Finding Nemo

Adventure Travel, Bus, Fitness & Workouts, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Solo Travel, Sports & Games, Thailand, Tours & Attractions, Wildlife & Animals — By on May 1, 2007 at 5:43 am

I had many goals for my yearlong, around-the-world adventure: Hike the Inca Trail in Peru, volunteer in Kenya, do yoga school in India. I wanted to explore all the things I never had time to while slumped over my computer. Somehow I got the chance to try it all, and my final frontier was to dive into the ocean.

Though I was seriously short on cash after many months spent on the road, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to get certified in scuba diving while I was in Thailand. As a kid, I’d spent hours flipping through biology books splashed with Technicolor photos of fish and coral, all the while imagining what it would be like to float through this underwater world. The child in me would never forgive myself for not jumping on the chance to experience this firsthand-even though the adult in me will be less than thrilled when I return to the concrete jungle with a credit card bill as long as the earth’s circumference. But you only live once, right?

So after returning to Bangkok from Myanmar, The Lost Girls went their separate ways. Amanda was hanging out with family who flew out to see her, and Jen was chilling with her family back in the Sunshine State. Since the other girls were already PADI certified, it was prime time to hit the islands on my own for an open-water course.

After hopping an overnight bus to Koh Tao-an island in southern Thailand famous for diving-I wondered if I’d made the right decision. This is me at 2:30 a.m., tired and ticked off. Trips such as these often take twice as long as they should because travel companies make pit stops at partnering restaurants and shops all along the way to suck as much cash as they can from customers. I boycotted this restaurant stop by staying on the bus. Besides, I was still full from binging on my convenience-store stash of Snickers, almonds and corn chips-7-11s are more common in Bangkok than Starbucks in the big apple. That’s good for me, because God forbid I should have to take a road trip without emergency sustenance on hand.

After stepping off the bus about eight hours later and taking a two-hour ferry ride to my final destination, any doubts I’d harbored about my detour disappeared. White sand beaches, turquoise water and thatched-roof bungalows dotted the landscape like a scene straight out of “The Beach.” I worked my way through the crowd on the dock to spot a man holding up a sign for Ban’s Resort, the dive school I’d signed up for. Back in Bangkok, I’d flipped through my tattered “Lonely Planet” and decided this school looked as good as any. A four-day course at Ban’s Diving Resort costs around $300, including lodging, gear and manuals. That was a heck of a lot cheaper than anything I’d find back in the States.

Exhausted from my overnight trip, I had a few hours to kill before our first class that afternoon. Luckily, Koh Tao turned out to be the perfect place to chill. I quickly learned there’s nothing much to do besides dive and sip a cocktail at one of the many beach bars on this laid-back island.

During the first class, our group of six watched a video and were informed that we’d have to complete four dives total (including spending a day in the pool before jumping into the ocean) and pass a final written exam. That’s me, below, getting ready for my first dive, more than a little freaked out. My mind flooded with worst-case scenarios: What happens if I sea a shark? Or if my airtank malfunctions? Or if the ship leaves without me and I’m stranded at sea like the couple from that movie “Open Water.” I don’t want to be fish food!

Luckily, my instructor, Si, talked me off the ledge (literally). After I jumped off the boat, he held my hand as I held tight to a rope that lead down to the ocean floor. The pressure in my ears was painful during the descent, but I had learned in class how to equalize. To minimize the pressure, I closed off my nose with my fingers and breathed into air spaces in my sinuses. I concentrated on deflating my lungs, and watched the bubbles from my exhalations travel up to the water’s surface like a glowing lava lamp.

Once the pain dissolved, I stopped looking up and cast my gaze down towards the bottom. I was in a whole other world: I spied fish that were brighter than any neon sign I’d ever seen. I let go of the rope and scissor-kicked my legs in the direction of a rock decorated with spindly urchins and fluorescent plants that folded closed as I hovered about them. I pumped my arms and moved forward, overcome with a sense of weightlessness that was simultaneously like flying and floating. Caught up in the moment, I kicked my legs again and did a sommersault. I followed a fish that was as long as my body. I couldn’t stop smiling. Then Si brought me back to reality by grabbing my arm and motioning for me to stay with the group. Note to self: Now is not the time to let your A.D.D. take control.

I spent four glorious days going to classes, diving in the ocean, studying my manual and running on the beach. After our final exam, we finished our last two dives, where I found nemo (but no sharks, thank God!). I had celebratory beers with my classmates from Sweden and Switzerland. That laughing guy in the back is, Si, a self-proclaimed “lady boy,” as they call themselves in Thailand. He announced that our group’s dive video was better than other groups’ because he was “the leading actor and actress all in one.”

I don’t know about our dive video being the best (who looks like a star in a wetsuit?!), but the final accomplishment on my laundry list of goals can be checked off because I’m officially a certified open water diver! I can now do Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with Jen and Amanda. Sure, I won’t like seeing my credit card bill when I get home, but I can sum up my Koh Tao diving experience in a single word: Priceless.

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