Thursday, June 26, 2014

Getting Into Caves in Hpa An

Some people don't like caves. Their position is defensible. Caves can be dim and dank and are often inhabited by creatures you wouldn't like to pet. They frequently reek of bat shit. You can get lost in caves quite easily and there's always a chance the roof could collapse or a tunnel could flood and leave you trapped in a subterranean tomb. And also, this:

On the other hand caves can be incredibly neat places, too. Besides skin-eating fungi and calamitous rockslides, you can find lakes, rivers, and even forests. Or, in the case of Hpa An, temples.


If there's one thing Myanmar has plenty of (besides methamphetamine and squirt guns) it is temples. You'd be hard pressed to spit a wad of betel nut anywhere in the country without hitting a temple, which is actually a terrible idea and would probably end badly for you. The Burmese are among the most devoutly Buddhist people in the world and have been enthusiastically, or otherwise, building temples all over the place for the past millennium or so. When I tell people about traveling in Myanmar, I feel like Bubba in Forrest Gump: 'Well, there's sandstone temples, gilded temples, ancient temples, temples on mountains, floating temples, temples full of cats...' After a while it can all start to seem same-same but different.

Shwedagon Paya is Myanmar's most famous (and most photographed) temple,.

Many of the backpackers I met in Myanmar were hesitant to concede this; the truth came out sheepishly,  like they were admitting Citizen Kane was boring. But the temple fatigue in their eyes was obvious. I actually like visiting pagodas, but I could understand how they felt. Contemporary travel is basically an expensive hunt for the perfect Facebook profile picture, and temples rank just behind beaches, sunsets, and beach sunsets as Southeast Asia's most thoroughly-beaten dead horses, photographically speaking. Your friends are unlikely to enjoy clicking through a hundred photos of crumbly old Buddha heads.

It would be nice to pretend I was too enlightened to hold such dismissive views, but in reality I rolled my eyes as lethargically as the guy in his Vang Vieng tanktop the first time I heard about Hpa An. The only reason I ended up going there was a short email from an American couple I'd met weeks before. They described it as a sleep little country town where you could kill a few days spelunking before catching a riverboat to Mawlamyine, where Orwell once shot an elephant and Kipling wrote some very misleading poetry.

'Cool,' I thought. 'Caves are awesome. As are riverboats.' The caves were indeed awesome, but I never caught that riverboat.


Main street of Hpa An by day.

My first glimpse of Hpa An was a blurry one, as it came at 3:30 am one foggy morning. I'd arrived on an overnight bus from Yangon with a talkative Chinese girl whom I seriously considered smothering at least a dozen times during the ride. We climbed off the bus and collected our bags, standing beneath a gaudily illuminated clock tower in the town's central roundabout. Wide empty streets snaked in every direction past rows of shuttered windows and unlit storefronts. I held a business card for a place called Soe Brothers, one of the few guesthouses in town licensed to allow foreigners and not notorious for bedbugs.

We found the place with little trouble. Unfortunately the night clerk informed us that they were full, were likely to be full tomorrow, and also that it was really goddamn early and wouldn't we please fuck off. He had a point, though the Chinese girl continued to pester him with questions until he wearily slammed the door in her face. 'Serves her right,' I thought smugly until I realized that meant I was screwed too.

So we wandered off down the dark lifeless street, tottering under the weight of our heavy packs. There were no signs of human activity - the townspeople were heavy sleepers apparently. I was beginning to suspect we were walking through a ghost town when an ancient motorbike cart rumbled to life and we were suddenly blinded by its ferocious headlights. A high, thin voice called out, ' Hello my friend, where you go?' I felt my stomach sink as the cart pulled up alongside us and the driver grinned at me with snaggly betel-stained teeth. Touts are rarely pleasant people even under ideal circumstances, and our circumstances were far from ideal. For once the Chinese girl fell silent and I was forced to do the talking.

'We go guesthouse...Soe Brothers,' I lied, hoping he'd bugger off once it was clear he'd make no commission off us. Instead he laughed and spat a stream of bright red betel juice onto the pavement, wiping his mouth with a dirty shirtsleeve. 'Soe Brothers no room! I know good house very cheap for you, close! Close! Very cheap! Aircon!'  The Chinese girl looked at me skeptically and I fidgeted with my pack, fully aware we were probably about to be scammed but unable to think of any better ideas. 'How much?', I asked him, trying to convey an aura of savviness and intimidation that he cheerfully ignored. The red-toothed man just smiled again and spat, then leaned toward me, his large dark eyes positively beaming. 'Cheap, my friend - cheap.'

Then he pointed to a large purple building down the street and drove away.


The next morning I rolled out of a ridiculously comfortable high-legged bed and shivered appreciatively under the icy AC unit. The place was even nicer than the tout had said. I walked out into a bright purple hallway and headed for the shared bathrooms, where I had to wait for a minute as they were being cleaned by an ancient Burmese woman with skin like tree bark and a broad, toothless grin. Despite the early hour she was clearly drunk. The old gnome chattered at me in rapid-fire Burmese and made a grand display of placing a roll of tissue on the back of the toilet. Then she hugged me fiercely and gave me a peck on the cheek before swaying off down the hall, mumbling drunkenly to herself as she dragged a broom behind her.

The desk clerk downstairs was less intoxicated but equally friendly. I handed him 7,000 kyat (about $7 USD) for the room and asked if he had a motorbike for rent. His round, nut-brown face lit up with excitement as he searched the cavernous folds of his longyi, finally producing a battered cell phone. 'Just a moment please,' he apologized politely before launching into a torrent of Burmese. Minutes later another fat, cheerful man pulled up at the door with a shiny white Honda Wave. I exchanged my passport for a key and a map, smeared a blob of sunscreen across my face, and hopped on the bike. Even the sudden appearance of the Chinese girl in her hooded sun-mask couldn't ruin my mood. When she finally managed to clamber on the back (on the fourth attempt), we were off.


Hpa An sits in a beautiful corner of southern Myanmar. The mighty Ayeyarwady River flows through the town, bordered by neat rice paddies that turn from green to gold around the harvest. The terrain is mostly flat with dense thickets of subtropical forest, except for the limestone mountains that rise from the landscape like a sleeping giant's toes. Nestled inside these mountains are Hpa An's semi-famous caves, some of which are home to temples more than a thousand years old. The caves are not Hpa An's only attraction, however.

The desk clerk had told me about a waterfall-fed swimming pool only a few kilometers from town. His description conjured images of a secluded mountain grotto where naked forest nymphs frolicked in the water while applying impressive amounts of Pantene Xtra-Silky conditioner to their scalps. I decided we'd make a stop there, followed by the Field of One Thousand Buddhas (a self-explanatory site) and perhaps a few of the larger caves before heading back at sundown. It was an ambitious plan, but we had an early start and I drive fast.

However, I had not factored in the Chinese girl's stunning incompetence as a navigator. Despite the map and her iPhone's GPS it took us nearly an hour to reach anything remotely resembling a mountain, an impressive accomplishment considering how easy it usually is to find a thousand-meter-tall pile of rocks. Nevertheless, after nearly a dozen stops to ask for directions we finally arrived at...the Field of One Thousand Buddhas. It wasn't the swimming pool, but it would do for starters.

Field of One Thousand Buddhas.

The path leading to the field was lined by souvenir stalls, carnival games, and even a decrepit Ferris wheel. Apparently a festival had concluded the night before and everyone was still too hungover to clean up just yet. Piles of garbage were scattered everywhere and stray dogs picked through the debris, searching for an abandoned corn dog or half-eaten box of popcorn perhaps.

When we reached the field we found that it did contain a lot of Buddha statues, but these were far outnumbered by plastic bags. The peaceful, weatherbeaten Buddha faces seemed unperturbed by the sea of garbage around them, but the Chinese girl was decidedly less Zen - all the trash made it difficult to take decent photos. I pretended that the refuse didn't bother me and made some airily patronizing remarks about environmentalism being a conceit of the rich. But secretly I was disappointed that the Buddha field moonlighted as a landfill. Somewhat grumpily, we departed for the waterfall.


A quick digression about the climate of Myanmar - I visited during the beginning of dry season, when temperatures soar above 100°F/38°C and the mugginess becomes so oppressive that the entire country shuts down for two weeks for a national water fight. So we shouldn't have been surprised to learn that A) the 'waterfall' was actually a feeble trickle feeding into a small rock pool and B) the pool was crammed with Burmese. There were old ladies splashing around fully clothed and younger women hand washing colorful longyis. A pack of rowdy teenage boys performed backflips off rocks while listening to a Burmese cover of 'Living on a Prayer'. They were watched closely by a group of girls who braided each others' hair and snapped endless selfies with their mobiles. A handful of heavily tattooed monks stood in the shade and chain-smoked; they were young men in their teens or early twenties and most of them looked like they'd rather be in swim trunks than robes.

The 'waterfall'.

Tatt'd up punk monks.

The air was filled with happily chattering voices and the smell of grilled corn. It was really an idyllic scene until a man started screaming.


From across the pool, I saw a small thin figure being carried toward the water like a trussed pig, yelling piteously at the men who held his arms and legs. He had a small neat beard and an unmistakeable look of panic in his eyes. His cries grew more urgent and pathetic as they neared the pool and I gritted my teeth, not wishing to intervene but horrified by the bullying before my eyes. The man was clearly mentally and physically disabled. He began to sob as he was dropped into the water, his legs sinking limply as he splashed his arms furious in a vain attempt to keep his head above the surface. The two other men grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him down into the muddy pool, deaf to his anguished protests.

I clenched my fists and looked around to see if anyone was going to help the man before he was drowned in broad daylight. Nobody seemed to care. And it was soon obvious why.


When the man's head reemerged from the water, he was transformed. His eyes shone with joy rather than fear. He waved his arms happily back and forth as he lay face down on the surface and his two 'tormentors' pushed him in lazy figure eights. Some teenagers offered him their inner tubes, and soon the thin bearded man was surrounded by a group of Burmese old and young, all of whom were laughing and playfully splashing water. Eventually one of the men hoisted him onto his back, like a father carries his child, and staggered out of the pool. They sat together at the water's edge as he ruffled the thin bearded man's hair and dried his damp face, avoiding the thin man's mirthful swipes with patient good humor.

In a Western country, the thin bearded man would probably be placed in a hospital or group home. But there are no social services for poor rural Burmese, no bureaucratic safety net for those unable to harvest rice or build houses or repair machinery. Life is difficult enough for the sharp-minded and able-bodied. One might expect the handicapped to be doomed to a Hobbesian existence at best - nasty, brutish, and short. In a country that had suffered for decades under a brutally repressive military junta, who has tears left to spare?

Yet I couldn't help but notice the neatness of the man's beard, or the rows of straight white teeth when he smiled. Somebody was taking care of him. I sat and watched while his two protectors rubbed his stick-like limbs with soap and combed his hair with unmistakeable tenderness. They dressed him in clean dry clothes and held a bottle of water to his lips, looking like two burly mothers tending to an enormous newborn. The thin bearded man turned his head back and forth between them, flashing his brilliant smile and eyes full of gratitude and I felt like crying like you sometimes do when the world gets too beautiful.


The next morning I parted ways with the Chinese girl, leaving me free to explore the countryside on my own. I spent the following three days zipping around on the White Wave, mostly getting terrifically lost and not minding it at all. It was an excellent way to meet local people in an unobtrusive and mercifully brief way, hollering 'mingalabar!' while cruising past tidy bamboo houses and occasionally stopping to take pictures with groups of schoolchildren or bemused old ladies carrying enormous baskets of vegetables on their heads. One elderly man who introduced himself as Mr. Diamond Flower insisted on personally guiding me to Kawgoon Cave (nearly 10 kilometers away), apparently skeptical of my ability to make a few right turns without getting lost. At one roadside shop I shared a Coke with some hip young dudes on their way to jobs in Thailand. They told me that they liked Obama and thought Miley Cyrus was very sexy. 'She twerk is good,' one of them winked suggestively.

Mr. Diamond Flower

I did eventually make it to the caves, which were just as spectacular as advertised. Some had giant reclining Buddas and intricate wall carvings covered by shimmery golden paint and bat guano. At one cave I stood with some middle-aged monks and tossed bananas to quick handed monkeys who fought each other viciously for the airborne fruit. At another I sat in silent meditation deep within a rocky alcove until a group of candle-bearing teenagers crawled inside and screamed so loudly I feared a cave-in. In other caves I found places of perfect stillness and tried to imagine solitary monks sitting in the darkness hundreds of years ago. Mostly I succeeded in ignoring the Snickers wrappers and plastic bottles that littered the larger passageways. But nothing impressed me as much as the thin bearded man in the arms of his friends.


A few weeks later, as I was preparing to catch my flight back to Saigon, a backpacker asked me what I thought of Hpa An. We were sitting at a little restaurant on 19th Street in Yangon, a place famous for its cheap mojitos. He wanted to know if the cave temples were really worth seeing. I picked a mint leaf out of my teeth and said, 'Yeah, they're great. But make sure to check out the waterfall too. It's incredible.' 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bicycles in Bagan

What if I told you I was into Legos? I mean, really into Legos. Like, I spend my weekends building medieval palaces with other Lego enthusiasts and sometimes pop an airport or two together before work? And I subscribe to magazines about Legos and have a bunch of apps on my phone that track how many green rectangles I've used this month and how much time I've spent building my own blocky little Death Star? Also, I spend thousands of dollars on cutting-edge carbon fiber Legos which are super strong and much lighter than regular Legos, and I've even bought these special gloves to reduce pinching and subcutaneous soreness during the really grueling marathon building sessions?

Wouldn't you find this very, very odd?


Say what you will about cardiovascular fitness and carbon footprints, but bicycles are a deeply flawed mode of rural transportation. Slower than motorcycles and less relaxing than a leisurely stroll, they are rendered nearly useless by sand, hills, loose gravel, and a thousand other things you are very likely to encounter outside the city. Spending an hour astride their narrow seats is like visiting an amateur proctologist. The whole 'cycling keeps you fit' argument only works if you ignore the rows of human manatees pedaling futilely away in fitness clubs around the globe. And nobody looks good in spandex except people too self-respecting to wear spandex.

In fact the only people who don't look ridiculous on bicycles are children, which is mostly because children are so generally ridiculous that a bike isn't going to make much difference. But as an adult, cycling requires a Herculean effort of will to suppress the very reasonable suspicion that you look like an ass.


One morning in Bagan, a small town in central Myanmar, I was thinking about bicycles. I had a strong feeling I would soon be spending lots of time atop one. This made me deeply unhappy.

Bagan is famous for its temples, which sprawl for miles in every direction along the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. The landscape is  Martian - endless stretches of parched reddish soil,  dusty patches of scraggly brush trees, occasional swirls of thick brown dust. By sunup a suffocating haze settles over the place and temperatures exceed 100°F / 38°C. Before you've had your first coffee, Bagan is a blast furnace.

About the temples - there's a lot of them. And they're spread out across the 13 x 8 km Bagan Archeological Zone. Most backpackers stay in the small hamlet of Nyaung U, while both Old Bagan and New Bagan are home to extravagant luxury resorts catering to rich Chinese and European tourists. Although Myanmar's tourism industry is nascent, the government has made a strong effort to brand Bagan as a classier Angkor Wat, without the Pub Streets and marijuana pizza. For the chic and sophisticated* traveler, Bagan offers every indulgence from exotic thanaka facials to teakwood bus tours to sunrise balloon rides.


The rest of us get bicycles.


Backpackers like me are stuck with bicycles as their primary mode of transportation in Bagan. Air-conditioned minibuses or private cars are prohibitively expensive and foreign tourists are forbidden to rent motorbikes, per government decree. The official reason, according to the pleasant round-faced woman who owned our guesthouse, was concern about inexperienced riders damaging ancient structures or injuring themselves. Reasonable enough, but more nefarious theories abound. One is that the surrounding countryside is still wracked by ethnic turmoil the government prefers to keep quiet. Myanmar's military junta has an extensive track record of brutality and it's not difficult to imagine this being true, though the political climate has improved considerably in the past few years.

Another popular, less genocide-y theory suggests the real culprits are the horse cart cabal, a jovial gang of geriatric scallywags who promise a romantic carriage ride around the temples for an exorbitant fee. From personal experience, I can tell you that a horse cart ride is enjoyable for exactly two and a half minutes before the snail-like pace and rickety wooden seats become torturous. As an added bonus, each cart is equipped with a large canvas bag to catch the giant steaming turds these poor beasts drop with alarming frequency, which then attract a staggering number of enormously fat black flies. It's clearly an industry in need of a competitive advantage.

So for penny-pinching equinophobes, the options for getting around Bagan are limited. The sheer size of the temple fields make exploring on foot impossible - you could walk for hours without stumbling across anything noteworthy. The scorching heat and choking dust are equally strong deterrents to an afternoon constitutional.

The solution, according to Lonely Planet? Bicycles - the perfect way to explore the temple ruins and get some exercise while you're at it! With a trusty guesthouse map and a few bottles of water, you can see it all for only a dollar a day! You'll be helping the environment and working up a healthy appetite for dinner...what could be better?

Well, a motorbike. A motorbike would be better.


We arrived in Bagan on an ancient overnight bus from Yangon, the old southern colonial capital. Like most overnight buses in Myanmar, this one concluded its journey at the hideous hour of 4 am. When I stumbled off the bus, red eyed and irritable, I was followed by Aron. Aron was a large, friendly Indian-American man from Michigan. He'd barely made it on the bus after a last second dash to the airport for his lost (and, later, found) luggage. Which meant I'd been only moments away from having two seats to myself for the ten hour bus ride, an unheard of luxury in Southeast Asia. I like to imagine that I hid my disappointment when he managed to flag down the bus and climb aboard, but it's doubtful. Unfortunately for him, Aron's friendliness mattered far less to me than his largeness. It was a long, elbowy, mouth-breathing trip.

At the bus station we were met by our Aussie friend Tom. He'd arrived even earlier than us, but he'd splurged for the VIP luxury bus with its ample legroom and moist towelettes. He looked fresh-faced and energetic, far more youthful than his fifty-odd years. Despite the early hour he was bright and chipper. I wanted to punch him.

'Push bikes!' he exclaimed happily, gesturing at the ridiculous contraption beneath him. 'Got 'em right next t' the guesthouse, only cost ya a dolla, lovely old man in the little shop. You ride push bikes back home, Aron?' The big American nodded enthusiastically and I wanted to punch him too, before I suppressed my homicidal instincts and threw my bags onto the nearest horse cart. As we slowly clomped down the road I felt like a man going to his own execution. The thought of martyrdom cheered me up a bit.

Once we'd arrived at May Ka Lar Guesthouse and carefully tossed our belongings into various corners, Tom explained his plan for the day. He'd pinched a map from reception and began circling points of interest with alarming vigor. I noticed that many of Tom's circles looked quite far from each other and fought the urge to weep.

Our first stop, Tom declared, was Ananda Paya, one of the largest temples in Bagan. He told us it was a fine place to spot the hot air balloons that float above the temples at sunrise. We could climb to the top and photograph the hell out of the whole panoramic scene. Since it wasn't yet 5 am, we had plenty of time for coffee and breakers, and maybe a quick search for Wi-Fi (Tom had investments). Aron was delighted and minutes later I found myself on a bicycle for the first time since junior high.

You may never forget how to ride a bike, but Mother Nature is not impressed by your powers of recall. 'So you remember how to pedal, eh?' she gloats, tapping her fingers together sinisterly, 'Let's see you push that thing up a sandy hill in face-melting heat.' By the time we reached Ananda Paya, the bicycle and I were waging a war of wills I was destined to lose. Thanks to Tom's very inaccurate guesthouse map, we'd been following a thin spiderweb of obscure dirt paths through viciously dusty terrain. Our slim tired Chinese city bikes were constantly stuck in sand drifts, much to the annoyance of the rider who then had to hop off and carry the stupid thing to firmer ground. As we climbed the temple steps I noticed that both Tom and Aron were panting heavily. At their age, in this heat...? I was suddenly thankful for my emergency first response training, until I remembered that I didn't remember any of it.

Happens every day.
After we snapped our obligatory sunrise balloon shots and scowled at the noisy Chinese tourists obstructing our view, the Bagan Death March continued. Slowly and laboriously we pedaled past lacquerware workshops, gleaming white resort spas, and the famous temples. So, so many temples. Endless clusters of temples, isolated clumps of buildings in barren fields baking in the heat. Sun-bleached tents of sandpainting hawkers and coconut vendors surrounded the bigger ones, piles of sandals outside the front gates a clear indicator of a particular temple's popularity.

I began to understand the appeal of the hot balloons. Bagan is best observed from above, where the spectacular sprawl of over two thousand temples can be taken in at once, the mind appropriately blown by sheer architectural profligacy. Viewed individually on the ground, the temples have a bland uniformity thanks to years of lazy, underfunded restoration. The vast majority were rebuilt with dull orangish bricks and a singular disregard for craftsmanship or historical accuracy. They seemed old but not impressively so, the way a 1990s living room would seem dated while failing to trigger any nostalgia. I felt inexplicably embarrassed by the shoddiness of the work - a rich cultural marvel like Bagan deserved better.

Good from afar, but far from good?
Still, the payas had their charms. Some of the smaller ones were completely unvisited and you could sit quietly in front of the large Buddha statues at each entrance until the gatekeeper came to sell you sandalwood figurines. The cool stone floors and dark passageways were welcome relief from the blazing sun outside. At the larger temples herds of Burmese pilgrims swept through on breakneck tours as if they hoped to see all two thousand in a single day. We took photos with bold children and beaming old men, trying to hide our surprise every time a saffron robed monk whipped out his iPhone for one more shot. Despite the hordes of vendors and piles of unsightly garbage, the payas of Bagan exerted an undeniable spiritual attraction. The Burmese pilgrims, most from big cities like Mandalay and Yangon, seemed delighted to make the journey and quite sincere in their reverence, even if they did spend most of their visit snapping pictures with their smartphones and stuffing money into omnipresent collection boxes. They laughed at my inexpertly tied longyi, but it was all in good fun. I liked the Burmese immensely.

Which was good, because the bike was slowly crushing my spirit one kilometer at a time. Earlier in the day I'd controlled my frustration by humming vulgar, cathartic verses about how much I fucking loathed bicycles and imagining myself throwing the awful thing beneath an oncoming bus. However, by the afternoon I was a broken, dead-eyed husk of a man. I gazed after each passing motorbike with desperate longing and massaged my aching quadriceps with a lunatic's intensity at every stop. I answered all of Tom and Aron's questions with a weak smile and, 'Sure, sounds good,' a deference which I hoped would convey the terrible injustice of my situation yet seemed to go completely unnoticed. My clothes were drenched with sweat and my hair was a soppy, neck-sticking mess. Eventually I was too exhausted even for self pity. The bike had won.


At sundown we rode back to the guesthouse, Tom and Aron chattering excitedly about refreshing showers and icy Myanmar beer. I pedaled lackadaisically behind them, coasting as long as possible before gravity and inertia compelled my legs to pump again. We arrived at the front gates just as the air began to turn cool. I wiped the dust from my face and wheeled the cursed bike to the old man next door. He smiled broadly at me as he pinched the tires and squeezed the handbrakes.

'You rent again tomorrow?' he asked, gently parking the bike next to the others lined up in his shop.



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dive Buddies: Part Two

Part One, if you missed it.


The Mentor - 'You don't must go'

When I was 19, my dad I and went white-water rafting in a small Ecuadorian town called Tena. Once a missionary outpost deep in the Amazonian Andes, Tena was a romantic anachronism. All you saw were grimy jungle khakis and beat-up Jeeps and yellowed labels curling off the whiskey bottles. Our guidebook described Tena as, 'the kind of place you'd half-expect to see Indiana Jones slouching at the bar.'

Keep that image in your head. If Thomas lived in Tena, he'd be the thickly-accented Bavarian roughneck challenging Indy to a drinking contest. Thomas was great.


Thomas smoked more than any human being I've ever met. Usually he smoked this foul Filipino brand called Fortunes, though sometimes he'd switch to Winstons if the price was right. Thomas was the Orbitz of Coron's cigarette prices - he knew every shop's rate down to the peso. He never overpaid for his smokes.

Which was wise because, as mentioned before, Thomas smoked a lot. While other divers fiddled with their gear before jumping in the water, Thomas had one last cigarette, his wetsuit half-unzipped to the waist. After a dive, his mask was barely off before he reached for the pack again. It was almost impossible to light a smoke after getting out of the water because your hands were frozen stiff, the wind was usually blowing, and Filipino lighters are absolute junk*. None of this seemed to bother Thomas. He just made the lighter work, as he made other things such as motorbikes and depth gauges and old laptops work, then enjoyed his smoke.

*Quality flames are more valuable than gold in Coron. When the boss' family visited, they brought her a few Bics from Germany. When I made a joke about 'borrowing' it for the afternoon, she gave me a look that made me fear for my liver.

Thomas made everything work. Mornings were chaos - divemasters running all over the shop carrying air tanks and gear boxes and diesel jugs, all half-awake and most severely hungover.  But Thomas managed to make sure everything and everybody made it onto the right boat, a Herculean effort he accomplished while never going more than a minute without a smoke. When the motorbike carts inevitably broke down en route to the pier, Thomas got them running again with a hammer, a brick, or a few well-placed kicks (usually accompanied by loud cursing).

He'd lived in Coron for over a decade; one of the first wreck divers to arrive on the island, and one of the few who stayed. He'd worked at Rocksteady for years, renting dirt bikes on the side for extra cash. Coron wasn't an easy place to make a living, let alone raise a family with a pack of small children, yet he somehow did both. Thomas knew every single person in town, and managed to remain civil with most of them, which was no small feat in such a prickly and stubborn community. I don't know that I ever saw him pay full price for a beer, though I saw him drink a lot of them. He was very popular at the bars.

Thomas was the most competent diver I've ever known. 'Competent' isn't the sexiest way to describe...well, anything really, but it just fit him. After eleventy-billion dives he'd seen everything beneath the sea short of a jaguar shark, and there was literally no way to surprise him underwater.  If you caught him at the bar on the right night, you might hear about the time his instructor got nitrogen narcosis trying to set a deep-dive record, or when his diver lost consciousness deep inside a shipwreck (twice), or some other shiver-inducing tale that always ended in the same boring yet immensely reassuring way (i.e. everybody lives). And you never questioned a word he said because even a Kentucky cave shrimp could see there wasn't an ounce of bullshit in the man.


After four weeks in Coron, I still hadn't memorized the routes through the wrecks. I felt like a fraud; here I was pretending to be a wreck dive guide, yet I would be utterly fucked if you dumped me in the Okikawa's brig and told me to find my way out. To make matters worse, everybody I worked with was an expert. They'd made hundreds of dives on these shipwrecks; every wrong turn or befuddled 'where are we?' was another opportunity to be mocked or, worse, patronized. After one particularly bad dive, I was sulking on the roof of the boat when Thomas gingerly lifted himself up, a soggy Fortune clenched between his teeth.

He told me that during his first year as an instructor in Coron, he barely went inside the wrecks at all. 'I was fucking useless,' he explained helpfully. I stared at him in disbelief. Thomas had been put on earth to smoke cigarettes and dive wrecks (when he was all out of cigarettes). This was like finding out that not only did Einstein fail math but was also pretty lousy at checkers. I asked Thomas how he'd dealt with being a wreck diver who didn't go in the wrecks.

'I don't know the way, so I don't go. I don't must go. No rushing, I take some time and I learn. And when I know, I go. When you know the way, you go. But if you don't know, you don't must go. Chillax. Fuck it.'

I bought Thomas six beers at the bar that night, and I still felt like I owed him one.


The Other Divemaster - 'Hindi lasing!'

With Jianna after my last dive.
It was monsooning again. Heavy sheets of rain battered the tin roof above Rocksteady's front gate, a deafening crescendo of metallic plinking. As 'shop bitch' for the day, I was relieved. The storm meant no pain-in-the-ass customers wandering in to ask stupid questions and nag me for discounts. It also meant that, since the soft drinks were restocked and the torch batteries were charging, that I had nothing to do until the boats returned. So I did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances - I went next door to buy a bottle of cheap Tanduay rum and some corn chips. Then I scurried back to the shop and asked my former nemesis if she'd like a drink.

Jianna had already been working at Rocksteady for a week or so before I showed up. I was surprised to learn that I wasn't the only Divemaster candidate at the shop - small dive centers in a place like Coron might only do a few DM courses each year. Having two at the same time is a bit unusual. I didn't think it would be much of a problem, though - we made a couple fun dives together on my first day, and we got along just fine.

She was an unusual character - a single Korean woman in her early thirties who'd quit her job and decided to pursue her diving passion full-time. I'd spent a few years teaching in Korea and had never met anyone like her; Korea is a country where 'fitting in' has little of the negative connotation it carries in the West, and 'following your dreams' has none of the glamour. A 30-year old Korean woman is expected to be married, preferably with a kid or two, and a comfortable apartment in one of the country's ubiquitous, interchangeable high-rise complexes. She should be shy, petite, and deferential. Delicacy is prized. It's considered cute to be helpless.

Jianna ticked none of these boxes. She was astoundingly tall for a Korean woman, towering head and shoulders over the locals. She was maniacally enthusiastic about the most backbreaking chores around the dive shop. She gave as much shit as she she got (in fluent English and surprisingly good Tagalog). Jianna was fit and pretty, with plenty of admirers, none of whom would have stood much of a chance if she decided to kick his ass. She was popular and outgoing; I often saw her walking to the bars at night, dressed to kill in long, clingy dresses. She got along well with all the Filipino divemasters and could drink any of them under the table.

You couldn't ask for a better enemy to resent.


Jianna was a more experienced diver than I was, but not that much more experienced. She had maybe forty more dives than I did, small beans to established dive pros (who can rack up more than that in two busy weeks), though a considerable gap for 'beginners' like us. We were like siblings born a year apart - at 50 and 51 the difference is almost imperceptible, but at 12 and 13 it feels hugely important.

She'd also spent more time in Coron than I had. She was close friends with many of the Filipino divemasters, who'd accepted her into the Rocksteady 'family' almost immediately. They made inside jokes in Tagalog on the boats, and had legendary drinking bouts back on land. She was really one of the guys. So when I had a falling out with one of 'the guys', Jianna went on the shitlist.


I remember sitting on the roof of the boat, scratching at the red paint with my thumbnail while Jianna and the Filipino divemaster sat across from me, trying to figure out how we'd miscommunicated so badly on our first dive. I remember feeling a little resentful as we splashed into the water for our second dive, determined to give them no reason to criticize me in the next debriefing. And then I remember climbing back on the boat after the Filipino divemaster ran out of air inside a shipwreck, shaking with cold and almost uncontrollable rage, and refusing the coat that Jianna offered me.

When we got back to land, I waited by the pier for 45 minutes with a pile of equipment while the others rode back up to the shop for unloading. There was no way the delay was accidental - the Filipino divemaster had clearly told the others to leave me stranded there, a kind of passive-aggressive revenge for my hostility after the dive. When I finally got back to the shop, I hotly told the owner that I wanted to leave Coron as soon as possible, and that I refused to dive with that weasley little motherfucker ever again. Or Jianna. Fuck them both.


A month later, when I was making my final dives on the wrecks of Coron, I broke my vow and dove with Jianna again. She'd made an odd request a few days before - she wanted to serve as my personal underwater photographer on the day I officially finished the Divemaster course. It was one of the nicest things anybody has ever done for me.

When I left Coron, I hugged Jianna goodbye. I was sad to leave her; sad to leave a friend whose friendship I didn't deserve and couldn't possibly repay. She told me she'd send me all the pictures from our dives once she returned home to Korea. Every diver has heard this one before; it's our version of 'let's stay in touch!' in your high school yearbook.

Last week I got an email from Jianna with nearly a hundred breathtaking underwater photos. They're the only photos of me taken during the Divemaster course in Coron. I'm not sure if she knows that.

Today our friendship exists entirely due to Jianna's mysterious ability to repeatedly forgive me for behaving like a complete asshole.  During the long weeks where I avoided eye contact and spoke to her only in monosyllables, she somehow managed not to hate me. Or maybe she did hate me for a bit, and managed to smother that rational instinct like a squirmish vole. All I know is that she kept offering me sodas and helping me carry gear boxes and helping with the dishes after lunch. She kept being human long after I turned into a monster.

After all that, she deserved a drink.

' Hindi lasing! Hindi lasing!' - or, 'I'm not drunk!'

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wreck Dive Buddies: Part One

Scenic Coron.

On a list of Top 100 Places to Get Your Divemaster Certification, the island of Coron would rank slightly below 'Sewers of Mexico City' and just above 'Fukushima Bay'. About 40,000 people live on the 689 sq km island, most of whom would dislike you immediately if you ever met. This is especially true in the town proper, a small dirty toenail clipping of buildings stretching from the pier up around the harbor, finally sputtering out in a few scattered hotels hacked into the hilly coastline. Coron is a town where arson is an acceptable method of conflict resolution. The former mayor, Mario Reyes, is currently on the Philippines' Most Wanted list for the murder of an environmental activist. He is joined on the list by his brother Joel, the former governor of the province. The brothers Reyes have been fugitives since 2012, presumably cruising around the archipelago in their extravagant luxury speedboats and lighting cigars with fistfuls of pesos.

Spend a few hours in Coron town, and you'll gain a new appreciation for the term 'shithole'. I guess this isn't entirely fair - calling Coron a shithole does a grave injustice to both shit and holes. The town has the aesthetic charm of an abandoned slaughterhouse. Typhoon Yolanda hit the town in late 2013, causing a fair bit of damage, but not nearly as much as the previous years of neglect and disinterest. Coron is a fine example of the great things folks can avoid doing when they all get together and don't give a fuck.

Coron's malaise is truly a team effort. From the mightiest bureaucrat to the lowliest street vendor, each person does their part to make sure nothing works properly. The power plant provides no power. The bistro has no meat. The Coast Guard has no boat. The iceboxes have no ice. The optical shop has no contact lenses. The drug dealers have no drugs.

Nothing works in Coron because nothing really has to work. And that's probably because of the shipwrecks.


Off the coast of Coron, a small Japanese fleet is scattered around the seafloor. Their unlucky crews had been ordered to sail for remote Palawan during the closing days of World War II, while the eastern Philippines were being retaken by the Americans. It was a good plan - without any large warships to provide protection, the fleet was vulnerable. Coron was a small, remote island far from any U.S. naval forces. It seemed like the perfect place for the Japanese ships to hide.

And it was, until 24 September 1944, when squadrons of Hellcat fighters and Helldiver dive bombers from the USS Lexington launched the longest naval airstrike in history and sank them.

A sunken seaplane tender - my favorite wreck.
More than sixty years later, Forbes Traveler described the wrecks of Coron Bay as one of the 'Top Ten Dive Sites in the World'.

And that's why the people of Coron don't give a fuck.


Tourists will come to Coron as long as the wrecks exist. Tourists will want to eat and sleep and buy poorly-made souvenirs. Tourists will desire beer, regardless of its temperature, and they will also need hamburgers. If you burn somebody's eggs or spit on the guy browsing for sunscreen, there's no need to worry (or apologize) - another tourist will wander by eventually. The wrecks ensure a steady flow of dollars, won, euros and yuan - nobody had to build anything, and they all come anyway.

I'm as guilty as anyone - I went back to Coron because of the wrecks. There's a very Steve McQueenish vibe to wreck diving. It's dangerous and unpredictable and difficult, which is why I like it. Wreck diving is probably the closest I'll ever come to doing anything that could be considered 'badass'. I wear a tie and polished dress shoes to my day job -  this is no small accomplishment.

It's difficult to talk wreck diving with folks who don't dive wrecks, at least without sounding like a sociopath. People at cocktail parties start backing away slowly when you describe the thrill of squirming through torpedo holes and penetrating silty propellor shafts. But I knew there were others like me in Coron, adrenaline junkies who'd love to spend an afternoon debating the merits of nitrox sidemounts vs. closed circuit rebreathers or spinning outrageous lies about the time they salvaged the captain's wheel off the Kaiser's dreadnought.

People who dive wrecks really love wrecks, which is good because wrecks can be hard to love. Shipwrecks are dark, claustrophobic, and filled with venomous sea creatures. They attract people who are a little off - those who have what HMOs might call 'pre-existing conditions'. Wreck divers tend to be almost paranoiacally resistant to authority, fiercely proud yet constantly in need of validation, and borderline obsessive. Their greatest passions are shipwrecks, scuba equipment, other shipwrecks, cheap beer, and drinking cheap beer while talking about shipwrecks and scuba equipment.

In the professional dive industry there are no casual wreck divers, in the same way that there are no casual coroners.

But don't take my word for it. Take a thousand of my words for it.


The Boss - 'Nur ein Schwein Trinkt Allein'

Karin at her birthday lechon last year.

Shortly after I first Karin, I watched her hack a fifty kilogram pig to pieces with a machete. One hour and several tequila shots later, she was rhythmically gyrating with an egg dangling between her legs, attached to her waist by a thin string. She was trying to smash it against a similarly swinging eggplant operated by her partner, a small Filipino man named Dennis. When they finally succeeded, the celebration was messy and euphoric. I liked her right away.


Karin could tell I wasn't doing great. A few days earlier, I'd stormed into the shop and heatedly declared that I wanted to leave Rocksteady as quickly as possible. My relationships with the Filipino divemasters had soured to the point that I closely inspected my gear for sabotage before every dive, and checked my equipment box afterwards to make sure nothing had been stolen. My paranoia stemmed from an earlier incident when a Filipino divemaster ran out of air during a dive, and blamed me for the chaos that ensued. I refused to speak with him after this, which was taken by the notoriously sensitive locals as an unmistakable 'fuck you'. They predictably backed their fellow pinoy, and I found myself in a shark tank.

The same guys who had seemed like such a tight-knit family during my first visit to Coron were now circling like ravenous hammerheads, probing for signs of weakness or inattention they could exploit. I'd returned to Coron because of the wrecks, but I'd returned to Rocksteady because of the people. And now that the people were poisonous, I couldn't see any reason to stay.

Karin is a hard-nosed German businesswoman who has survived for years in a place that treats foreigners in general as sunburned ATMs and foreign women in particular as something even less flattering. She's fended off corrupt municipal bureaucrats and inept Coast Guard officers, battled a litigious ex-husband and the larcenous fingers of disgruntled locals. She spends nearly every waking moment at the shop, fighting a semi-losing battle against Himalayan mounds of paperwork and suspiciously ambulatory dive gear.

If there's a problem with a boat engine, Karin gets a phone call - sure, she might not know a fucking thing about engines, but she's the boss and therefore she must fix the problem. If a lightbulb burns out in the toilet, Karin gets a phone call - how do you unscrew these things? If a seagull shits on a customer's towel, Karin gets a phone call - probably demanding a full refund for the day's dives. Karin has one of the most exhausting and aggravating jobs imaginable.

Which is why I was so surprised when she invited me to dinner.


Karin lived far outside town, about twenty minutes by motorbike. I rode on the back of her ancient green Chinese knockoff, the shocks cringing woefully with every bump. And there were a lot of bumps - we were officially out in the middle of nowhere, a thin dirt road snaking through the jungle. The bike's feeble headlight revealed a tangled mess of bamboo, grass, and other wild growing things.  Eventually we pulled up to a gate, which she nimbly swerved around, and arrived at the house.

We hopped off the motorbike and were immediately accosted by Karin's pack of dogs. Karin is a dog-lover; every day, the leftovers from lunch on the dive boats are scraped into plastic bags which are taken home for canines' dinner, making them perhaps the best-fed dogs on the island. I loved hearing her castigate anyone who forgot to save the dog food - the way she said 'lllllllaaazy bas-tahhhd' was sweeter than poetry.

And apparently somebody had been an especially lazy bastard that day, because one of the dogs seemed powerfully hungry by the way he snapped at my shins. I pride myself on being somewhat of an amateur dog whisperer, and I tried all my usual tricks of establishing dominance and discouraging aggressive behavior. But my sophisticated understanding of canine psychology proved useless against his street-dog instincts, and he continued to snap. Only when Karin jabbed her finger and commanded, 'Fuck off Jocko,' did he leave me in peace. He wouldn't mess with the boss.

Karin showed me around the compound, which consisted of the main house, several separate huts for her teenage boys, and the beginnings of an extensive garden. The jungle encroached all around - bamboo sprouted everywhere, and it was evident that keeping the place clear of undergrowth was a full-time job. She pointed out the herbs and vegetables that would soon be on our plates, the place where her kids used to paint their faces and play Indians, the large tent where one of the shop's German instructors had been living since the typhoon destroyed her apartment. 'It's more like a castle,' Karin said as we passed by. I had to agree - it was the biggest goddamn tent I'd ever seen outside of a circus.

We talked about her kids - the impossibly cute little girl who liked writing mystery stories, the guitar-playing romantic who was off to university next year, the sweet-tempered basketball nut who was busy making all the mistakes teenagers usually make. She told me about the hostel she wanted to open near the dive shop, if those bastards would ever agree to a reasonable price for the land - lots of soft wood tones and recycled art, bamboo everything; a refuge for travelers who just wanted a peaceful and beautiful place to meet, eat, sleep. Karin even brought up her old life, when she'd jetted around the world with her father's free airline tickets and lived a nice, stable life back in Germany. She was absolutely convincing when she said she didn't miss a minute of it.

Dennis was almost finished with the barbecue, so we meandered back to the deck. A large table was set with plates - Karin and Dennis, their kids, me, and some special guests. Karin's mother and brother were visiting from Germany; this was one of the few times every year they'd all eat together. I smiled at her brother, a large friendly guy named Jens, and gave Mama a hug. There was the usual bickering about salt to add or not add, and how many serving tongs were needed, and where the hell that extra fork went. The table began to grow crowded with aromatic plates of grilled chicken, fresh garden salads, and steaming white rice. Soft light spilled out of the house, casting shadows across the yard where tall bamboo formed a dark and impenetrable wall. The jungle was silently noisy in the way that jungles are, if you listen closely.

We eased ourselves into the plastic chairs, careful not to lean too far backwards and tumble off the deck. Karin handed me a San Miguel, whose top I casually popped with a lighter and absentmindedly began to sip, enjoying its crisp iciness in the hot Filipino night. I lowered the bottle to find Karin looking at me disapprovingly, clutching her own beer in one hand.

'Nur ein Schwein trinkt allein', she said - only a pig drinks alone. Narrowing one eye, she raised her bottle and clinked it against mine. She took a long pull, sighed, and nimbly lit a Winston with one hand. With the other, she started ladling rice and chicken and vegetables onto her plate, then her daughter's, and then mine.

I put my beer back on the table and smiled because I wasn't alone.


The Guru - 'Bahala Na'

'Bahala na' is a Tagalog phrase that translates literally as, 'As the Lord wills.'  A more colloquial translation might be, 'Screw it.'

These were the favorite words of Angy, one of the German dive instructors at Rocksteady, closely followed by 'Ay Nako!' ('for God's sake!') and any sentence starting with, 'The faaahhh-cking _____...'  She was truly a people's poet.

Angy cut an intimidating figure - nearly six feet tall, with sunburned ropey muscles and an immaculately shaved head. One glare from her icy blue eyes would make a Navy SEAL look nervously for the bathroom. When she got angry, which was often, the best course was to tread lightly. I spent most of my early days at Rocksteady trying valiantly to not piss her off. And for the most part I did, which I still regard as a minor miracle.


On my final day at Rocksteady, I finally got the balls to ask her for a photo together.
Angy and I both hated being cold. She's from Germany and I'm from Minnesota, but years living in southeast Asia have completely erased our tolerance for low temperatures. Our first words upon exiting the water were usually unprintable, not just for foul language but because they were literally indecipherable due to our chattering teeth.

The waters of Coron are usually a balmy 29 C/84 F, but that didn't stop us from freezing our asses off. Tourists who come for a few fun dives usually find the waters quite warm and pleasant. Dive pros, however, make multiple dives every day, and their bodies never get a chance to heat back up fully. Some divemasters and instructors clenched their teeth and grimly bore the discomfort, taking a sadistic pride in their resistance to the elements. Angy and I did not. We bitched loudly and passionately to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot.


We were huddled in the back of the boat one day, wrapped in towels and sweatshirts and whatever semi-dry piece of clothing we could find, braving the engine's exhaust fumes in hopes of warming up a bit faster. Angy resembled a Bedouin camel raider, multiple scarves and beanies making her face almost inscrutable. She took layering seriously - Angy wore two wetsuits on every dive and topped it off with a hood, gloves, boots, and whatever else she could get her hands on. We clutched steaming mugs of terrible instant coffee as the rasta banca boat chopped through the waves.

I asked Angy how she first discovered Coron. I'd arrived by accident myself - the result of a miscommunication with boat ticket vendors and a lousy understanding of the Philippines' geography. Her story was even more convoluted - a swirling tale of missed flights, vague recommendations from friends, timely storms, and a six-degrees-of-seperation web that would leave Kevin Bacon shaking his head. That she'd arrived in Coron at all was a staggering coincidence - that she'd stayed so many years defied any logical explanation.

Still half-frozen in my pitifully inadequate towel cocoon, I then asked the go-to question of any lazy interviewer - do you regret any of the decisions you made? You're living in a tent in your boss' backyard, you have no health insurance, you're stuck on an island full of people who you can't you ever think you made the wrong choice? At the moment I was regretting my own decision to come back to Coron; I think my misery was looking for company.

Angy's response? 'Fuck, no'.

She'd been surviving just fine. She'd prefer to have her flat back, of course, but it was entirely possible to live in a tent. She didn't have insurance, but most people in the world don't have insurance. She took care of her body as best she could, and saw no reason to be toil away in fear of 'what-ifs', trading the present for a pessimistic future. She would have liked to have a partner, but she had learned how to be happy with herself. Angy's strength came from her own muscles and thoughts, things that no thief could steal and no bank could repossess. She could take care of herself; she had her shit together. There was nothing to regret about that.

I asked her about turning points in life - those big important moments where you have to choose between two divergent paths; the times when people tell you to 'trust your gut' no matter how unreliable and misguided it has been in the past. And Angy said that was all bullshit, that it's never the big decisions that matter most, but all the little unnoticed ones that quietly stack atop one another until they form a giant flashing neon sign that says 'GO THIS WAY'. And even then it doesn't really matter where you go, as long as you look like you know what you're doing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Up-Down Life of a Divemaster

The shipwrecks of Coron.
'Divemasters aren't supposed to run out of air,' I thought as the divemaster ran out of air. He'd been frantically signaling a moment before. Scuba divers have a complicated system of hand signals to communicate underwater, but the 'out of air' sign is fairly obvious - one hand slashing across the throat. I'm pretty sure he didn't make that one. Which is understandable I suppose, considering he couldn't breathe and probably wasn't overly concerned with using the proper lexicon. Anyway, once he grabbed my emergency regulator it didn't take Anne Sullivan to figure out what he meant.

I looked back at the six Israeli divers in our group. It was lucky for us that they were novices - more experienced divers would've understood what had happened, and gotten rightfully pissed off. But they just stared blankly at us, regulators gurgling in the darkness, clearly wondering why their two professional dive guides were now sharing air like teenagers in a 1950s milkshake parlor. Then one of the Israelis made the 'low on air' signal. Then another. And we found ourselves in a bit of a clusterfuck.

An average scuba tank holds 200 bar of air, and 'low on air' usually means 50 bar. Under normal circumstances, running low on air isn't a life-threatening problem for scuba divers. You just look up, ascend slowly toward the surface, stop for a few minutes to let the nitrogen bubbles dissipate from your bloodstream, and then pop out of the water. Most of the time, you get back to the boat with plenty of air to spare.

Our circumstances, though, were not normal.

We were floating in the bowels of the Morazon Maru, a World War II shipwreck near the island of Coron. Once a Japanese cargo ship, it was sunk by an American airstrike from the USS Lexington in 1944. As shipwrecks ago, the Morazon is relatively easy to navigate. Most dives consist of swimming through large cargo holds with easy access to open water, or checking out the marine life on the top of the wreck. It's considered a great dive spot for beginners and large groups.

For some reason, we had deviated from this usual route. The Filipino divemaster had led us into some much smaller chambers - judging that our divers were capable of managing their air supply and buoyancy in close quarters. They were, for the most part, until he himself ran out of air. Then their muscles tightened, their breathing increased, and we found ourselves in the middle of a rusty shipwreck with half the party low on air.

The other divemaster with us, a Korean girl named Jianna, swam up from the back and transferred the Filipino guide onto her alternate regulator. It was clear that we had to abort and return to the mooring line, a long rope running from the shipwreck to a buoy on the surface where the dive boats wait. There we could gather the group together, monitor everyone's air supply, and ascend safely to the surface. So off she went, the Filipino guide hovering above her, attached by a gravity-defying umbilical cord. She'd dived this wreck a dozen times before, and he'd dived it a hundred, so I wasn't concerned about us getting lost.

To clarify, I wasn't concerned about the divemasters getting lost. The customers were another story. I was responsible for keeping six newbie divers together as we navigated out of the wreck, a job only slightly less difficult than herding feral cats across a river. The ability of some divers to become momentarily distracted, then hopelessly disoriented is remarkable. One of the Israelis had run so low on air that he was now using my alternate regulator.  I thought optimistically that at least I had one diver I couldn't lose.

After a few agonizing minutes we reached the mooring line, rising up from the stern like a literal lifeline to the surface. As I triumphantly guided the five Israeli divers to the base of the line, I remembered to my horror that we'd started the day with six Israeli divers. Jianna floated above us, having successfully delivered the Filipino guide to an emergency tank of air dangling from a rope five meters below the surface. She looked at me quizzically, sensing that something was wrong. The Filipino guide touched his eyes, then waved his hand in a circular motion around the top of the wreck.

Shit. Search and rescue for a missing diver. I'm sure that I have had more horrifying moments in my life, but I can't remember any. I glanced back at the Israelis clinging to the mooring line. I was sure they realized that their friend was gone. One of them touched his air gauge and pointed toward the deck - he wanted to go back down. Then another, and another. And one more. Shit.

I calmed my breathing and checked my air. I still had more than half a tank - enough for maybe twenty or thirty minutes of searching, less if I had another diver to support. The four Israelis all had slightly less than me; the fifth was so low on air that he had attached himself to Jianna, bobbing in the current as they waited to ascend. The Filipino guide wasn't going to be of much help. So it was up to me - a pathetically inexperienced divemaster trainee leading a group of pathetically inexperienced beginners on a hopeless search for one lost diver. Kafka would have found the whole thing hilarious, which shows you what a prick Kafka was.

In the end, I was saved by the laziest deus ex machina ever devised by teenage fanfic scribes. As I took one last look at the surface, praying for divine (or at least more-competant-human) intervention, I spotted the unmistakeable potbelly of our missing Israeli diver. He was nestled in a bunch of other divers about ten meters above us, all of them dangling from the mooring line like lumpy black bananas. I pointed toward him, my eyes brimming with joy. Excitedly I looked at the Israelis, who stared blankly back at me. As it turns out, none of them had realized their friend was gone.

Neither had the Filipino dive guide. He was still signaling at me, and now I realized that he didn't want me to conduct a search and rescue mission. He just wanted me to take the Israelis back down to the top of wreck for a ten minute lookaround to use up their excess air. Nobody likes coming up with half a tank of expensive, unused air - he was covering his ass against customer complaints.

There is no scuba sign for 'go fuck yourself', but it would've been mighty useful then.


It's a pretty strong sales pitch.

The first time I took a breath underwater, I knew I wanted to be a professional scuba diver. I had the moment of clarity I suspect surgeons have when, as a child, they successfully extract the funny bone from that poor smiling bastard in 'Operation'. The thought process goes something like this, 'Hey, this is fun. Why don't I do this for a career?'

The easy answer, with regards to diving, is that you make practically no money. Being a professional scuba diver means continually replacing equipment (which is expensive), upgrading and maintaining certifications (which is also expensive), and existing largely on the tips of customers (who are stingy bastards). Experienced, highly qualified instructors earn less each month than most elementary school janitors.

'But at least you're doing something you love,' say people I'd love to punch in the mouth. Which isn't really fair, because they're right. Still, it's very easy to forget this at 6:30am when you're loading an endless stream of heavy scuba cylinders onto the deck of a slippery boat, or elbow-deep in dirty rinse tanks searching for a lost bootie, or stuck with an obnoxious group of loud Chinese tourists for days at a time. It's even easier to forget while grinding through the piles of paperwork and inventory-keeping needed to keep any dive center semi-profitable/functional. And on 'shop days', where you're stuck behind a desk with only a vast list of housekeeping chores and the occasional obnoxious customer to keep you company, it's almost impossible to remember why diving seemed like a good idea in the first place.


Hello? Anybody? Bueller?

'Oh no oh no oh no oh no...'

It was our last dive of the day, around the Lusong gunboat wreck. I was guiding a nice Finnish woman named Jona, an outgoing woman with blonde hair and an easy smile. She was doing a scuba refresher course - the course certified divers take when they've been out of the water for a few years. We'd spent most of the day practicing skills and doing a little easy exploration, and now it was time for her first 'real dive',

The dive site was fairly shallow - maybe 17 meters at the deepest point. The ship itself was covered in corals and aquatic life, but it's quite small. There's not much to penetrate - one big cargo hold in the stern, at the bow a little bridge area hardly big enough to fit two divers. Around 25 meters from bow to stern, you'd be hard pressed to spend more than fifteen or twenty minutes there without becoming powerfully bored.

We usually took divers out to the nearby reef valley first, sometimes purposely swimming into the current to get them breathing nice and hard. They'd run low on air, and then we could get out of the water and go home. Leading divers on Lusong was like halfheartedly playing 'Monopoly' against your kids - they're having a great time, but there's no challenge or excitement in it for you. You've seen it a million times before.

Which is why I couldn't fucking believe I'd lost the diver.

I'd done a mapping project of the Lusong, carefully (if inexpertly) mapping the depths and contours of the site, noting the placement of interesting creatures and noteworthy reef patches, creating a fairly vivid picture of the site in my mind. Of all the dive sites in Coron, it was the one I should have known best. And with only one diver behind me, the dive should have been easy peaches.

Which is why I couldn't fucking believe I'd lost the diver, too.

For almost twenty minutes, she'd been right behind me. Literally, centimeters behind me - she was so close I kept kicking her with my fins. I'd pointed out some nudibranches, a jawfish, a few puffers...the usual residents of the Lusong site. She was an unfortunately light breather, so I was taking her on a long circuit around the coral outcroppings before returning to the wreck.

Halfway across the sandy bottom, I realized she was no longer behind me. I was baffled - there was literally nothing to see here but sand. What had distracted her? How long had she been gone? I could've sworn I had seen her seconds before, but doubt quickly crept into my head. Had I spaced out for a few minutes? There was no way to be sure, and in any case it didn't matter. My breathing grew deep and ragged as I realized how seriously fucked I was.

The first step to finding a missing diver is to look for air bubbles. I gazed up at the blank blueness above me, squinting at the distance for the telltale signs of a breathing diver. Nothing. Then I waited for a minute, thinking that maybe I'd been swimming too fast and she was trying to catch up. She didn't appear.

I began swimming search patterns, at first with some confident sense of purpose, then with increasing desperation. There was no sign of my diver, nor of any other humans in the area. 'She might be dead,' I thought unhelpfully. 'You were responsible for her safety, and now she's dead. This isn't like skipping a meeting or forgetting a report - she trusted you with her life, and you failed.'

I began retracing our path to the dive boat, continually scanning the surface for a floating diver or air bubbles or loose equipment, anything besides the blue nothingness. As I drew closer to the dive boat, I began to see other dive groups and snorkelers, finning obliviously through the water without a care in the world. I have never wished I could trade bodies with a stranger so badly. I kicked furiously through the water, desperate to reach the boat and call for an emergency search-and-rescue operation.

When I saw the rasta-painted hull of the dive boat in front of me, I quickly surfaced and tore off my mask. I spotted Jianna, the Korean divemaster, standing on the deck of the boat next to Thomas, my German instructor and the greatest diver I've ever known. I was ashamed to admit my failure to him, but this was not a moment for pride. If anyone could find a missing girl in the middle of an empty sea, Thomas could. As I filled my lungs to call out to him, I saw that he was laughing at me.

'You are looking for something?'

And there was the Finnish woman, sheepish but perfectly alive.

'I'm sorry - I looked around at some fishes and I lost you. So I went up and returned to the boat. I still have 150 bar...can we go back down and look at the boat? I want to see the Nemos.'

I have never been so happy to see anybody in my entire life, including my mother.

Sorry, Mom.


Working at a dive shop is not a dream job, at least in the traditional sense. It involves incredibly long hours for surprisingly low wages. It attracts some of the most annoyingly demanding customers outside a Porsche dealership. It requires working with guys who are literally illiterate yet Machiavellian in their political maneuverings amongst the crew. It is a myopic world full of petty bickering, mind-numbing routines, and physically exhausting labor.

And I wouldn't trade a minute of it, unless you offered something really, really awesome in return.

Like a yacht.


Happy diveshops are all the same, unhappy diveshops are miserable in their own interesting ways. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say that my diveshop was unhappy. But once you put the gun down I'd try to explain that life there was too complicated to be summed up in neat platitudes.

I'd say that I met some of the strongest, most intelligent, most unexpectedly compassionate and insightful people I've ever known - people like the shop owner Karin, a German woman with the loudest bark and softest bite of any boss I've ever had (and the biggest heart). Or Thomas, the Bavarian instructor with approximately ten billion dives and more wisdom about life than a dozen lamas. Or Angy, another Deutsch instructor whose gruff manner and intimidating appearance was almost successful in concealing her speargun-sharp wit and humor (but not quite). Or Jianna, my onetime nemesis who later became my dear friend and personal underwater photographer on our last dive together. Or MJ, an unshakably cool Filipino version of Mr. Miyagi who taught me how to tiptoe through the minefields of diveshop relationships.

Then I'd say it's possible to be happy and unhappy at the same time, and nowhere proves this better than a diveshop. I'd suggest that chasing your life's passion is much simpler than figuring out what to do with that passion once you've caught it. I'd say that some of the best moments of my life happened in the same places, with the same people, as some of the worst. Time makes all the difference, as it always does.

And once all that metaphysical bullshit was out of the way, I'd try to sell you a new set of fins.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vietnam's Most Mysterious Shoplady

Every Saturday, I walk out of my school at 12:15 and attempt to cross Ba Hom street. It might be the single most dangerous thing I do all week. Swarms of motorbikes fly in every direction, and honking buses plow through the streets with a singular disregard for human safety. In one weekend there were three separate accidents in front of our school. Cops stood in the middle of the road making chalk outlines and collecting debris.

My destination sits under a large sign bearing the words 'HIỆP PHÁT'. It is a small storefront piled high with boxes of soda, toothbrushes, and squid-flavored potato chips. An old Vietnamese woman sits at the counter. She's well dressed in bright traditional clothes, with gold bracelets on her wrists and elegant jade earrings. I grab a bottle of tea from the refrigerator, place it on the counter in front of her. I reach for my wallet and she laughs as she produces a bag full of home-cooked food from beneath her stool. Then she reaches around for gum, candy, cigarettes - anything handy, really - and tosses it in the bag.

 I stand there like an idiot, smiling and brandishing a fistful of bills, muttering cam on ('thank you' in Vietnamese) again and again. She ignores the money, and eventually I give up and mutter cam on even more emphatically than before. Then I trudge back across the street, clutching my free lunch and spitting obscenities at the buzzing motorbikes.

This has been going on for months. It is one of my most baffling experiences in Vietnam.

The Lunch Lady.

There is a certain art to buying things in Vietnam, especially foodstuffs. Consistency is paramount.As an illustration - the neighborhood sandwich shop. Every morning, I stop there between 10-12 am to buy two banh mi op la (omelet baguettes). The process is incredibly efficient. As soon as the woman hears my motorbike approach, she cranks on the gas range and begins cooking the eggs. I park my bike in front of her cart, and wander off to buy fruit and coffee. By the time I return, she has wrapped two steaming sandwiches in old book pages. I climb on my bike, she clips the food to my bag, and I hand her 25,000 VND ($1.25 USD). We do this every day. We have the routine down pat.

However, should I deviate from the routine by ordering, say, one sandwich, the transaction devolves into utter chaos. All the painstaking familiarity gained over weeks and months suddenly evaporates and I am reduced to holding up fingers and pointing at loaves with the authority of an indecisive toddler. Eventually she concedes and makes the sandwich, eying me mistrustfully the whole time and staring at my money like it is made of human skin. This scene will repeat itself over the next week or so, until I regain enough credibility to qualify for automatic, expedited service. 

Now some might say, 'Nick, this problem could be easily resolved if you simply acquired a working knowledge of basic Vietnamese.'

This is true.

But Vietnamese is hard.


For the first three months I lived in Vietnam, I had a similar breezy routine with the Lunch Lady. On weekday afternoons I would pull up just before 6 pm, always buying a small Coke. On weekends I stopped by around noon for a green tea, carrying my customary lunch of com chien (fried rice) in a yellow plastic bag. Occasionally I'd buy some ChocoPies or squid chips for a particularly good class, which were always fetched by the Lunch Lady's teenage son, whose facial expressions ranged from intolerably bored to possibly comatose. We had a polite and uncomplicated relationship - take goods, give money, repeat as necessary.

One day, I noticed a small flower shop half a block from the HIỆP PHÁT. For reasons inexplicable considering my 5 am wakeup that day, I was in a lighthearted, gift-giving mood. So I bought a bunch of flowers and brought them over to the Lunch Lady. I stepped into her store and handed her the bouquet of rich purple…somethings. They matched her outfit that day, and I made a big show of saying 'dep, dep!', meaning 'beautiful' in Vietnamese. She blushed furiously and placed the flowers in a vase next to the cash register. She wouldn't let me pay for the tea. I silently congratulated myself for being an awesome human being and headed back to school, where I would go on to blatantly mail in my last two lessons with the help of pirated Doraemon DVDs.

The next Saturday, the com ga restaurant where I bought lunch had disappeared. Everything from the deep fat fryer to the sign outside were gone. When I appeared at the for HIỆP PHÁT for my tea, the Lunch Lady immediately noticed the absence of my little yellow bag. 'Com? Com?', she asked again and again, repeating one of the only Vietnamese words I was likely to understand. I gave her the double upturned handshake, the ubiquitous local sign for 'I am absolutely clueless.' 

After that, the Lunch Lady was born.


The first offering.

The first time she made me lunch, I was flabbergasted. It was a Saturday afternoon, around the usual time, and I had shown up more out of habit than anything else. I was planning on skipping lunch and binging on Indian food that night. So when the cute old lady handed me a bag full of freshly sautéed beef and vegetables, steamed white rice and (peeled!*) apples, I could do nothing but stammer 'thank you', unable to utter even a single word in Vietnamese. When I tried to produce my wallet, she unleashed a torrent of Vietnamese that admonished me, in no uncertain terms, for being a complete fucking idiot. Her actions completely subverted everything I previously understood about the business-customer relationship. I gave her a polite little bow, remembered that the Vietnamese don't bow, got even more embarrassed, and practically sprinted out of the store.

Bewildered and slightly hungry, I wandered back to the teacher's room and unpacked my grub. Ms. Ngu, one of the teacher support staff and possibly the sweetest human being ever born, looked confused and asked me if I had made lunch at home (since foreigners are generally assumed to subsist only off KFC and Heineken). When I told her it was a gift from the woman across the street, Ngu looked at me as if I was speaking Flemish. 'Foreigners are just the weirdest,' her face said plainly.

Better than a Famous Bowl, probably.

The same thing happened next week. Suddenly, my money was useless at the HIỆP PHÁT. Since she wouldn't accept money, I began to search the city for little gifts to give her. As the weeks passed and the free lunches continued to flow, it turned into a bit of a game. Every weekend she would deliver a fresh batch of com with all the fixin's, and I'd deliver a little glass figurine or another bouquet of flowers.

Step 1 to becoming a fatass.

 Every week was something different. Once she handed me a heavy box of fried rice with a dozen giant shrimp buried under the fragrant grains. Another Saturday's bag contained an assorted sampler of Vietnam's finest processed meats, which I delicately disposed of in an outside bin to keep it from smelling up the entire office. My lunches began to attract attention from coworkers, who teased me that I now had a new girlfriend across the street. Even the normally reserved Ms. Ngu tossed words like 'seduction' around, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying. Others suggested that perhaps she had a daughter she wished to marry off, though I never saw anyone but her expressionless son hanging around the store. 

The gift war escalates.

Then the gifts began to come. For weeks I had been bringing her little trinkets and gifts, considering it a utilitarian trade of art for food. She placed them together on the counter, a steadily growing little pile of gratitude and guilt. I felt a very Midwestern need to be 'even' - something in Minnesotan blood curdles at the idea of being out-generous'd by somebody else. My father is a prime example of this - if the man borrowed your car for an hour, he'd return it with a full tank of gas, new brakes, and a copy of CCR's Greatest Hits. The gifts were my way of compensating for the time and energy she put into my weekly lunches.

When the food began to be accompanied by fashion accessories, I felt a twinge of panic. Things were beginning to escalate quickly - they could easily get out of hand fast. One week she gave me two beautifully wrapped boxes containing a leather wallet and belt. The next there was a silver watch nestled in a dark red box. Some other notables - a backpack filled with a motorbike helmet, poncho, and face mask, a traditional Vietnamese wind chime, an entire carton of cigarettes, and the coup de grace:

verysexyhot, baby!

At this point, I was afraid to even walk into her store. Merchants in Vietnam are usually ready to gouge foreigners to the utter limits of reason - my favorite example being a woman who once tried to charge me 500,000 VND ($25 USD) for a single coconut. People don't simply give stuff away, especially to foreigners who make comparatively exorbitant salaries. And storeowners never, never lavish expensive gifts on their customers while refusing to accept payment. A coworker joked that not only did she want me to marry her daughter, but also donate a kidney to her cousin. I laughed along with him and patted my sides nervously. 

One day, there was a light blue envelope inside my lunch bag. I opened it to find a beautifully written note, full of curly T's and elegant sweeping G's. The Vietnamese still practice handwriting in school, and reading their letters sometimes feels like studying calligraphy. In polite, formal English, the note informed me that that the lady had asked a niece to translate her words; the condensed version read something like this:

Every day I see you at my store and I feel happy. Your smiling face is very handsome and you have a kind heart. It must be difficult for you to live far from your family and homeland. I hope that you will remember me, and have a happy life in Vietnam. 
How do you reply to that?


I eventually wrote the Lunch Lady back, enlisting my talented coworker Ms. Phuc to translate my letter into Vietnamese. Phuc is a bit of a smartass - apparently she majored in literature or poetry or something while in university, and is thus a talented writer. 'How do you want the letter to sound? Polite? Respectful? Grateful? Romantic?', she asked, winking suggestively at the last one. I settled on grateful and polite, and began the difficult task of thanking someone whose kindness has exceeded all reasonable expectations.

In the end I have no idea if I found the right words to show my gratitude (or if Phuc ignored my instructions and wrote a steamy ode of lascivious dirty talk). But we've exchanged a few more notes since then, and the stream of food and gifts continues unabated, always in both directions, never entirely equal.

I'll never know exactly why she decided to show such kindness to a clueless, lunchless foreigner with long hair and lousy taste in cosmetics, but I am comfortable with not-knowing. Vietnam teaches you very quickly that some questions are not meant to be answered. A little mystery keeps things interesting. And everybody knows there's no such thing as a bad free lunch.

Although if she ever packs me squid rings again, I might torch the shop.