Before heading off on this journey Geoff and I agreed that there was one pricey experience that we were willing to go out of budget for: Scuba certification. We knew we'd be on the island of Koh Tao, which has notoriously good diving, early in our trip and we knew that getting certified here was (despite being a bit out of our budget) crazy cheap. We decided to eat the ~$280 fee (which came with a free room!) and splurge on the 4 day class.
Signing up for Scuba class, I mentioned that as a child I'd had a number of ear infections and that, as a result, I often had a difficult time getting my ears to stay open when I was congested or changing elevation. The first guy I told this to said I'd need to go by the clinic and have a doc look at my ears before beginning the class, but when I mentioned the ears again to our actual instructor, Draco Malfoy (who was actually named Frankie but looks so much like a stoned version of the kid from Harry Potter that there's really no use pretending to call him anything else. As soon as a week from now we will only remember him as Draco) he seemed unconcerned. Also not a concern: the hacking and wheezing that soon took over Geoff's body, no problemo mate. So we plunge into the class which consists almost entirely of cheesy videos promises things like "divers have more fun than anyone else on earth!" and "diver's will take over the world by 2015 -- either join us now or choke to death when we flood the entire planet with water." After a day and half of this we're finally cleared to do our first underwater breathing exercises in the pool.
The whole breathing underwater bit proves surprisingly easy though I do have to think about it more than your standard breathing on land. Mostly I kneel happily at the bottom with 10 feet of water rolling overhead and act out inane tasks that appear to be part of some PADI frat hazing event. Some, like losing and locating your breathing device, seem like reasonable ways to ensure that I stay alive while diving. Others, like lying down flat and trying to make my body bob up and down in time with only my inhalations, are clearly invented by Draco for his own amusement.
At one point about 60 minutes into our 90 minutes underwater I was suddenly struck with overwhelming urge to pee which presented a number of problems. Firstly, I don't know if there is a PADI signal for "must evacuate bladder" but I certainly didn't know it (though doing the "not ok" signal and then pointing at my crotch seemed the obvious improv I suspect that is actually the sign for "look ahead, crabs!"). Even if I had been able to communicate my need I'm not sure what Draco would have done -- was I really going to take off a tank, a weight belt, a BCD vest, and a wet suit, then skip over to the (obviously sub-par) loo all while the class waited on me? Of course not, clearly this was a time for peeing in the pool. So I wait for a moment in class when everyone is focused on something else just in case all of the water around me suddenly turns yellow and get ready to pee... but nothing happens. Odd. I try again, this time really focusing on relaxing my muscles and letting go.... and whoops too much focus on peeing, not enough focus on breathing, almost passed out. Ok.... Pee.... Now! Nothing. So I went the remainder of the class with an achingly full bladder and no way to empty it -- apparently while walking and chewing gum has been mastered breathing and releasing urine is beyond me.
Ok, enough about peeing, out of the pool and into the ocean! After one more round of lectures, this time about the math used to avoid getting the bends. I'm practically giddy with math enthusiasm. This makes my natural tendency to brown nose it up even more acute which is not helped by Geoff, nor our German classmate Stephan who both refuse to answer questions no matter how easy. I don't know how other people have the heart to stare at an instructor while he flaps around in the breeze leading the class ever closer to an answer they've all known since beginning. I always cave after 5 seconds and blurt out the answer to save everyone from discomfort. I'm practically a classroom hero. And yet I would not have been at all surprised if Draco had started ending his questions with "anyone but Brianna," somehow held back.
Our first dive was mostly part of a a dive school bet called "Hey Draco, I bet you can't catch each of your students by the fin before they bob up to the top of the ocean and have their lungs explode!" Score one for the house of Slytherin cause somehow we all survived. We went down to 12 meters and didn't see much more in terms of sea life then what I was able to spot snorkeling on the surface but it was nice to go face to face with a sea cucumber the size of my thigh and live to tell the tale.
Dive 2 required an encore performance of Dive Skillz the musical. While kneeling on the bottom of the bay with a life sized statue of some sort of headless quadro-ped just behind us (apparently someone is creating a "underwater diving Disneyland" which seems... really weird and unnecessary.) we begin to repeat the same skills that were drilled into us at the bottom of the pool the day before. Again we have to fill our masks with water putting the delicate truce I've managed to negotiate with my contact lens in grave jeopardy, again I have to grab Geoff and shake the bejesus out of him in a dramatic one act called "Bitch give me some of your air!"
I was surprisingly fine during both dives, no rebellious contact lenses, no panicky need to rise to the surface. Geoff was not so lucky -- whatever virus that had taken over his sinuses was none to happy to be dunked underwater and he had to obsessively clear his ears over an over again as he slowly descended. When practicing clearing his mask of water, which requires one to exhale through their nose, a huge green wad of boogers was released into the freedom of the ocean -- some fish is eating well tonight.
It was after the second dive that problems began to surface for me. And by problems I mean an acute sense that I had ruptured an ear drum and/or had a guppy living in my ear canal -- could be either one. Basically my left ear hurt like fucking hell and all sound on that half of the world resembled the language spoken only by teacher's in Peanuts cartoons. Geoff was in the same boat and after exiting the literal boat we returned to our room to lie in front of the fan and moan at each other for 2 hours. This was a big problem because the next day we were due at 7am for more fun with diving (the most fun you'll ever have!).
We didn't make it. I was mostly ok (if a bit apprehensive) but Geoff was too busy hacking up all of the phlegm in hell to even consider challenging his ears to another battle to the death. Luckily, Draco and the dive school owner (a man with a tattoo covering the entire back of his calf that looked exactly like the picture at left and thus did not inspire confidence in the realm of great decision making) agreed that we could take a day or two off and complete our last 2 dives when Geoff was well.
A cold was no excuse to miss the final exam, though; so we arrived at the testing center (aka the bar behind the dive school) at 12:30 for a little old time test taking. I was, of course, giddy. Would there be Scan trons? #2 pencils? Cheaters for me to shake my head at in a superior way? WHO KNEW! So test, test, test, feeling pretty good about it, though not super confident that I was completely kicking multiple choice ass so I went back and double checked everything like a good little Jesse Spano/Andrea Zuckerman. You can imagine my shock when I received only 92%. I was, thankfully, able to stave off a full on melt down but my eyes stung with tears as I dealt with my serious brown noser student issues. I noted to myself that I needed only 75% to pass but felt not at all comforted. How did I miss 4 questions? Ok, review time, actually I only missed 3 because one of those questions was based on a picture and my test copy was seriously not readable. But STILL -- 94%!! How do I justify my self worth now? AT LEAST I did better than Geoff (90%) and didn't miss any of the math questions (naturally). Maybe I do need to go back into therapy.
[insert 2 days of lying on the beach sipping fruit shakes and complaining about heat]
On to dives 3 and 4! Sadly Draco didn't join us -- I suspect mostly because the dives were at 7am and he is obviously not willing to get up early just to do pansy ass diving with Americans. Fair enough. Our substitute instructor is named either Calen or Calum but due to his ridiculously thick English accent it is impossible to tell which. Unfortunately, he doesn't look like a Harry Potter character.
For our third dive we took the boat out about an hour to Chumpon Pinnacle where you are supposed to see tons of sharks. We saw none, but that was fine. Instead we saw sea anemones like mauve shag carpeting that hadn't seen a steam cleaner since 1972. We saw a grouper the size of a toaster oven which doesn't sound that big but when you're defenseless in 18 meters of water is certainly big enough. We saw schools of teeny tiny fish at least 1000 strong that bobbed and weaved in perfect sync with one another. We saw a forest of bubbles all around us from the dozens of other divers descending the same rope. I could hardly be bothered by the crowds as I was much too busy reaching out and popping the gigantic half moon bubbles as the floated up past me. I saw Geoff hanging out on the buoy line waiting to ascend with what looked like a slimy half dollar sized piece of seaweed hanging on to the bottom of his mask. And then I realized that what looked like underwater plant life was actually more boogers and I tried again to invent my own PADI signal -- this time for, "You are Disgusting, I May Never Kiss You Again," once more to no avail. The 45 minutes went by way too fast.
Dive 4 was again all about skill tests, again kneeling on the sandy bottom of a dive site known as The Twins. We took our masks off underwater and performed a hilarious navigation task that required us to pretend to need a compass to swim 10 feet in one direction and then turn around and swim back to the dive instructor. We also saw a couple of clown fish (is anyone else annoyed that the name "clown fish" is quickly being replaced by "Nemo"? Fuck you, Disney), and swam through a very very short underwater cave without bashing the coral with my tank.
And then back into the world. With totally pain free ears! Thank you Poseidon! With luck we'll find a few more worthwhile dive spots on our travels -- Geoff would like to see a wreck because he loves rotting old things and I would like to see more fish because... I like fish.