Taking the plunge, literally.
So where had I left you, dear reader? I say reader in the singular as I doubt there can be more than one. I believe I am right in saying that I was in the middle of a monsoonal downpour on the lovely little island of Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. At that point I was staying in the very quiet little village of Mae Hat and wondering a little where the place got it's backpacker reputation as a party island. I found out the next day when I took the 20 minute walk along the beach road to the village of Sairee. Even though it is still off season, the place is one big party until the not so small hours every night. Having done about everything in Mae Hat I decided to move over there.
The plan was to get a taxi jeep in the afternoon but, you've guessed it, the rains came on again, and continued nonstop until the evening. By the time I could get over it was about ten o'clock and for some odd reason in such a night orientated place most of the receptions in that area of accomodation places (hotels, bungalows etc.) close in the early evening. My driver tried manfully to find somewhere for me to check in, and in the end the options were reduced to one, an hotel in the middle of town, not even on the beach. As far as I could tell the place had no name although I can think of a few good ones for it, mostly unprintable. It was a complete disgrace. For a whopping 1200 Baht it was extremely basic. The furniture looked like 1970's Ikea that somebody had taken to with a hatchet, the bedlinen was threadbare and I found two large dead cockroaches in the toilet. I suspect they had committed suicide having to live here. The minibar fridge boasted a long list of inflated price drinks and contained well, precisely nothing. Somewhat dismayed I took off into the night in search of something to do.
After a brief wander I went down to the beach and came upon the Lotus Bar, which is quite some place and seems to be the hottest spot in town. It is actually three connected beach bars but the beach itself is the star of the show. As the tide recedes, the staff come out with shovels and dig little pits into which they put some sort of long-lasting flare thing to provide light. They plant small palms and then put out rows of mats, cushions and small tables where you can lie back, relax and watch the amazing fireshow that takes place after dark.
There are a group of Thai guys, sometimes supplemented by the odd foreigner who practice the art of fire poi and firestick with great skill and not a little bravery. For those of you not familiar with poi, they are two weights (which can be anything really) on the end of string, chains or whatever that you swing about in rhythmic patterns. I suspect it may be one of the disciplines in the rhythmic gymnastic events but I am not sure. It is impressive enough to watch in the daytime, and I know a few guys in the UK that are very good at it. The performers here take it to another level. They have special poi which they dip in petrol and then set light to, and the result is phenomenal. One of the best stunts they have is hurling these blazing objects 20 or 30 metres to each other, never stopping the routine. How the recipient guesses where to grab for the trailing chain, I have no idea. The firesticks basically look like broomsticks with about six inches in the middle that is not ablaze. They perform the most intricate movements which because of the way the eye works, it appears like a complete circle of fire. Think of a berserker version of a drum major leading a flute band on the Twelfth of July in Belfast and you will have some idea.
Retiring to bed, I got up the next morning to search for new digs, and did not have far to look. I managed to secure a lovely little bungalow for the princely sum of 400B per night, which equates to about £8. OK, it was a basic fan room but completely adequate for my needs. An additional bonus was the lovely lady who runs the place. It turns out that she is from the Isaan region in the Northeast of Thailand and from a town I had visited so we had things to talk about. In fact one evening I was there her friend, another Isaan lady and the proprietor of one of the motorbike foodstalls I have previously mentioned, included on her menu Laab Moo which is a particular Isaan favourite of mine. It is very popular there and also in neighbouring Lao and consists, I believe of pork mince and minced pork offal in a quite spicy gravy. I certainly didn't expect to find it this far South. It is like finding a cafe in Devon serving tripe and onions. This lady's version was delicious served with vegetables and herbs and made all the tastier for sitting on the doorstep eating it in the company of these two Thai matrons. There is one leaf in the accompaniments that I must try to identify. Neither lady knew the English name for it and I cannot now recall the Thai name. It is a broad dark green leaf about two inches long and tastes, as best I can describe it, like a cross between mint and fennel, which sounds odd but tastes delicious.
People have been saying for years that I don't know what day of the week it is and as I write this it is a statement of fact. Such is the pace of life here that you lose all track of time. Shall we say about five days ago I was wandering about lunchtime through the village I was hailed by an obviously American accent asking me if I had been to Ecuador, a reference to the Ecuador T-shirt I was wearing at the time. Answering in the affirmative and resisting the urge to make a clever remark, I sat down for a chat. My interlocuter was a man slightly younger than me called Greg Watson, and he turned out to be a fascinating character. Having served in the US Navy and been a fireman in Colorado he now spends half his time as a diving instructor and the other half operating highly sophisticated scientific equipment all over the world. When he finishes the season here, he is going to Alaska to work with a very odd job description, namely measuring the Earth's gravity. His last assignment was at the South Pole! I know this sounds like another travellers tall tale but has showed me the photos on his laptop, and very impressive they were too. To make a long story short, I am now a qualified Open Water scuba diver, which allows me to dive in (you guessed it) open water anywhere in the world to a depth of 18 metres. In hindsight, even taking that on in my 51st year was an act of complete lunacy but I have always been one for impulsive decisions. If you are in the slightest bit interested how it came about, read on, if not may I recommend you check out www.virtualtourist.com where you can find out what real travellers get up to!
If you, dear reader, doubt the truth of my case, I have enclosed a photo of me fresh from a dive today. Certainly, I could have rigged it, but I assure you I dfidn't. This was me fresh off Twins in Koh Tao. I will go diving again tomorrow, it is so much fun.
For my former colleagues I have to say, this retirement lark is a real pig, and I enclose another few photos just to show the hardships I must endure here! The diving, the sunsets, the food, it is such a hard life.
In the next instalment, if you are not bored to bugery by now, I will tell you how I learned to be a diver.