It’s been one year, one month, and 29 days. I’m still in Bangkok and – inconceivably – I’m still not dead.
This time last year I was studying for my CELTA. Man alive, I remember that month of insanity as if it were only a year ago: the late nights, the hysteria, the stress, the constant stream of food, the pool that looked so inviting but that none of us ever had any time to use… and before that – SONGKRAN! Thai New Year, water festival, public holiday and city-wide water fight. The craziness of Chiang Mai, the 3-day long water battles, dance music throbbing in the streets, foam sprayed from stages in the square, buckets of ice water paralysingly cold in the midday heat. Wet and wild it certainly was.
Songkran this year couldn’t have been more different. We finished work on the Thursday and went straight from the school to the station, boarded the train and settled into our seats. The others hated the journey – I adored it. We got the cheapest tickets – 11 hours on hard seats, 4 of us squashed into a space that would be comfortable for 2, slightly awkward for 3 and laughable for any more than that. We drank beer and roared laughter playing Cards Against Humanity. Of the countries represented – England, the US, NZ – I can confirm that us Englanders have by far the best sense of humour, boasting a heady absurdism utterly unappreciated by our companions. The chumps. It got late and the train rattled on through the night. The others attempted fitful sleeping with limited success, but you know me and trains out here. I stayed awake, listening to the tracks, watching inky countryside sweeping past Having Moments and writing bad poetry. The trains out here. They’re special.
We reached Chumpon as the sun rose, and from our coach to the ferry port watched the morning colours wheel across the sky, turn to golden light, caught our first glimpse of the sea – the Gulf of Thailand – dream-blue and calm. By the time we boarded the ferry, the fizzy hysteria of sleep deprivation was setting in and we’d collected our 5th group member, well-rested and smug from his earlier, more luxurious train journey. An extended game of CAH and we arrived.
The first thing we learnt on our PADI Open Water Diver course was that the number one rule of scuba-diving is this: breathe consistently or YOUR LUNGS WILL EXPLODE. I immediately broke out into fear-sweats. Unconsciously holding my breath is a little weird habit of mine. I don’t know why. Sometimes I suppose all this Doing Life Things gets a bit complicated, so I decide to momentarily suspend one of my essential bodily functions in order to focus properly on whatever important thing is happening, such as having just stubbed my toe or dropped a glass or seen a DRAGON in the park (oh, it’s “only” a monitor lizard? Whatever.) You know, the big stuff.
So, after the first HELLISH day – the day of Songkran, in fact – when we were in the pool for 8 consecutive hours doing skills in the searing heat, skin burning and chafing from the BCDs, dehydrated, eyes and nose burning with chlorine from doing mask removals, I had absolutely no fear whatsoever about the normal concerns (running out of air, getting the bends, having an equipment failure, having to make an emergency ascent, panicking underwater, being eaten alive by sharks), I was simply afraid that I’d see a pretty fish, get distracted, forget rule #1 and do an innocent and accidental breath hold, thereby EXPLODING MY LUNGS.
As it happens, I didn’t EXPLODE MY LUNGS. Not on the first day when we did our first two dives in REAL OCEAN and saw a white-eyed Moray eel at The Twins and a lionfish and a porcupine fish and a giant pufferfish at The Junkyard. Not even on the second day when we dived at White Rock and saw prawn gobis and where I took the longest piss EVER in my wetsuit, and when we went back to The Twins and saw a Ribbontail ray and did our emergency ascent skills. I did explode a bit on the 5th dive – our first dive as qualified divers and where we didn’t have to do ANY skills at all – but it was my LPI hose and not my lungs, and it was after we’d surfaced and not on the bottom so there was no reason to worry whatsoever. The 6th dive, however, when we went back to The Junkyard and – being qualified divers now, thank you very much – did a free descent and swam through the tunnels and saw all the usual fishes. Ah, friends. It was a glorious time.
We’d been on the island for 5 or 6 days and people were leaving to get back to Real Life. I moved from our accommodation – we’d stayed with the superb people who ran our course, Crystal Dive – and found a room in a 70s porn den. I liked it because the smell of the plywood walls brought back memories of the old caravan in Gma’s garden that was always filled with fly corpses and that we’d sometimes sleep in if we were lucky enough to be allowed the adventure. My island holiday was blissful. I’d get up early, walk along the beach to the north and get breakfast, then head south through the town, across beaches, through woods and over rocks to get to two small bays that were quiet and had excellent snorkelling and an incredibly relaxed restaurant overlooking the sea.
The first time I saw the sharks, it was with fear and fascination in near-equal amounts. It was immediately obvious that they were only juveniles but, even though they were small, they looked already like killers, gliding lazily through the water, looking all shark-like. Black tipped reef sharks. Those fins. I’ve never been so close to something in the wild that I felt was a threat to my life. And, wow, did I feel it, right the way through and into the marrow. My body tensed. ‘THREAT! THERE IS A THREAT!’ But they didn’t come close, didn’t want to. I popped my head up to look around – was it safe? did people know there were SHARKS here? There were a few people snorkelling in the bay, one or two kids. It was probably safe, right? I mean, there were adults, they knew what they were doing, right? I decided not to run screaming from the water.
The juvenile sharks became almost normal. I was still filled with apprehension every time I saw them – they just look so damn DANGEROUS! – but there was less fear. There was so much other life under the water and it made it easy to forget the sharks. And the sealife changed the deeper you went, and the deeper you went the more you realised that the different kinds of fish lived in different stratas. Yellowtail barracuda near the surface, parrotfish at the bottom. There were shoals of tiny fish, flashing silver in the light, and shoals of different types of coral-eating fish that would descent together on one place, chow down for a while, then move on.
I twice saw the muma shark. Huge. Distant. There was no fascination then, only fear. I would freeze in the water, keep it in-sight until it disappeared. Both times I swam back to shore, slightly shaky from the adrenaline.
And once, thanks to pure and perfect luck, I saw a sea turtle. Like a dream. She was on the bottom, chomping on coral. She didn’t seem to mind me watching from the surface. After a while I dived down to touch her, put my hand on her shell. She looked at me, black eyes glinting. When she left the bottom, she swam more gracefully than you’d imagine. I thought of a spaceship – an unlikely shape, bulky but gliding effortlessly nonetheless. I swum with her until it got too deep, and I trod water, watched her surface to breathe, her leathery face wrinkled and lipless, and swim away. Magnificent.
The next day I bought an underwater camera, but the photos are terrible and I didn’t see her again anyway. I didn’t really expect to. Once in a lifetime is good enough for me.
But that was a week ago. I’ve worked a week since then. Right now, I’m on my balcony drinking a coffee and enjoying the breeze that occasionally wafts its way through the washing that’s hanging out to dry. This morning I awoke to distant sky rumblings. Though it’s still obnoxiously hot, it’s cooler today than it’s been in a while. Hot season – finally – might be coming to an end. The heat these past weeks has been intolerable. I am ready to be cool again. I am ready for rain.