Let's go. His eyes crinkled behind his mask: I knew he was grinning.

We headed away from the wreck. A couple of divers from the other group were intrigued, and followed. Irako disappeared into the gloom behind us, and 12m above us I could see our boat. Flashes of reflected light ahead...the jacks. My heart pounded...I'd known something was up when they hadn't been feeding around the wreck. As I drifted through the school, a huge shape cruised below me, dots of silver across its huge back, mouth agape. A whale shark, remorra fish and cleaners in attendance. I pointed down, looking back at the divers behind me. Turning back around, there was another...two of these elegant beasts chasing each other's tails. The larger one was 5-7m, the smaller one 4-6m. As one, everyone was checking their air supply and decompression times. How long do I have? I dropped a few metres to get a closer look. The few minutes I spent watching these beauties felt like an hour; it is truly an incredible privilege to share personal space with animals like this.

I ascended slightly, swimming away from the boat with the sharks. Check the gauge again. Check the computer. I was pushing it, and could get bent if I wasn't careful. Forcing myself up and beyond them, I missed a minute of my safety stop and came up with 5 Bar of air left (standard practice says 50 is prudent). A little reckless, but this doesn't happen every day.

Climbing back aboard the boat, everyone was elated; I've never heard so many Fucks on board before. A very special dive, and certainly one of the best moments of my life. My Dad had dived with them in the Maldives, and was close to tears talking about the experience. Now I knew why.

Diveboat Characters #7 & #8: The Story-Teller & The Compulsive Talker

Like any job, when you work on a dive boat you come into contact with allsorts of people: some you like, some you loathe. We had a big German guy in his mid 50s on the boat who fell into the former category. Erwin is a larger-than-life character, very animated and very funny; he told the farthest-fetched travel stories of anyone I've ever met, but I loved listening to them. Every good tale-teller embellishes the story a little; I'm no different...if it gets a bigger laugh, I'll talk it up a bit.

We discussed South America, and everywhere I'd been...he'd been somewhere better or crazier. With some people this can be annoying, but Erwin just likes to entertain. He's big and burly, with wild grey curly hair and piercing blue eyes; owns more dive gear than a Japanese and a Korean put together; wears ridiculously gaudy bandannas between dives which he somehow gets away with. I liked him immediately.

"I've been to South America 20 times" he declared, and loudly began to tell of how he never travels there without a gun, apparently buying one as soon as he lands. The girls on the boat were wowed, I merely chuckled to myself. He continued, and regaled us with how he'd bought a gun, but had no ammunition. On passing a police station, he got chatting to an officer outside, who he bribed to sell him as many rounds for his snub-nosed .38 he could carry. The police sold him their whole supply. Honestly.

"I was once robbed on a train" he began, a few minutes later. A man had asked if he could open the window next to Erwin, and he did so. Suddenly the man grabbed Erwin's camera bag and hurled it out of the carriage window. He punched the man into semi-consciousness, bade his companions farewell and marched the culprit to the doors before leaping off the fast-moving train into the forest. Dusting himself off and then grabbing him at gun-point, he demanded to be taken to the robbers' lair. An hour later he burst into the house with his hostage, to be met with four rather surprised bad men sitting around a table full of tourists' stolen valuables. Retrieving his camera and other goodies as compensation, he backed out of the house and made his way back to the tracks to catch the next passing train. Honestly.

I didn't believe a word of half of these tales, but they weren't half entertaining when he told them, I assure you. If I ever own my own dive shop, he can come and dive for free.

Another guy on the boat of similar age, an Aussie from Perth, wasn't quite in the loathed category...but he did get right on my tits at times. I mean, I know I talk a lot...especially in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning, but this guy could talk all the legs off a donkey...never mind the hind ones. And it was just verbal diarrhoea; talking for the sake of it...and all in a monotone drawl, which made it all the more painful.

We headed into Coron Bay one morning, and passed another dive boat sitting above the Kogyo. "That boat's from Puerto Galera (it had Puerto Galera painted on the bow). The Rags II, it's called (it had Rags II painted on the side)." I nodded affirnatively. "It's a liveaboard (since Puerto is a few hundred miles away from Coron, they hadn't travelled all the previous day for a morning dive before heading home). I've been on it." Oh. "Great chef. A Filipino (here...in the Philippines?) Yeah. Been on it twice. Reckon they'll be diving here all day. I've been to Puerto Galera. (I assume that's how you managed to catch the aforementioned boat) Dived there." I extracted myself as quickly and diplomatically as I could (ie. just got up and walked off, pretending to get water). I came back and sat a few feet away from where he was now engaging another diver in conversation. He pointed as we passed the boat "That boat's from Puerto Galera...it's a liveaboard..." I took the iPod out of my bag.

I'd moaned (yes, I know) about the guy a few days before. Miro, being very mild-mannered, had said the guy was OK, and I felt bad for saying anything. One of the girls diving with us said he was probably just lonely. Fast-forward a few days. Miro: "God...that guy just talks and talks..." Girl: "Yes, and about absolutely nothing...he's driving me mad."

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A Bona-Fide Page-Turner

I've been getting through a lot of books these past 18 months, it's one of the things I love about having time on my hands and long bus or boat journeys. I don't often comment on ones in my reading list, unless they really blow me away...a rating is the best I usually do. The exception last year was What Is The What, and I was pleased a few of you read it and enjoyed it.

James Frey has been vilified in recent years after he published a book about his life called A Million Little Pieces. He made several claims in it about his past as a drug addict and prisoner in a state penitentiary. The Smoking Gun exposed him as a charlatan, and he became a pariah, famously torn to pieces by Oprah Winfrey. It was all a little unfair, as Frey had struggled to publish the book...a publisher had said it would go further if published as a memoir. The rest is painful history for Frey.

I didn't get round to reading that book, but saw Bright Shiny Morning on a dive shop bookshelf. I've never been inclined to visit Los Angeles, but that has all changed after reading it.

The book has four central stories, and woven between these are shorter tales, snapshots of the lives of LA residents, most of whom are never mentioned again in the novel. Before each chapter is a fact about LA and its history; from its inauguration to the slow-speed car chase involving OJ Simpson; the Manson Murders to the LA riots. It's gripping, beautifully written, funny and sad. I devoured its 570 pages in just two days. His two other books will be picked up when I get home. For those of you who trust my judgment, pick up this one.

Local Frustration

I'm going to get slated for this, particularly if my mate Rina reads it (she's Filipina), but I can't hold back any longer: I'm getting really frustrated by the Pinoys. I can't tar them all with the Stupid Brush, but a good 90% of them are downright thick. And a lot of them are lazy. Some of them are even thick and lazy. Maybe it's a bad education system, but there's no excuse for not grasping basic maths. You come across some lummoxes in England who shouldn't be allowed to eat with sharp implements, but these lot take the biscuit: using a calculator to add 50 pesos to 10 pesos, then subtracting the total from 100 when you give them a note that size, as you're stood there intoning "60 pesos" and "40 pesos" in exasperation. It gets a bit much.

It's not just myself who believes they're not as switched-on as the rest of Asia. My mate Ian, an instructor working his way through the continent, has had his frustrations. We were at Coron airport when he fancied a coffee. He asked the girl behind the counter if there was a cake or something sweet to go with his beverage. "No sir" she said. He looked behind her and said "Well what about those cookies behind you?" "Yes sir, we have cookies..." Oh dear. I went in to get a coffee, too. "Is the coffee fresh?" I asked her. "No sir, it is made from beans" was her reply. Oh.

I tried to book ahead for a stay on Siquijor island, and spoke to a girl who brought out the Basil Fawlty in me:
"Hello, do you have a room available this evening, please?"
"Yes, sir."
"How much is it?"
"1200 pesos, sir."
"That's a little expensive, do you have anything cheaper?"
"Yes sir, but it is full."
"OK, can I book the room, but then move to the cheaper room tomorrow?"
"Yes sir, thank you."

She put the phone down. I rang back.

"Excuse me, but do you need my name for the booking?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
"It's Warren."
"Thank you."
"And can you confirm..."

The phone went down again. I rang back.

"Hello, I think you put the phone down on me again?"
"Yes, sir."
"Can you confirm I can take the cheaper room tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry sir..?"
"I can change rooms tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry sir, but you are very confusing me now."

Click. Needless to say, I did not stay at the Swiss Stars Guesthouse, Siquijor.

Now I've been told that some Filipinos are taught to listen to keywords, and have set responses. For example, if you said "Can you tell me what time I need to check out of my room, please?" They'd pick up the time, check-out and room and react accordingly. That's fine, but if someone is doing this, I can make allowances if they just tell me their English is not so good? It would also stop me from looking like a pumpkin farmer if a Coron barber explained he hadn't understood my instructions before unleashing the scissors on me. Common sense.

I've nearly been run over on several occasions in the Philippines by fools on scooters, driving with no lights in the dead of night. Why no lights? Because it saves petrol. Silly me, of course it does.

I've witnessed boat boys standing at the bow of a speedboat, pulling on the rope attached to the prow, supposedly to lift the front of the boat further out of the water as it travels. We're not talking budding Leonardo Da Vincis here, not with that limited a grasp of Physics.

There doesn't seem to be much forward planning. Patric in Coron told me that, if he offered his boat man 5000 pesos now, or 1000 pesos a week for the rest of the year, he'd ask for the 5000 now. Subsistence living is partly something to do with it, but when the tips are given out at the dive shop, theirs are gone by sundown. No saving, or putting money away for the future.

You see plenty of Pinoys lying about in the shade all day. Tricycle drivers, once they've made enough for the day, seem to think they can just go to sleep in their cabs...instead of continuing to work and make more cash. It's a very lazy culture here, they're not an industrious people.

Like I say, it's not all of them, but it seems to be the majority. On the flip side of the coin, I've met plenty of Pinoys running their own businesses, making successful plans for themselves...but it's a shame more don't do likewise. Until they do, the Philippines will struggle to catch up with its neighbours.

Right, where did I put that tin helmet? Rina is going to kill me when I get back to London.

Pointing & Discussions On Paranoia

Being on the road on your own, certainly in cities like Cebu and Manila, can lead to you getting paranoid as regards your safety. Robberies are more likely to be sneak thefts, as Filipinos are not the biggest people on the planet, rather than a violent mugging...but it's still a perspiration-producing experience to walk alone along a darkened side-street at night. I've tended to keep a spare card, excess cash and my dive computer in a pouch down my pants: briefs rather than boxer shorts, obviously. If I do get robbed, that way they'll only get a few items. I met one fellow with scratches down one arm, and asked him what had happened: while walking alone down the waterfront one evening (lunacy in Manila) he'd been jumped by 5 or 6 teenagers who ripped his watch from his arm. Nice. That's why, should you ask me the time in Manila, I have to root around in my pants first.

At times, I think I'm too paranoid...but after a robbery attempt by a gang in Baguio and two drugging attempts by sinister people in Manila last year, I'm entitled to be a bit fearful. The other week, I had a group of street kids group around me, getting too close for comfort. Their tactic is to distract you while one of them goes for your pockets. I've seen this happen before, and know how to deal with it: hands in the pockets and shoo them away. One kid of around 10 wasn't listening and continued to walk alongside me too closely, so a firm kick up the jacksey told him I didn't want to be mates. An old man across the road was highly amused by my tactics. Touch wood, nothing's happened this year. And in Malapascua, I met a kindred spirit.

I'd been sat on the beach between dives, and overheard a couple chatting behind me. The lad had a thick Yorkshire accent, and looked like Phil Tuffnell on a good day. I asked him whereabouts on the Wrong Side Of The Pennines he was from. He laughed and told me Barnsley, then introduced himself as Rich. Despite his heritage he was an Everton fan and, them being my boyhood team, we got chatting over a few beers.

He told me he'd just arrived from Cebu (jabbed a thumb over his shoulder) and that he'd recently visited his brother in Vietnam (pointed the other way up the beach), and was looking to see Bintayan island next week (finger swung in the opposite direction). I started laughing and when he frowned in puzzlement, explained "I've never met a fellow Pointer before." He chuckled. I've noticed I do it a lot, and it annoys me; I've tried to stop it, I really have. Anyone asks me where I've come from, or am off to next, and I accompany it with a directional hand-signal. It really is stupid, especially when you're probably pointing in completely the wrong direction.

The other thing we had in common was Travel Paranoia: taxi drivers taking you down side-streets in dodgy area, texting while they're driving (obviously arranging an ambush); people suddenly being your New Best Friend in the middle of nowhere and offering somewhere to stay (definitely serial killers); dodgy-looking locals eyeing you, and then making eye-contact with each other at a bus station (they're all in on it...you're going to get robbed); girls in bars wanting to go home with you (you'll wake up with a head-ache and serious arse-ache as you star in some Filipino gay-porn gang-bang). It's wise and prudent to keep yourself safe, but I know I'm overly cautious at times. Rich was one of the few people I've met who probably reads too much into things, too. So we had a right giggle about it, and I'm trying to be less cautious these days.

You just watch, I'll get a gun stuck up my nose as I exit this internet cafe now...

Slick

You hear stories about people overcoming adversity, never giving in and admitting defeat; the injured lads from the Gulf War, amputees among them, scaling mountains in the name of charity spring to mind. I'd put my mate Dave up there. He suffered terrible injuries to his lower legs after falling asleep at the wheel of his car at 19 years of age, and now hobbles around with the aid of a cane (I hope you don't mind the Lieutenant Dan comparison, Dave...but he didn't let it beat him, either) . Rather than sit in a wheelchair and become a bitter man (as I would probably do, sat in my garden bursting kids' footballs that came over the fence etc) he decided to just carry on regardless; he learned to dive at 27. He wears webbed gloves, as his legs cannot propel him...he just uses fins for balance and direction, rather like a rudder. I admire the lad's bottle...diving is too much for many able-bodied people to get their heads around. His accident seems to have made Dave pretty fearless, certainly underwater; he goes off on his own, and confessed there were two occasions on one of the wrecks in Truk where he'd lost his way and couldn't remember the way out; frightening enough with a buddy, simply terrifying on your own.

I gave Dave the moniker Slick after he popped up from one dive covered in oil. Having investigated the ceiling of an engine room after believing he'd seen a mirror, he soon realised it was 60-year-old gunk. Hilarious for us, not so amusing for him...but it came off eventually. It was due to Slick that our so-called-guide was named Drop Tank. We'd asked him to buddy-up with Slick, as I dived with Helen, and the two Aussies dived together. After losing Slick inside one wreck, he went looking for him, removing the drop tank from below the boat and swimming with it as he searched (the drop tank is a tank of spare air, suspended 5 metres below a dive boat for emergencies...standard practice in wreck-diving, as people sometimes get lost and need the extra air to complete decompression...otherwise it's The Bends for you. To remove it is potentially dangerous.) On this dive, myself and H had over-cooked things a little, building up a fair bit of decompression and cutting it finely as regards having the air to flush out the nitrogen coming up. I was amazed to return to the boat to find the tank gone...luckily H had used a fair bit less air than myself, so we shared until it was time to surface.

To say I was pissed off with Drop Tank is not putting it too finely; myself and H had already given up on his wreck "briefings", kitting up as he gave them and disappearing with a wink over our respective sides of the boat, and hitting the water before his second sentence. Might seem a bit rude, but I've no respect for someone with no professionalism when it comes to being a working diver.