Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Resolve

1. Blog more often

Yeah, that was a Resolution last year too... did I stick to it? No, not really. Certainly not for the last two months. Sorry about that. So why the Radio Silence? Well, basically I’ve been sulking. Mexico is great, I like it here... but things have not really been going to plan. Why can’t everything always be easy?! But I am sticking it out – I am not packing my bags and saying "sod-it I’m outta here" as I would have done at any other time in the last 10 years – nope – I am settling in and making the best of it. Because I am a grown-up and that is, I believe, what grown-ups do (growns-up? groan up? hmmmm).

2. Stop sulking

Because grown-ups don’t do that, do they?

3. Speak Spanish

It’s all about Spanish. With Spanish I can get a better job. With Spanish I can meet more people. With Spanish I can join in the conversations and jollity amongst The Beautiful People at work. With Spanish I might even be able to get my Boiler fixed before the end of the year ("Which one?" you ask, with a wry smile. "Oh bugger off, it’s not funny", I reply sulkily.)

4. Stop being intimidated by The Beautiful People

I work in a posh hotel; I work next door to the Entertainment Team. It’s like working on the set of Baywatch, the Latino Version. I like to think of them as Redcoats, it makes me feel slightly less intimidated. But it doesn’t change the fact they’re all beautiful, vivacious, speak several languages and can dance, sing and flirt for Mexico. Which is good, because that’s exactly what they’re paid to do. They do kayaking and biking in the morning; water aerobics, rifle-shooting and Name That Tune at lunch time; they teach Tennis, Pottery, Pre-Hispanic history and the Merengue in the afternoon (if you’re imagining a Latino Johnny Castle – he’s here) and in the evening they put on a Cabaret. At about 11am they mooch about, complain about the tips and attempt (with increasing exasperation) to speak to me Spanish. They’re very nice, but they scare me a bit.

5. Learn to love chillies

They put chilli on pineapple! They put it on rice pudding! They put it on cucumber, melon and chocolate cake! They even put chilli in their beer! Seriously! In beer!

Ok, the pineapple thing actually works really well – but beer! I went out for Christmas Drinks with my work colleagues last week (to a local bar on the highway: a windowless shack in perpetual gloom, decorated with faded sepia photos of men with extraordinary mustaches. The house band started at 4pm and had a combined age of 130. There were two of them. The waitresses had a combined weight of about 700 lbs. There were three of them. I tangoed with our Mayan Boat Captain, to Mexican ‘Om-pah’ music, played on an electronic keyboard and full sized drum kit. The beers were cheap, the food was delicious and the service was beyond compare. Our Mayan Boat Captain also danced with each of the Waitresses in turn – it was like watching a tugboat manoeuvring an oil tanker. At the end of the evening our Mayan Boat Captain told me he was going to ‘take the stars from the sky and give each one to me’... or something along those lines. He told me in Spanish and I didn’t understand much. One of our Divemasters translated and getting quite emotional, with moistened eyes, he exclaimed,
"If only you could understand what he is saying to you! It’s so beautiful, I think I might be falling in love with him!" Suffice to say, it was an excellent night.) But there was a point to this story! Really there was! When they bought our excellent bar snacks (ceviche, grilled chicken, and some other stuff that I didn’t recognise but ate a lot of) they also bought Salsas. There was a green one. As I dipped my corn chip, more than a few pairs of expectant eyes rested on me and I guessed it was going to be hot. I tasted it. Carefully. Seventeen seconds later my head exploded. But I handled it well, necked my cold beer and lived. Whilst I coughed, spluttered and explored the inside of my mouth with my tongue, wondering why I couldn’t feel anything, I watched one of the Instructors, take a spoon, spoon a generous dollop onto his tortilla and eat the lot in one mouthful without a flicker.

6. Move house

Because sadly, I can’t afford my current place. It seems Meanwhile Time Flies has also been Credit Crunched and, alas, there just aren’t enough tourists to go around. So it’s time to tighten the old belt here in Mexico too. But if I packed my bags, where would I go? I spoke with a tourist earlier today; he was berating the Mexicans and us foreign workers for being "oblivious" to the troubles that the USA is currently undergoing. I informed him that I earnt US$100 for the last 2 weeks work and that I’m making more than many of my colleagues; I reminded him that everyone here works for commission-only, so many days it actually costs us money to come to work; I pointed out that since tourism is the only industry in this area, there are no other jobs. I assured him that nobody here is, in any way, oblivious to America & Europe’s economic woes and then I asked him how he was enjoying his holiday? Bastard didn’t even tip.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"And nothin' really rocks and nothin' really rolls and nothin's ever worth the cost"

On the bus to work this morning, we were screaming down the highway at a fairly tranquil (by local standards) 150kph, when I was alarmed to notice that our bus driver was enjoying a rather delicious looking breakfast of rice, beans and scrambled eggs. He was holding a bowl in one hand and his spoon in the other. He was spooning-in his breakfast whilst controlling the bus with his two pinkie fingers, which were resting lightly on the wheel. What do you do?! It’s one of those situations where you can’t watch! My heart was in my mouth... but at the same time you can’t NOT watch!

A few minutes after I first noticed this we came to a sudden halt to pick up another passenger. We stopped for the necessary 8.5 seconds required to open and close the door, and then we were away, attempting lift-off. As far as I could see, the driver, took the money, handed out a ticket and gave change, without actually putting down his breakfast. He did, I hasten to add, stop eating. Not to do so, would have been rude.

Last week, I was staying with a friend in Cancun. One morning whilst on our way to work, he mentioned that this particular highway is one of the most infamous in Mexico.
“At least one person dies here every week,” he said, whilst driving a casual 50kph over the speed limit. He was about to continue, when he realised he hadn’t yet contacted the office for today’s schedule. He quickly sent his text. Then he added,
“Particularly this part! Very dangerous! Many crashes!”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked wryly.
“Because the road is too straight,” he said, “people just don’t pay attention. Can you pass my tacos?”

This afternoon, on the way home, we were overtaken by a single, smoking tyre.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I am speaking in my head in Spanish

I have taken to talking to myself in Spanish. I hope it helps - although... first sign of madness and all that! Surely talking to yourself in an inadequate second language is a fair way down the trail!

Since my Spanish is not very good - I then (also in my head) back translate to find out exactly how stupid I sound. This definitely doesn't help.

Estoy hablando en mi cabeza en Español. Espero que esto ayude – aunque... el primero signo de locura y todo esto! Seguramente para hablar conmigo en mi inadecuada idioma segunda es una buena empieza!

Desde mi español es no muy bien – entonces (tambien en mi cabeza) atras traduzco para descubrir exactamente como estupido yo sueno. Este definitivamente no ayude.

I am speaking in my head in Spanish. I hope that this helps – although... the first sign of madness and all this! Surely to speak with me in my inadequate language second is one good beginning!

Since my Spanish it is not very well – I then (also in my head) behind translate to discover exactly as idiot I sound. This one definitively does not help.

ps. If you enjoy this blog, please look underneath the 'About Me' section on your right - you will notice a new gizmo called 'My Readers'. Please become a Follower! It will make me feel cool, special and beloved (and no, I'm not even going to attempt that in Spanish!)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If Stalin and Chairman Mao had decided to branch out from Gulags, into the Airport business – they would have built JFK.

During yesterdays long packing, re-packing and general sorting bonanza, I came across a folder containing copies of some emails I sent back from the United States during my last visit. I was quite amazed by just how vitriolic and angry they were. I thought, ‘gosh, it’s only been seven years, but I have really mellowed in that time. I am sure I am far more tolerant and relaxed these days.’ There was one email, I particularly liked, sent to my friend Chris detailing the more fanciful, touchy-feely, embracing-the-inner-child-ness of American culture. The conclusion of this email was my decision to “accept and affirm my bitter disposition”. Oh how I sniggered at that.

However, in the spirit of that email, I now feel the need, as I sit on the plane from New York to Miami, mentally preparing myself for today’s second dose of the Land Of The Free, to accept and embrace my inner (and indeed outer) vitriol and fury, and clearly state for the record: I HATE THE USA! HOW MAY I COUNT THE WAYS?*

We were over an hour late into JFK. Obviously this was not the USA’s fault, I merely state it as fact. However, upon arriving I had to go through Passport Control, to collect my checked bags; go through Customs; transport them to Departures; check them in again and finally go back through Passport Control. What on earth was the point of that? Hmmm? I have been on many connecting flights in the past, have changed planes and airlines at Hong Kong, Dubai and Bangkok, amongst other airports. And on each occasion my bags have been transferred for me; and I have been able to lounge around inside the customs area whilst waiting for my connecting flight. But no, not so here.

Did I mention I spent nearly an hour queuing at Passport Control? There were six desks open for the 200 or so passengers. In addition, there was 20 or so Uniforms striding around in a purposeful manor, patrolling the queue.

My interview bought the usual questions, but also one more question, which left me utterly bewildered: I simply did not know how to answer it. Even now, having given it some thought I still don’t know how to answer it. We started with a mundane query as to why I had no US address (really). I explained I was only passing through. The Official was quite bemused by that.
“So Mexico,” he said “why you going there?”
“Just travelling” I replied.
“You got friends or family there?”
“You mean you’re going ON YOUR OWN?”
“Oh… ok then.”
“So,” he started flicking through my passport “you been to a lot of places… (whistle) a LOT of places… all these places on business?”
“No, just travel”
“None of them on business?”
“Oh… (Pause, and here it came, the question that rendered me speechless,) “Why you been to so many places?”

You know, it has never occurred to me that I needed a reason.

But before I get too superior, he then moved on to official business:
“Please place the index finger of your left hand on the pressure pad there.” I was uncertain,
“Is this my index finger?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am, but that is also your right hand”
“Oh yes.”

I went to collect my bags: one big backpack, one even bigger dive bag. I went to get a trolley, there were all locked up! They cost $3 (in coins) to rent! I was beyond livid. I asked a random Uniform why, when I was coming from the UK, to Mexico, could I possibly be expected to have loose change in US currency. She agreed it was unfortunate, but there was nothing to be done. I felt like I was the first connecting passenger to have this problem, for there was no way to get a trolley, and I had to drag my bags behind me (Ok, I could have worn the backpack, but I was making a point!) past the rows of locked trolleys, through the massive Arrivals hall, through Customs and then around and into Departures. Along the way, something strange occurred: It was partly my mood, but also my physical gait – hunched over, dragging heavy weight behind me – somehow… I turned into Gollum:

“They tricksss us, gollum, they tricks us! They has trolleys, but not for the likes of ussssss, gollum. Only Yankeessssss gets trolleys… nasty, fat Yankeesssss. No trolleys for Limeysssss, poor Limeyssss…. gollum”

“Where’s your trolley?” asked an overweight and completely unprepared Official at the customs desk. I hit him with 30 seconds of pure abject rage on the subject of trolleys. It is a reflection of just how scary I was at this point, that he literally took a step backwards and waved me through without saying one word in response.

I arrived at the Luggage Check-in, spitting and snarling like cornered wildcat.
“Couldn’t you get a trolley?” asked the completely unprepared and quite defenceless girl on the desk. I think it’s safe to say she has never regretted asking a question so much. I handed over my bags and she directed me to the other check-in desk, to get my boarding pass. She did not ask to see any documentation or ID. Straightening up and turning on a sixpence, I instantly became Fawlty.

“Don’t you want to see my ticket? No, of course not, silly me. You'll want to see my passport then? No? No ID necessary! I see, I see. Do you even want to know my name? No, of course you don’t. Are you even going to label my bags? There already labelled are they? Oh super. All the way to Cancun?** Oh they are? Oh good… that’s great… then why the blazes couldn’t one of your baggage handlers bought them around here ON A TROLLEY?”

I stalked towards the second Check-in desk, practically begging someone to ask me why I was so late. I have to give credit where it’s due, the staff on the second Check-in were soothing, calm and polite and dealt with me very well. They also checked me in very, very quickly.

“Lovely! Thank-you so much” I said to the nice man. This is something I have noticed about Americans – they have a terrible weakness for the word “lovely” – it’s gets them every time. English people! If you are ever in a sticky situation in the USA just try to find a way of working the word “lovely” into the conversation. Even the most hardened, Sipowitz-wannabe will go a bit gooey round the edges.
“Have a safe trip,” said the nice man.
“I’m sure it will be lovely” I replied, quite deliberately, to see if I could get a smile. It worked, he practically melted. He was handsome after all, and it’s always worth a bit of effort to make a handsome man smile.

I was feeling quite upbeat until I rounded the corner into a scene from Mao’s Long March: endless queues of weary, battle-worn proles, trudging around a room. Amongst them, striding up and down the isles, with loud voices, polished buttons and big sticks were several fat Security Officers.
“People people, you need your boarding pass AND passport in your hand as you APPROACH the desk… all liquids must be drunk, thrown away or you must LEAVE THE BUILDING… no shoes, belts, jewellery of ANY kind…. Remove any an all of the following items from you bags…. AND KEEP IT MOVING PEOPLE”

I had reached the infamous Homelands Security Checkpoint. When my turn eventually came, I nervously confessed to still wearing a silver bangle, explaining that I never take it off because it is too tight.
“You’ll remove that item if you want to board the plane ma’am” replied the Officer. I forced it over my knuckles and handed it too him. He glared at it, with his full and undivided attention, for a full nanosecond before returning it too me and waving me on.

I turned and received a face full of abuse for not placing my laptop IN A SEPARATE TRAY.
“AND is THIS your HAND LUGGAGE?” asked the fat, indignant hobbit.
“WHAT in HELL have you got IN HERE?”
“It’s a regulator”
“It’s A WHAT?”
“A Regulator…. It’s diving equipment.”
“In my other bag, I already checked it in”
“No, I didn’t check that in”
“OH… WELLLLLLL…. Ok then.”

“What next?” I snarled at no one in particular.

What next is Miami. I have been told that I will have to go through Customs again. Ha! I only have an hour between flights this time! But apparently my bags will be transferred automatically. What next is Mexico, and it can’t come a minute too soon. Vive la Revolution!

*By this I do, of course, mean the State, the machine - not the people, who are often lovely!
**I arrived last night, my bags finally arrived this afternoon.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tea Rage

There are very few things in this life that can render me incandescent with rage. My ex-boyfriend had his moments; as does the Daily Mail. Pompous newsreaders can make me shout at the TV; as does that stupid advert which promises to make your clothes smell of "white diamonds" – but I can still retain a sense of humour and perspective about all of these. However, there are some very small creatures that can bring me from total calm to abject fury, in under 30 seconds, every time.


Wasps are just... just... (Sorry, bear with me a moment - I have to take a few deep breaths and try to swallow the savagery that is already bubbling up inside me.) Right... I mean, what is the POINT of wasps?

My Dad and I felt we needed a bit of ‘cultcha’ the other day. So we decided to visit a nearby National Trust property. But you know how these places are: apart from the woods, the lake, the deer, the swans, the gardens, the Manor and the 15th Century Brewery (still functioning!) there really wasn’t much see – so after a while we thought we’d go for a Cream Tea. The Old Orangery was your typical National Trust Tea Shop: staffed by several old ladies called Edith and Hilda, all wearing Kevlar knitwear and serving cakes and pastries that would put your average 5-Star Chef to shame.

The Cream Tea (my first, and last, this summer I promise) was superb: delicious scones* with succulent sultanas, lovely strawberry jam and REAL clotted cream. Throw in a nice pot of Earl Grey and what more could you want? My Dad and I walked away, with our over laden trays, feeling very content. We rolled our eyes dismissively at the folks hunched over too-small tables, squashed inside the steamy shop – we are made of hardier stuff! We remembered to bring our anoraks and after all, it is bloody summer – we were going to sit OUTSIDE!

The first wasp appeared within moments, but he was alone for a while. We idly swatted him away and made jokes about ‘those people’ who make a fuss about wasps. Within two minutes there was a dozen of them. Remember the scene in "1984" when the rats are trying to get at Richard Burtons face? It was a bit like that, only without the handy cage. In desperation Dad ate half a scone in one mouthful. I was forced to eat mine standing-up, whilst circling the table and battling the wasp battalion with a windmill-type arm motion. Dad came up with the brilliant plan of abandoning our tea and sitting on the table next to it. I pointed out that we couldn’t really enjoy our tea from the neighbouring table. Dad retorted that we weren’t really enjoying our tea now and furthermore, I was frightening the small children who had gathered to watch.

We decided to go inside the warm, cosy and wasp-free Tea Shop. It was full. However we seemed to have lost most of them when we beat our retreat... all but one, who had got his legs stuck in my strawberry jam. Bastard. We finished sulkily and left. Wasps eh? As the late, great E. L. Wisty said: "Wasps were a mistake."

*How do you say it? Are you a Scon or a Scoane person? Isn’t it funny that everyone always thinks the other pronunciation is posher than their own! Or is it just a North-South thing?

Monday, August 11, 2008

On Western Culture & Crayfish

So I’ve been back in the UK for nearly two months now – potential blog topics have come and gone – the problem being that things that seem so novelty, so intriguing at first glance become mundane after a very short time. The most amazing thing when I first returned was supermarkets. I remember sitting in a bar in the Philippines not so long ago, chatting with a Filipino friend about them – I told him that in British supermarkets there is sometimes 10 or 15 aisles stretching from here all the way to the beach (he looked unconvinced) I told him that one of those aisles would contain every kind of fruit and vegetable you could imagine and another aisle would be completely filled with breakfast cereal! He laughed; "No" he said, "it is not possible!"

My first trip to Sainsburys was amazing, I was like a small child let loose in a sweet shop, or a person who lives in the developing world let loose in a supermarket. But now... well, in the end I was raised here and although I still make an effort to appreciate just how lucky I am, it all seems very normal. My trips to Sainsburys are no longer accompanied by breathless excitement, which I expect my Dad is quite pleased about.

Bird song, also, swept me off my feet. My little island paradise was too small for birds. The first morning I was awake at some ridiculous time, open mouthed wondering what on earth was making that strange noise. It took more than a few awakening moments to realise it was the dawn chorus. For nearly a week the dawn chorus would wake me up, but now my brain has remembered it and filters it out and I awake feeling slovenly at about 9am instead. Whilst in France recently I was cycling through a small farm one morning and was startled by the sound of a cockerel. It was like a flashback: in the Philippines Cock Fighting is a national sport – there were at least 200 cockerels living within 50 metres of my home. For months, when I first arrived in the Philippines, they would keep me awake night and day until I got used it. Hearing that cockerel in France took me right back to early furious morning dreams in Malapascua, when I would awake desperate to get my hands on a machine gun to enact some poultry carnage.

But there is one area where the novelty hasn’t worn off and that is trees. Trees are fantastic. On Boracay there is scrub or Palm Trees. Now don’t get me wrong – the palm tree is a glorious thing – tall and elegant, moving as one with the elements. But in the UK are trees are so much richer: from the window right now I can see an immense Weeping Willow, maybe 10 metres high, it towers above the surrounding houses like a benevolent deity. I never understood the human propensity to worship an insubstantial spirit that can’t be seen or imagined, but Animism I understand very well. In our local market town, standing on either side and dwarfing a capacious Church are two magnificent Beech Trees. They must be 20 metres high, verdant and buxom. They delight me every time I pass by.

It has made me think that I perhaps should add another requirement to my ever-lengthening list of stipulations for the place where I eventually settle: it should be somewhere that gives good tree.

I have just returned from a camping trip in France (excellent trees) and two things struck me about La France. Firstly, that it is just so goddamn French. You see none of the generic 'western' architecture and shop fronts that you see in so many places. Perhaps the cities are different, but in the countryside where I was, there is no mistaking, not for one minute, which country you are in. That impressed me – in a world of increasing global homogenisation, le Français are hanging on with considerable perseverance to their national identity. Vive La France!

However the other thing I noticed is that the indubitable inhabitants are strangely invisible! Where are all the French people? We stayed just outside a picturesque little town with a fully stocked main street and square, but each time I cycled around it I expected to see tumbleweed drifting down the street – where is everyone? At night there is a populace but where to they all go during daylight? And I include weekends in this.

There have been other delights this summer: French cheese was every bit as delicious as I remembered – and all my clothes have now shrunk as a result. And I was excited to find a wild crayfish in a river in France. Wild? It was furious. (Was I so delighted by the crayfish because it's a marine animal? The first one I've seen in a while and oh yes, I am missing my oceanic friends.) Hot showers remain the crowning triumph of the First World (and the corporate-driven Media remain our greatest disgrace). I must admit wearing jeans again is kind of nice and even long sleeves have some novelty value. The long evenings would be great if we could be outside enjoying them - but that's British summers for you.

Now, as the summer draws to an end, I suppose I must start thinking about all the things I want to do before I leave and, of course, where to go next. It seems the job I was hoping for, for next season, will not be available... and so the doors are open once again. Where next? Back to the Philippines or is it, perhaps, time for something completely different? After all, the world is my crayfish!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Long Haul (2)

I was about half way through my journey, sitting on the toilet (don’t worry, that’s all the detail you’re gonna get), when it occurred to me that this was probably one of the worst journeys I have made.

Leaving the Philippines was the tough part: I had assumed my ride to the Port would be late and factored that in; I was prepared for some consternation at Caticlan Airport regarding the amount of luggage I was carrying and had bought extra pesos and a bright smile in preparation. I travelled on an early flight to ensure I would have plenty of time to sort out potential problems at Manila... unfortunately I lost my head start due to the airport shuttle being so late. Incidentally, the airport shuttle was run by two, very cheerful, Black Sabbath fans. So my journey to Terminal 1 was accompanied by Paranoid at full volume, complete with singing along and air guitar (yes, from the driver), which was quite surreal.

The problems started at Manila check-in. They couldn’t check me in because I had too much luggage, no it wasn’t about money, and they might not be able to allow me on the flight. They had to check with the BA representative... who wasn’t here. This was not good.
"Come back later," they said. I hovered next to check-in looking anxious. Finally the BA Rep arrived; he said he would look in the Operations Manual. I suggested it would be quicker to ring Head Office in Hong Kong. He was quite rebuffed; he said he would find it in the Manual. The Manual looked suspiciously like a coffee table. I pointed out that it was already nearly 5pm and my flight left at 5.55. He looked hurt. 20 minutes passed.

"Is diving gear a sporting equipment?" he asked.
"It could be..." I replied warily,
"Because you can get extra 23kg allowance for a sporting equipment"
"Of course it’s sporting equipment!" I said "Great! So can I check in?"

Then, he wanted to call Head Office to confirm. I finally checked in at 5.10 and hurried through to join the queue at Customs. It was a long queue and when I got to the front I was missing one form. Curses. I was sent to join another queue. My paperwork was quickly sorted, but the Official wanted to reprimand me for forgetting the correct paperwork. I grovelled, she lectured... at 5.35 the man behind me in the queue leaned over,

"Excuse me," he said to the Customs Official "but they are calling her name, she has to go!"
"I do really have to go!" I said apologetically, "Do I have to queue again?"
"Yes" said the official, finally giving me passport and steely glare.
"No," said my new friend, he pointed to a small gap at the side of the barrier, "run through there" he said, "they won’t notice."

So I ran through a small gap in the barrier and no one stopped me. International terrorists take note. I reached the Gate at 5.45pm and the Airline staff also reprimanded me. I responded with a steely glare and requested a large Gin & Tonic, which helped.

When I arrived at the Transfer desk in Hong Kong and showed them my ticket, they laughed.
“Oh that flight isn’t going,” she said happily. But they put me up in a hotel (I’ve never stayed in a proper hotel before, it was quite exciting) so it wasn’t too bad. Needless to say, the housekeeping staff were falling over themselves to lock my mini bar - it seems they had me sussed. My stomach problems started that night, oh joy.

The last 12 hours to London actually weren’t as bad as they could have been! I had three seats to myself. That's practically Business Class!

Upon arrival in Blighty, I managed to stay awake until nightfall and woke up the following morning, confused and jet-lagged, to the strangest sound. What is that? I wondered as I slowly regained consciousness. It was loud and unusual, but strangely familiar... it was birdsong. The island, where I’ve been living, has no birds! It’s not something I’ve thought about in ages, and birdsong is something I’ve forgotten to miss. But here it is and it’s lovely.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sad but true

I need to write a new blog... but everything is on hold at the moment. On Monday I will fly back to the UK for the Summer. My next blog will be about the wonder of supermarkets.

Cartoon from: Gaping Void

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #3

Day 4 | Dive 2 | Location: Washing Machine

Turtles are very photogenic. Whenever anyone saw a turtle, the photographers would descend in a swarm, taking picture after picture. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having the pictures afterwards, but at the time sometimes I would like to have a few moments just to enjoy the moment.

Which is why when I found this little turtle, nestled against the reef, I decided to not to tell anyone. Instead I approached very carefully and lay down on the sand next to him. The turtle and I looked at one another. The turtle didn’t look at all impressed – he watched me for a few moments then carried on staring aimlessly at the reef ahead of him. He appeared to be very relaxed and I found that chilling-out next to a turtle is very relaxing. I am usually dubious about 'humanising' marine animals – but the turtle characterisation in ‘Finding Nemo’ was just too perfect! I’m sure all divers loved that. One feels that a turtle is someone who could use the word ‘dude’ and get away with it!

I’m not sure how long I was there before the first photographer arrived... but thank-you, I was a little resentful but now I have the memory to keep so it’s all good (although I must confess, this wasn’t the only turtle sighting that I kept to myself!)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #2

Day 3 | Dive 1 | Location: Delsan Wreck

I was at -42m, once again the rest of the group were between 7-15 metres above me. Once again, I was in the blue – too far out to see the wall this time. I was checking my direction by watching the other divers above me, to my right. I was looking, once again, for Hammerheads and, once again, I was without success. But there were sharks around, many sharks actually: some beautiful White-tip Reef sharks, some Black-tips also, at least one Bamboo shark and quite a few Grey Reef, even a couple of fairly big ones. I was having a lovely morning!

Most of the sharks were below me, and so that was where I was looking… until I saw something move out of the corner of my eye… I look to up and to my right and there he was – a big shark, directly ahead. It was hard to tell exactly how big – because he was facing me, swimming towards me. I could clearly see the wide mouth and the teeth, which told me he was pretty big. I could see his tail swishing from side to side behind him and suddenly this triggers a memory of something I read recently about Grey Reef sharks: “when disturbed they show typically antagonistic behaviour, such as swimming with exaggerated movements.”

“Big teeth” I mused to myself. Then suddenly it hit me! There was a large shark swimming straight at me! I’m 42m underwater, being approached, at speed, by a large animal with big teeth! Oh!

But I was calm, I stayed motionless, I watched. He swam straight towards me until, at the last possible moment, he made a graceful swerve to the left. As he passed I could see he was, indeed, quite big – nearly 3m. He gave me a dismissive look: If the shark had a voice, it would have sounded like Robert de Niro and it would have said,
“Are you looking at me?”
Either that, or it would have sounded like Stephen Fry and said:
“How disappointing! You looked fatter from a distance.”

Too late, I realised I should have pointed it out to the other divers. It had taken another left swerve and was almost underneath them, I looked up to see my dive buddy already pointing.

Afterwards the Divemaster told me it was an Oceanic White-tip. This is what the Ocean Guide has to say about them:

Up to 350cm. Pelagic species, only sometimes venturing close to coral reef areas. One of the largest species of the family, it is easily distinguished by it's large rounded dorsal and pectoral fins with broad white tips. This elegant and fast swimmer lacks the hectic movements typical of many requiem sharks. Often accompanied by pilot fish or other sharks. Said to be one of the four sharks most dangerous to humans, but there are no confirmed reports of attacks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #1

First, a little marine geography lesson for you: shores lines do not look like this (see fig 1), they look like this (see fig 2). We call these steps ‘Drop Off’s (although we should, since my father will no doubt correct me, call them Drops Off.) When we dive them, we call them walls. We should probably call them cliffs, because that’s what they resemble, but we don’t.

Most Drops Off are fairly tame: in Boracay our first is at -9m, down to about -18m. Following this is a sandy slope (dull) down to about -33m, which then drops to about -60m. This is a good wall – but it’s a quick dive because there are no shallows. It’s straight down and up again, 17 minutes later.

At Tubbataha the Drops Off are majestic. My favourite dive was Black Rock, where the wall starts at -4m and drops down to -70m. For the landlubbers out there, let me give you a sense of perspective – 66m is about a 22 storey building.

Imagine a cliff face 22 storeys high, a vast hanging garden of soft corals, giant gorgonian fans, huge barrel sponges jutting out; schools of bat fish tumbling down it’s sides, bright blue fusilier fish marching across it’s window ledges. Sharks sweeping back and forth, and me – suspended, weightless, mid-water, just trying to take it all in.

Day 2 | Dive 1 | Location: Black Rock

“I might go deep if the conditions are good,” I said to my dive buddy just before we back rolled. He gave me a wink and an ‘ok’.
“You stay below us?”
“Of course!”
“Ok, enjoy. Bang if you see a hammerhead! I will come down for that!”

We dropped straight in on the crest of the wall. The conditions were perfect – maybe 30m visibility. The early morning sunlight was glinting in the shallows, making excellent silhouettes of the triggerfish as we started our descent. I left my dive buddy feverishly taking photos at about -15m. The DM and the less experienced divers all stopped at about -20m. It was a glorious wall, sheer with shelf like layers; on one sandy shelf I saw my first white-tip of the day, snoozing quietly. I moved out, away from the wall, about 6m into the most perfect shade of blue and surveyed the scene. I was at about -30m, looking up at the wall above me, 8 ‘floors’ high and dropping below me for another 14 ‘floors’. I left the crazy Russians* behind at -35m and then it was just me.

At -40m I saw the bottom clearly, still a fair way down. I could see many sharks down there, lazily meandering to and fro. I looked up: the first group looked a long way above me, even the Russians seemed a fair distance. I kept dropping. At -56m my computer bleeped to tell me that was far enough! I have my alarm set to an Oxygen Partial Pressure of 1.4 (or 140%). You can have too much of a good thing: beyond 140% it is possible to ‘overdose’ on oxygen. The cut off point is actually 1.6, but I am a safe diver (honest Dad!), at 1.4 there is a risk, so that’s as far as I go.

I did look longingly at the bottom for a moment though and then up, by now the nearest diver was my buddy 20m above me. I took one last look down and there, with perfect timing was a huge eagle ray. They are a rich wine-red in colour, but at this depth he looked purpley-maroon. I could still clearly make out the white spots across his wings though. He was big, maybe 2m wingspan, with a long tail stretching more than 2m behind him. His ‘flight’ was effortless and looked slow, until he overtook me several seconds later! I tried to keep up and managed to for maybe 30 seconds! By which time my computer started to complain about Deco. One last look around me, up the beautiful wall and at the soft sunlight so far above… and then I started my slow ascent and rejoined the group.
Thanks to Sandy for the excellent photos!

*Obligatory in all diving stories!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Two sleeps until...

I go on holiday! Hurray! Once again I hear you ask:
"And what does a dive instructor who lives on a remote island do for her holidays?"
Once again I reply, "I’m going to an even more remote spot (note the absence of the word 'island') to do some diving!" Hurrah and hurray!

I am going to Tubbataha Reef for five whole days. Tubbataha: National Marine Park since 1988, UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and unanimously agreed to be, not just the best diving in the Philippines, but some of the best in South East Asia. Hurrah, huzzah and hurray!

As you can see from the map (thanks Google) Tubbataha is an awful long way from anywhere else. Not just in distance… take another look at the map, note how many cities are marked, how many cities that are big enough to make the map. Not many. Palawan (the big island to the west) is remote. Tubbataha is the edge of the world.

And what do I hope to see? Well I am keeping everything crossed for hammerhead sharks. I have seen one, once before, and have never forgotten it... but that's another story!

Some manta rays would also be fine. I expect to see lots and lots and lots of fish: the area has never been over-fished, because no one has ever lived there, and since 1988 there’s been no fishing at all. This is going to be the nearest thing to pristine that I have ever seen. Because there are no islands (just a few sandbanks at low tide) Tubbataha is home to many pelagic (big ocean-going) animals and as you can see from the map, there is a dramatic drop off very close by – the deeper the water, the bigger the fish. There are sometimes whale sharks and even (can I dare to hope?) whales seen at Tubbataha.

I plan to do four dives a day. I am told some will do five – but I am not sure if I can take that pace! I was anticipating doing at least one night dive... but when talking to a friend recently he cheerfully told me of his own experience:

"Of course the fish are drawn to your light and the sharks follow the fish," he said. "So don’t be surprised to turn your light and find yourself surrounded by very big sharks!" He grinned, "and they look so much bigger up-close and in the dark!"

Hmmmmm. Back on the 12th – watch this space!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

There, but for the NHS, go I

I was born with a bone condition in my feet. Not that you’d know that – obviously I have some scarring from assorted operations, but aside from that there’s very little visible evidence. Perhaps I don’t walk as straight as some, but I am completely mobile and active. The bone condition I suffered from is serious and unusual. I have only encountered three other people in my life with the same condition.

The first one I barely remember, but my parents remember it very well. I was a small child, maybe three or four. At this stage I think I was still a bit wobbly and my feet were still a bit twisted, but the early operations had been successful and all was progressing well. The surgery I had was innovative: the night I was born there was an Orthopaedic Conference in progress at a nearby town. The Doctor on call realised what I had and contacted the hotel, he reached one of the country’s leading Orthopaedic surgeons and asked if he would be interested in my case. He was, and as a result the surgical treatment I received was second-to-none and somewhat experimental.

But I digress; one morning in the park my parents and I encountered another family, with a daughter just a few years older than me, with the same condition. She was in a wheel chair and had those big, ugly black boots that make me think of Oliver Twist. I remember being quite scared at the sight of her and running away to play. My Dad remembers standing there in tears as both sets of parents realised that I was walking and she would not.

In 2002 I was living in Honduras. I used to swim every morning before work and most mornings I would be accompanied by a little girl of about 11 years old. She was a great swimmer with a bright smile and after swimming I would often play water frisbee with her and her sister. I had known this child for more than a month before I saw her out of the water and saw her feet. They were twisted in and backwards; she walked, awkwardly and painfully, on the tops of her feet. She had the same condition as me.

Did she know somehow? Did she seek me out for some reason? It certainly felt like that. One Sunday I saw her picnicking with her family. It was her father who stood up to shake my hand, then looked at my feet, pointed at my scars, pointed at his daughter and said, nervously, "same same?" I nodded and the tears welled up in his eyes. In Spanish he asked, "free hospital?" I said yes. "Where from?" he asked. "Soy Inglesa" I replied. He nodded, there wasn’t much else to say.

I still live in the developing world and get frustrated when people describe it as some tropical paradise where life is ever-easy. Free medical care is a truly breath-taking concept for those that don’t have it. The fact that economic development has enabled certain states to be so rich they can provide it is frankly astonishing to most people here. They cannot imagine such a Utopia.

This morning on my way to work I passed a beggar. I think I may have walked past her before, but I am not sure. Today, just as I was passing she stood up and it was only then that I noticed her feet: twisted inwards and backwards. She had some doctored baseball gloves tied on to protect the tops of her feet as she walked. She was an old lady, tiny in a way that only a lifetime of malnutrition can cause. An obvious lack of even the most basic medical attention (splints) had left her knees and hips crooked as well. Her legs looked contorted and ill-made. She could walk, but the pain was obviously constant and severe. She had that absent look that so many long-term beggars and sufferers have. I gave her money and she thanked me, but she looked right through me. Should I have said something? In the end, what is there to say?

Monday, March 24, 2008

The War on Worms

Thank you all for the comments, emails and general concern about my worm. To answer your various questions:

  • I did take a picture - but keep forgetting to upload it. I will do so soon.

  • Yes, I have been to the doctor - I will start the medication tonight. First I have to sedate the worm and then tomorrow, I will poison it. I need to sedate it first so it doesn't get too erratic when it's poisoned. Apparently it can take up to a week to die.

  • It hasn't moved much in the last day or so.

  • The doctor thinks I probably got it from walking through dirty water.

  • No, I haven't given him a name. However, after discussion last night a number of my friends have decided to call it William.

LATER! Here he is!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

You probably don't want to know this, but

I have of late, wherefore I know not how, acquired a new friend – a close companion, one might say. It all started about two months ago when I developed a rash. I realise in these modern times that the rash usually follows the close companion, rather than precedes it – but in this case, I assure you, the rash came first.

It was not an alarming rash, just a small itchy patch on my foot. I’m afraid rashes (and skin fungi) are part of life when you work in the ocean (and you thought I had such a glamorous life), so I didn’t think too much of it. In fact, I still had some cream left over from the last rash, so I started applying – end of story.

Except, the rash didn’t go away. It occurred to me that perhaps I had not been dutiful enough about applying my cream; I also considered that I had been busy at work, and so in the water an awful lot. To be honest though, I only ever thought about it for a minute or so, and only every now and then.

But the rash was doing something! It was slowly spreading up my foot, towards my ankle. I say spreading... but actually it wasn’t getting any bigger, it was just moving. I mentioned this to a friend a few weeks ago; he made a scathing comment about not even being able to put cream on properly.

Last week I decided to stop bothering with the cream. It simply wasn’t working. I would experiment and see how ‘doing nothing’ worked out. The rash started getting a little smaller. "Aha!" I said! "Doing nothing works! I should do this more often!" Upon reflection, I thought that if I dedicated any more time towards ‘doing nothing’ I would be in danger of slipping into a coma, and so decided against it.

The rash, however, wasn’t going. It was getting smaller, but harder and more raised. It was condensing into a lump. Last night whilst watching TV I got fed up of it. I sterilised a needle and pierced the lump. Twice. Nothing came out. It was very unsatisfactory.

However, this morning whilst indulging in an early morning, absent-minded scratch, I noticed the lump had got smaller! "Aha!" I said in delight! (I am easily pleased) "The needle did work!"

Then I looked more carefully. It was true, the lump had got smaller, but it was also spreading again... well kind of... it was just longer... more stretched out...

Stretched out... oh! Then it dawned on me. A nasty slow realisation, like having a glass of very cold water, slowing dripped down the back of your neck. "It’s not a rash," I thought, "It’s a creature!"

It’s a worm. Poor bloody thing: that cream must have been driving it mad! It climbed all the way up to my ankle to get away from it. When I stopped putting the cream on, my little wormy friend probably curled up for a snooze. Only to be rudely awakened with a hot needle. Twice. Not surprising he’s decided to move on again. He’s on top of my foot now. Resting. And now that I realise what it is – I can quite clearly see his wormish shape just underneath the skin. I don’t know why I didn’t see him before. (By the way, I am aware that I am referring the worm as ‘he’. I am not sure why that is; I didn’t plan to do so – that’s just the way I wrote it. But I am sure it says something very depressing and negative about my psyche – and is probably connected in some significant way to the reason that I am nearly always single.)

I asked a Filipino friend this morning:
"Ronny," I said, "Are there worms that can get inside your skin around here?"
Ronny jumped and instinctively looked back over his shoulder in alarm. "Are there what?!" he said, with absolute horror.
"Look at this!" I showed him my foot. He laughed.
"Oh!" he said cheerfully "there is a worm inside your skin! My friend have one before."
"I thought so!" I said.
"You should put some cream on that" he said.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Computers are stupid

It’s 2.00am and I have spent the last five hours trying to teach myself web design. I suppose it was expecting a bit much to be making any reasonable progress or showing any competency after only five hours... but I’m afraid that’s exactly what I was expecting. No patience that’s my problem, that and lack of focus, resolution and basic organisational skills.

I spoke with my father on Skype tonight – ah, the miracles of modern communication – half way through our chat I turned the computer around to show him the sunset behind me! Technology moves so fast: I remember when I got back to the UK in 2003; I thought the whole country had gone mad. It was three weeks before someone explained hands-free phones to me – I thought everyone was talking to themselves. For three weeks I worried about it, although obviously I didn’t say anything – I didn’t like to ask. I suspect people must feel the same way about Skype now.

When I called my Dad, I realised too late that I was still sat at the bar:
“Sorry!” I said to no one in particular, “It’s too loud here, I’m just going to move tables! How are you anyway? What have you been up to? Can I get another beer please” the Barman looked nervous, unsure whether to get me a drink or fill me in on his day “Nearly there! Oh bugger and I’m on mute…” a man at a neighbouring table was staring, open mouthed “Right! Hello! I’m here!”
“Why are you drinking beer at 10am!” says my Dad “you’d complain if I did that!”
“Because it’s 6pm” I reply tersely “and I’ve just finished work.”
“Oh yes” The flickering image of my father looks vaguely surprised by this. We schedule our bi-weekly conversation either ‘at the normal time’ or ‘two hours later than normal’ – it seems that even after six months of web chats neither of us has managed to fully come to terms with the time difference.
“It’s dark there!” says my Dad, “and you’re outside!”
“Yes,” I say “It’s freezing, I’m wearing long-sleeves!” Remembering he can see me I foolishly point at my sleeve. “Look!”
“Freezing! Ha!” he says and like true Brits we spend the first five minutes of the conversation cheerfully complaining about our respective weather.
“When are you going to write another blog? The last few have been too short”
“Last time you said they were too long”
“Well sometimes they are” says my Dad constructively. “You didn’t write about me coming to visit you!”
“I couldn’t think of anything to say”
“Oh right, thanks very much!”
“Well what could I say? Dad came to visit and we had a really good time – it’s not much of a story, is it?”
“I could’ve written a really good blog about it!”
“Hmmm. Thanks for the email” I say “It was a long one! It must have taken you ages to type that with one finger!” My father offers a few choice words of retaliation, before telling me that actually, he had to give the same news to a couple of people:
“I used the copy and paste!” he says.
“Good! It works then?”
“Well, some of the time...”
“Dad! If it doesn’t work, it means you pressed the wrong key or something...”
“I didn’t!”
“You must have! Computers can only do what you tell them to do. Computers are stupid.”
“They’re not,” retorts my Dad, “they’re cunning little bastards.”

Sadly, I’m beginning to think he might be right. I’ve spent the entire evening trying to teach myself web design and the last three hours trying to work out why the table at the top, which is 760px wide, is bigger than the table underneath, which is 760px wide. Holmes said that once you have ruled out the impossible, whatever’s left, however improbable, must be true. Apparently my spiteful little laptop is playing tricks on me.

So perhaps it will take me more than one evening to teach myself web design.

I remember a wet weekend back in the 1970s:
“What are you going to do today Janey?” asked my Dad.
“I’m going out on my bike,” I said, “unless it rains again. If it rains I’m going to write a play.”

It rained and I wrote two pages. I have them in a box somewhere, I still vaguely intend to finish it. ‘Write a play’: it’s on The List. But first, if it rains again tomorrow, I’m going to teach myself web design.

Monday, February 18, 2008


"Oh hi! We're err, like looking for a snorkeling mask!"
"No problem, we have a few different styles..." I talk through the various masks we stock.
"Oh great! So err how much is that one?"
"That's 3,500"
"Ok, and err how much is that one?"
"That one is 2,000"
"So, like, which one is the cheapest?"

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Truth

Last year I wrote a blog, which extolled the virtues of honest Filipino advertising. I now have a new favourite advert! On TV last night, I saw an ad for a fast-food chain, which finished with the fabulous slogan –

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Forcing an Issue

I’ve had some rotten customers this week. These people are typical of their nation – I know it is often perceived as racist to make observations based on peoples’ cultural identity these days... but these guys are typical... no! I better not.

There are six of them, I think I can say (without giving too much away) that the three men are all in their fifties and strut up and down the beach in tight Speedos, worn low at the front to accommodate their generous beer bellies and pulled up to the waist at the back to compensate. Their wives are all gorgeous, in their twenties and promenade in front of the sun-beds wearing g-strings and dripping with jewellery.

They all have brand new, top-quality diving equipment, which they transport in battered old suitcases – because (so they tell me) if they used proper dive bags, the baggage handlers at Moscow airport would steal the lot... ach! Darn it, now I’ve told you! Yes indeed, they are Russians. Very, very, very wealthy Russians and I have to say, they’re charming. Charming, polite and gracious, although their complements can be unusual. In the mornings, before they dive, my colleague and I set out all their dive gear with a bag in front, ready for them to pack.
“Thank-you Zhane,” says Dimitri “everything is in order,” nodding his well-groomed, solemn face and scratching his all-too-Slavic little pointy beard. Natasha smiles approvingly,
“yes,” she says “this is very neat.”

Above water they charming, ordered and courteous. They are always late, but I have discovered that rich people are all always late. On the whole, on the surface, they’re great. Underwater, they turn into demons.

The reef is a fragile environment: soft corals are in fact very soft; hard corals are really not that hard; many marine animals are coated in a transparent slime which protects them from infection. Touching is bad; touching the reef will damage it, leave it vulnerable and in some cases kill it. These guys touch everything! They touch and grab and poke and shake and pick up and steal! They even steal from the ocean! I want to kill them. They are all experienced divers and their buoyancy is good – but still they are kicking the reef below and behind them every time they stop to look at anything. They have no concern for the reef, but perhaps more strangely, they also have no concern for each other. Solo diving is not safe, we always dive in buddy-teams for safety and I always ask people to stay within sight of me (not least because I am leading the way!). These six swim off on their own, speed ahead or lag behind without considering the rest of the group or even their own buddy.

I have tried to talk to them about all of this; they smile and politely agree that they will not do any of these things. When they get into the water, once again, it’s a nightmare. When I spoke to them (again) about not damaging the reef, I was told not to worry because Valery is a Biologist and knows what he can touch safely. On the next dive I watched Valery swim into an overhang without first considering how he was going to get out. Stupid. On the way out he got stuck. There was a rather beautiful anemone beneath him and the overhang above was coated with hard coral. He should have carefully reversed and tried to slowly manoeuvre back the way he came – that was what I was frantically signalling him to do. Instead he gave me a cheerful wave and forced his way out, crushing the anemone and scraping his tank valve through the hard corals. I suspect that I will find both are dead next time I visit. Some biologist.

I just don’t understand it! That same dive they all came up saying how impressed they were with the exceptional corals – I wanted to scream,
“Do you have any comprehension of the damage you have done?”

Do they really simply not care? How can they not understand? It’s like all the Filipinos who bring their families to White Beach on a Sunday for a picnic – presumably because it’s so beautiful – and then leave all their cans, crisp packets, broken glass and the rest lying on the beach. I really don’t understand, but I find it so incredibly depressing. I actually lifted Olyssa up off the reef today, to stop her from kicking anything else. She was very offended – but what can I do? I can’t just watch. Except in the end, there’s not much else I can do. You can’t force people to care or to take care, can you?