. It was a shocking change from the ever smiling faces that I had encountered in the months prior. On the other hand, Vietnam met all the requirements for a nice weekend vacation. Nice, fancy, overpriced Western restaurants and posh clubs with western priced drinks, cover charges and dress codes were scattered through-out all of the tourist hot spots. All of the hotels provided accommodations that I had forgotten were the norm back in the west, such as hot water, western toilet with a separated shower, mirrors, television with international channels, air-conditioning, a mini-fridge, and WiFi, they even threw in complimentary shampoo, soap, and toilet paper. I had forgotten about such luxuries. However, regardless of the fancy accommodations, after we fell victim to several of the tourist traps that left us stranded and broke in the middle of nowhere, my friends and I decided to cut our Vietnam trip short and head back to Thailand.
The incredibly liberating thing about traveling without a return ticket or any obligation back in the country of origin, is that I am completely free. I don't need to plan anything and if I do, I can change my mind at any time. The world is truly my oyster. I had planned to go to India after Vietnam and I still do plan to visit that country eventually, but that plan changed as I was encountered by any incredible idea
. My friend and I decided to return to Thailand and go to the island of Koh Tao, which is a beautiful paradise location surrounded by coral reefs and ranked as some of the best diving in the world. It also happens to be the cheapest place to obtain the training required to become a professional diver. For the last month I have been living and breathing diving. I have settled in quite nicely here. I have a great group of friends, and it is so refreshing to have a permanent home again. A place that I can go everyday and know that my friends will be there and haven't disappeared. I am working on my certification as a Divemaster and Assistant Instructor. I am certified to go to 40 meters, penetrate wrecks, and dive using enriched air nitrox. Although my pursuits as a professional diver have cost way more than I had originally anticipated, the investment has opened up the door to find a guaranteed job on any paradise beach in the world. No matter where I go, a job will be waiting for me.
Being away from the beach during my travels was beginning to wear on me, so my return to Thailand was such a welcome relief from months away from the ocean breeze. I had been a ‘vacation’ diver since I received my open water certification at the age of 12. My father, who used to be an assistant instructor for one of the old ‘hardcore’ diving agencies before the days of PADI and SSI, always looked forward to diving with my sister and I as we went on our family vacations. I always enjoyed it, but I never really grasped the experience like I have now. I am absolutely in love with the underwater world. Diving for me is like being on another planet. The life underwater is so completely different than anything on land, and the ecosystem is so fragile and synchronized, I can see the flow of life in a single dive all while enjoying a zero-gravity environment
. Some of the dive-sites remind me of Avatar, a world where everything is bright, colorful, interactive and alive. Leading other divers makes the world even more fun. My job is literally to take “fun-divers” underwater and find cool stuff. It is like my playground, and more than that, scuba diving offers incredible meditation. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, meditation is not an easy thing to accomplish. It requires a high degree of focus and a trained mind. Most people give up because they cannot accomplish a “quiet mind.” The Buddhist form of meditation is called Anipinasati, which is Sanskrit for “mindfulness of the breathing.” I believe that the reason I have such an intense feeling of euphoric tranquility after a dive is because I have just spent the last few hours diving, focusing on my breathing, and without any effort, meditating. My mind is completely silent during a dive, I am just focusing on my breathing and taking in the intense, immeasurable beauty surrounding me. Everything else, compass heading, air pressure, no decompression time, all comes naturally, like driving a car. My biggest fear and the only stress I have, is whether my fun divers will have fun. I would be more than happy to do this for the rest of my life.
Koh Tao is not real Thailand, it is a mafia owned island made for tourists. There is very little local culture to be found here, which is difficult for me because that is what I love about traveling. Although with a little bit of searching I found my second family; they own a local restaurant just a short walk away from Big Blue Diving (my diving school). I eat there 2-3 times a day. It is the only place on the island that will serve me food at the level of spiciness that I enjoy. They usually make me special spicy dishes, to see if I can handle it, and often don’t charge me
. Although they do get upset if I don‘t show up for a day. Only one of the younger members of the family speaks English and we often have conversations about his life and growing up in Thailand.
Housing is not cheap here, so I spent the first month sharing a room with a friend. However, after seeing that I only go to my room to sleep, I realized it wasn’t worth the money and now I couch surf (or porch surf, where I can set up my hammock). All of my friends have been so accommodating and I am so grateful that I have had a place to sleep every night without having to waste money. Big Blue Diving has showers, bathrooms, and lockers on site, so all of my stuff is safe and conveniently located as I spend most of my time at the diving resort.
Life on this island is very laidback, I can drive from the northern tip to the southern coast in 15 minutes, and the island offers many hidden treasures when one takes the time to look. I spend most of my mornings diving and afternoons relaxing or finding other traveling musicians to jam with, finding rocks to climb, or going to the Muay Thai gym. I have enjoyed the nightlife here a bit, but I tend to prefer the beauty of the early morning dives rather than the vibrating beat of the dance floor
. The people here represent an eclectic mix of different backgrounds, languages, cultures, and countries. Yet strangely enough, regardless of how different everyone’s past is, everyone seems to generally act, desire, and live the same exact way. People put so much emphasis on where a person was born, but in the end, it has absolutely no meaning other than a way to start a conversation. Nationalism, patriotism, and blind faith in imaginary lines are not present here. A friend of mine asked something very interesting a few days ago, she asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” a very profound question, but using that same train of thought, I also would ask, “Where would you be from, if you didn’t know where you were born?” For all of the diversity of the different countries, cultures, and different religions that I have encountered during my travels, everyone seems to be, well, human.
I am just finishing up my dive master certification now, I probably have about 2 weeks and then I will be ready to move on. I plan on returning to Tonsai for one month to end my loop around South-East Asia at the place that it all began. It will be so interesting to sit at the same spot on the same beach that I had sat 7 months earlier, and think of everything that has happened since I embarked on my quest. Afterwards? I am not sure, I will probably just go wherever the wind takes me.
After spending several days lounging about in Ban Lung, the day of my Vietnam visa finally arrived. I crossed the border and headed to the beach town, Nha Trang, to meet up with some friends. It was a great feeling to be greeted by familiar faces, and since my replacement cards were lost in the mail, I needed their help. Nha Trang was a fun, lively, albeit crowded beach town. It didn't take me long to realize that Vietnam was unlike the rest of South-East Asia. I had always been curious about the range of advice that I had previously received about Vietnam. Backpackers generally told me that they did not enjoy their travels through the country and vacationers tended to describe how great it was. Vietnam was, in my experience, not a 'backpacker friendly' country. It is not the place to go and 'wing' it. The only way to truly experience the charm of this country is to book it in a tourism office and view it through the carefully framed window of a packaged weekend tour. While I tried to do it myself, with the hopes of encountering welcoming locals along the way like the rest of SE Asia, I instead found myself constantly stranded in the middle of nowhere, ripped off, yelled at, and threatened