November 30, 2008

Eat, Sleep, Breathe, Live...Diving.

I can't really remember when I first fell in love with water. My parents told me I fell in a pool and almost drowned as a baby, so I should have had a fear of water, but I guess learning to swim when I was six years old, helped me to overcome this potential phobia. Not long after this, I started swimming competitively, and I guess the rest is history. I still feel a sense of joy whenever I am on a coast by an ocean. It was only a matter of time before I got my scuba diving certification, and for the last nine years, I've been fortunate to travel the world and dive in some pretty amazing places. When I got to Railay beach, near Krabi in Southwest Thailand, an opportunity arose where I could work in exchange for diving. Sweet deal right? I am now doing my dive master certification course with Railay Divers, until the end of December.

What is a dive master you ask? Basically, by the end of the course, I will be certified by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors...or "Put Another Dollar In" as the people in the industry like to say) to guide other divers. To give you a quick summary of diving certification, it goes: Open Water (beginner certified diver), Advanced Open Water (can dive deeper than 18 meters, and at night), Rescue Diver (first-aid and rescue training), Dive Master (to guide), Instructor (to certify divers), and Master Instructor (to certify Instructors). Let me just say that I have no desire at the moment to work as a dive master, but like many others, the course is a great way to pack in a ton of dives for the price, and become very skilled at the same time. Plus, who wouldn't want to live on the beach in Thailand for six weeks. The people that choose to be professional dive masters and instructors do it for the love of diving and the pace of life, because they sure don't make very much money doing it.

I'm now living in the town of Ao Nang, which is right next door to the beaches of Railay and Tonsai where our offices are located. I decided to exchange my jungle bungalow on Tonsai for a nice studio apartment with cable TV, for the whopping price of $150 US a month. I have a nice little set up, living in a place called Leela Valley with all the other ex-pats and divers. Here is a typical day for me:

  • 6:30 am - Wake up

  • 7:00 am - Get on my scooter and ride 5 kilometers to the neighboring town of Ao Nmao where our equipment office is located and where our boats leave from. Get tea, and some sticky rice with chicken for breakfast (I should note that Thais seem to eat rice and meat for all meals...I miss bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon).

  • 7:30 am - Load gear onto long-tail boats and head to our main office on Railay.

  • 8:30 am - Head out for two morning dives, where I assist instructors on their courses and learn the ropes of being a diving professional. Aside from being the "boat bitch" where I move tanks and set up gear, I am also helping first-time divers with skills. This has been the most rewarding for me. I'd like to note that diving isn't really as scary or dangerous as some people think. Even if you've tried it once and had a bad experience, give it a shot again. I've helped a bunch of new divers get over their fears, and the look of joy and accomplishment in their eyes is the best feeling. There is a whole different underwater world waiting to be discovered.

  • 2:30 pm - Back to the office on Railay and either work in the shop during the afternoon, or go diving again.

  • 9:00 pm - Shop closes and we head back to Ao Nmao with all the gear. Unload gear, and put back equipment in the office.

  • 10:00 pm - Drive back to Ao Nang on my scooter.

  • 10:30 pm - After a much needed hot shower (I only had cold water on Tonsai, so this is a luxury), I grab dinner and drinks with the other dive instructors who live in Leela Valley. Sometimes guitars are pulled out for a little jam session.

  • 12:30 am - Go to sleep, and get ready to repeat the next day.

    • It really is a lot of work, but I am getting a pretty sweet deal. Most places in the world will charge you between $600-$1000 to do your dive master course, plus they see it as free labor, so they'll work you to the bone carrying scuba tanks, even if you are paying. Considering I only have to tip my instructor and pay my PADI fees, I can't really complain about the long hours. Even when I'm working, I'm usually reading the manuals I need for my exams (there are eight exams in case you are wondering). I am studying chemistry, physics, and physiology, so it's not as easy as one might think.

      As for the Railay Divers shop and crew, it's a little bit of a love/hate relationship. The dive instructors and dive masters are great. There is Sam from Australia (he is my official mentor for the course), Jon from England, Rob from Canada, Alex from Spain, Jan from Germany, Peow and Ran who are local Thais, Peter, Jessica, and Katie, all from the US. Katie is the other DMT (dive master trainee) with me. The shop on the other hand is probably the most hectic and disorganized dive center I have ever seen. It is Thai owned (which is standard), and run by Chris who is English. Basically, the place is running on the tightest of tight budgets, and Chris sometimes has a few too many beers during the day...or the previous night. Unfortunately, it makes for some questionable equipment and some disgruntled employees, but I guess you get what you pay for. I could have stayed in Ko Phi Phi and payed a thousand dollars to take my course, but cheap can be a good trade-off. Let's see how I'm doing towards the end of December.

      I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving dinner and holiday weekend. Last year I celebrated Thanksgiving on a Peruvian bus, playing bingo on Cruz Del Sur, while traveling between Lima and Arequipa. This time around the whole dive crew congregated at Peter and Jessica's house to eat a vegan Thanksgiving dinner that they seem to cook every year. To be honest (and to quote my sister Rachel), I really loved the vegan food. Instead of turkey we had deep fried tofu, smothered in the most amazing gravy. Peter is a former chef, and I swear it tasted like a normal turkey gravy which I grew up with (but not as good as my mother's of course). Unfortunately, Peter and Jess just left Railay (disgruntled), to take jobs diving in Oman. I'll miss them both, especially Peter's cooking, but Thanksgiving was a good send off.

      When I'm not diving or working, which is rare, I've been relaxing on the beach in Ao Nang, getting Thai massages for $6 US an hour, climbing a bit in Tonsai, and last Wednesday I had to do a visa run down to the Malaysian border to get another 30 day tourist visa. The trip is so popular among backpackers that they run it every day from most travel agencies. It's a ten hour day, with about an hour needed to walk across the border and back again. The Thais haven't really learned how to efficiently process passports. It took me fifty minutes to go out and back into Thailand, and only ten minutes to go in and out of Malaysia. Go figure. My next visa run is at the end of December, but I might try the trip to Myanmar (Burma) instead.

      Here are my photos of life at Railay Divers, and of Thanksgiving.


      Cindi said...

      Sounds amazing! We did our DM training in Honduras in June - nothing beats diving 4 times a day! We are heading that direction - if we make it to Krabi, we'll have to come say hey. Have fun!

      Anonymous said...

      Great post. I miss Rai Leh's beaches (though not all the tourists). Burma border run was easy as ever - I walked across at Mae Sai and went to the market in Burma (you will be immediately offered viagra, cialis or both) and then walked back into Thailand an hour later. Much less of a hassle than the visa run you've described!