Monday, July 25, 2016

PADI 101

In May, I had a five day holiday and nothing tying me down, which meant it was time for a trip. After looking at my options and asking for some input from friends, I decided to go to Vietnam.

My main purpose in going to Vietnam was to learn to scuba dive, so I went to Phu Quoc.

I'll talk more about Vietnam in another post, but for now, I'll focus on the diving aspect.

In a nutshell, it was a really cool experience to be underwater, and it's amazing that my breathing determines much of how I rise and sink in the water. It's absolutely something I want to do again, and I recommend trying it.'s also something that is better done with a friend/spouse/family member than alone. I usually have decent luck when it comes to meeting other people as I've traveled solo. This time, the chips didn't fall in my favor. I just didn't mesh well with our small group, and it was what it was. That said, if you can't find anyone to join you, I say go for it anyway. It's just better with the company of someone you know you can share it with.

Wow. This is a remarkable turnaround from a prior win some, you lose some, I guess.

Alright, so my first surprising (and not in a good way) realization about scuba diving came when I arrived at the dive center. To provide some context, we have to go back to March, when I started emailing this particular company. The person emailing me back was nice enough, but I think he presumed that I knew more about diving than I actually did.

Please see Exhibit A:

I thought "the video" was going to be an hour-long instruction piece about how to breathe into the regulator (I learned that's what a diver puts into their mouth to breathe underwater), why you shouldn't try to pull another person's regulator out underwater (because it's mean), blah blah blah.

Boy. Was I wrong.

"The video" is actually a set of DVDs that contain 4.5 hours worth of information. If you want to get certified, you have to watch them and take a test on the material.

Scratch that - you have to take several tests: one is a review of the DVD material (which, thankfully, can be done as you watch it), one is an RDP or Recreational Dive Planner test (which reminded me that I never have and likely never will like story problems), and one is a final exam. The latter two tests took an additional three hours to complete on my second day in Phu Quoc.

I felt so stupid about not knowing what to expect with these tests, like I must have missed something obvious in the lead-up to starting the course.

Hopefully this can be helpful to someone who is planning on getting scuba certified, especially with PADI, make sure you either:
  1. Have plenty of time on your trip to space out the quizzes and tests.
  2. Do the courses online...however, note the cost. 
On the bright side, I was treated to this view about 3 hours into the video:

Okay, enough droning on about the testing stuff.

On the second day, I went to a nice swimming pool to learn a few nunchuck scuba skills. I was joined by a couple, making three of us in total. Upon arrival at the pool, we got right to work. As in, immediately after learning our names, our instructor told us to get into the pool and had us swim 200 meters (20 times back and forth) without our feet touching the ground. Now I'm not much of a swimmer, but I do a pretty sweet squid tread, which is what I call the awkward attempt at a swim move I do because I don't know what it's actually called. Moving on...we then had to float for 10 minutes without touching the sides of the pool. Success. But I thought it was odd that we did all of this before knowing anything about our instructor.

Eventually, we found out that his name was Dave. He had the demeanor of a grizzled British pirate, until we went underwater. At that point, Dave went from Redbeard the Riotous to Underwater Ballet Grand Master. The grace. I like to save my tears for when I'm above the water,and that's the only wai I managed to not cry from the beauty of submerged perfection.

Also, it was surprising to me how naturally the breathing came. The skills weren't too difficult. Then we came out of the pool... was pouring rain. I hadn't even looked up at the surface to notice the ripples. But my stuff that I had brought with me, including my flipping DVD review worksheet that I'd powered through during the previous day, certainly noticed it.

After a mad rush out of the pool to dry it, I found out that my worksheets were still salvageable. I know you were worried.

Back in the water, kick kick kick, practice practice practice, yada yada yada, it was all pretty simple. BUT...the most challenge for me was keeping good buoyancy. As mentioned before, I found out that my buoyancy is mostly controlled by my breathing. Inflating the BCD (it's the zip-up vest, it stands for Buoyancy Control Device, and YES...I am finding this information out as I type this post almost three months after the dive) is a last resort.

I had to head back to the dive center to finish my tests (yes, I lied. I'm bringing up the tests again). It sucked, honestly. At least Dave/Redbeard was willing to give me a lift back to my home stay. D/R also smoked while he took me on his scooter, and no, there was nowhere to escape. Oh well, he got me back to my place.

The next day was the first open water dive. The boat ride out was nice. See for yourself.

From the boat in Duong Dong

Out by our first dive site
We did two dives. The first one was just shy of 40 minutes and just over 7 meters deep...when we were to finally able to find a place on the sea floor to rest, that is. There were sea urchins everywhere! Dastardly creatures. It was a trip to be in open ocean. Unfortunately, water conditions were murky, but it was cool to see the coral whenever possible. There were a few scrapes and stings (the lady in our group had a brush with a jellyfish), but we did it!

Again, buoyancy proved to be a challenge. I really had to consciously regulate my breath so that I didn't rise/fall too quickly. Also, equalizing was a bit difficult. The deeper you go into water, the more pressure is acting on you. To match the pressure, you have to equalize your ears. Sometimes, you can pinch your nose and blow, like on an airplane. Most of the time, you just have to give yourself time at a certain depth to adjust before you descend again. The "you" in this paragraph could easily be replaced with "I/me," since I seemed to struggle with this a bit.

We got back into the boat and went to a second location with slightly better visibility and significantly fewer urchins. Also, we got to move around a bit and explore the reef. We saw several jellyfish and a large expanse of coral. It wasn't quite "Finding Nemo" (OR "Finding Dory") color quality, but it was still a cool thing to move freely underwater!

We had an awesome lunch and then went back to the harbor. On the way back, I looked out into the ocean and saw hundreds of jellyfish, all different hues of tan, pink, and purple. I didn't get any pictures because my phone wouldn't have been able to catch it and, honestly, I was so wrapped up in watching that taking pictures was an afterthought.

The next day was supposed to be my final diving day, and I had been assured that I'd be able to do the dives even though my flight was later that night. Which brings me to a segment I like to call:

~ Who'd 'A Thunk?~

Just as the pressure on your body increases as you go deeper into the water, the pressure decreases as you go to higher altitudes. If you have residual nitrogen in your blood from the dive to bubble. And no one wants that.

Well, originally, I was told I was okay. When I reminded the head of the dive shop of when my flight time was, he told me that it wouldn't do to dive again with such a short time interval before flying. He gave me a refund for the day and told me I'd get my dive card in the mail later.

So the dive adventure was over. And honestly?

I was perfectly happy to be done.

My mistake was trying to squish too much into 3.5 days. It limited how much I was able to enjoy Vietnam, and by the time the last day came, I was over it. LEARN FROM MY ERRORS!

Would I go again? Absolutely. I have to go again at some point anyway, if I want to be a legit open water diver. It would be great to try another location.

But hey. I got this neat book.

Bonus tidbit below.

WARNING: Nipple mention detected...

Dave/Redbeard has had over 100 piercings in his life. When he told us that he has successfully hung sundry items from his nipple rings, I thought he had hung something with a small amount of mass.

Folks, Dave has hung a longboard from those rings.

Said rings have also attempted, and failed, to suspend a bicycle. Can't win 'em all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Still alive

Oh boy. It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Heck, it’s been a long time since I’ve even checked Blogger…

Here’s to hoping that I can rectify that within the next week or so. There have been a few trips that I have yet to blog about, and I’d like to do so, if for no other reason than to have a record of them.

See you soon!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kamakura, Enoshima, and Sayonara

Though a person could easily spend days in Tokyo, for my last full day in Japan, I wanted to get out of the big city. So, after consulting the Googs, I decided to check out a place called Kamakura.

Before going, Heather and Cameron gave me a few pieces of advice about where to hit, and it turned out their advice was right on.

From Tokyo Station, Kamakura is an hour's train ride south via JR Rail.

After arriving at the station, my plan was to take the subway to my first destination, but then I saw a bike rental sign. Then I remembered it was a beautiful day.

Clearly, it was pedal time.

Should you ever visit Kamakura after reading this blog, and should the visit take place on a nice day, and should everyone in your group on said visit be old enough to appreciate it, I highly recommend renting bikes to get around the city. Kamakura is small, there's not a lot of traffic, and it's by the ocean. I mean, come on. It's like a small Monterey...okay, that may not be true since I've never been there. But the point is, it's a coastal, chill city that's perfect for a beach cruiser.

Anyway, moving on...first stop on the list: Kotoku-in.

There's a large Buddha statue here known as the Kamakura Daibutsu. It's a pretty cool sight, and you can step inside of the statue, but there's not much else that I saw here that I couldn't see for free somewhere else (it cost 200 yen to get inside). Regardless, I'm glad I dropped by.

Inside the statue
I hopped back on the bike and took an unintended detour to what became my next stop: Hasedera Temple. It cost 300 yen to enter, and in my opinion, it was well worth it. The gardens, the temple, the view of the ocean...amazing.

I loved the trees outside of the temple. (Don't get me wrong; they were great inside the grounds, too!)

Consider the lily [pads].

Peace, bro.
Zen garden. I love the detail here.

Entrance to a cave/shrine
Inside the cave

The main temple, which is on a platform above the gardens... ocean view...
...a bamboo forest...
...and proof that I was there.
After lunch by the temple, I returned to Kentaro (my bicycle) and resumed the journey.

Up next: Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine.

The map refers to this shrine as a place you "cannot miss." What the map didn't say is that the shrine is a place you "cannot bike to unless you've been part of the Tour de France or an Ironman relay." Maybe the next version of the map will have that crucial detail, because wow...that hill was steep!

Made it to the entrance. That gate marks the cave that leads into the shrine. Pretty cool!

Also pictured: Kentaro
Life on the other side of the cave

It was a neat little shrine. After a while, Kentaro and I went down the hill and rode quickly. There was one more spot to see, and time was winding down.

I mentioned that Kamakura is a great place to ride around. This is true, with one notable exception:

Beyond this gate is a market. In that market are many people. Among those people lies little room for a bicycle.
My advice? Take the street that runs parallel on the right. That will lead towards what was my fourth destination: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

I loved this place. Sadly, I only had a limited amount of time before I had to take Kentaro back home, so the visit was a bit rushed. Still, it was worthwhile.

I really liked the courtyard and how it seemed to frame the building.

View from the main shrine
A gate that led to more gates...this reminded me of Fushimi Inari.

As the sky shows, the weather conditions couldn't have been much better.

Though we had a grand time seeing Kamakura together, alas, it was time to drop Kentaro back off at the bike rental shop.

My next stop was Enoshima Island. I took a (pretty crowded) subway to get to Enoshima Station, and from there, it was a nice, easy walk through a market and over a bridge to get to the island.

Palm trees. They're just...great. Am I right?
I believe that's a marina where the Hong Kong/Australian/Taiwanese flags are located. Not sure.

But in any case, check out that sky.
Bridge to Enoshima
There was plenty to see once I stepped onto Enoshima, including a bustling market, views of mainland Japan, and yet another awesome shrine.

I also made sure I tried a few snacks along the way.

Mochi on a stick - strawberry, maybe vanilla, and maybe green tea.
Black vanilla ice cream - I wish I could say that this was genuine black vanilla bean,
 but something tells me it was just food coloring.
There was one place on Enoshima I felt that I definitely had to get to: Iwaya Caves.

The caves were spectacular on their own. The path that I took went along the coast and...well, it was just good for the heart.

I eventually made it into the cave (500 yen).
I'm not sure what the purpose of these blinking blue lights is, but they look pretty cool.
Towards the back of the first cave, it got so dark that the staff lent out candles.

Iwaya Caves includes two separate caves separated by a path that passes by the ocean.

I enjoyed the path as much as, if not more than, the actual caves.

This may be one of my favorite places of the trip.

At this point, I realized that I had been running around a lot throughout the trip. I don't regret being on the go in order to maximize my time, but at this point, I was ready to slow down a bit.

I must have stopped here for at least 30 minutes to watch the waves crash on the rocks. Truly relaxing.

Not shockingly, the caves aren't very forgiving to tall people. I was ducking for most of the time.

This dragon didn't seem too sympathetic.

With all the running around and taking in the views, I was hungry. It was high time for dinner. A few savvy/lucky restaurateurs set up some restaurants with a great view of the ocean. I don't visit places like Enoshima every day, so I ordered some grub and stared off in the horizon.

"Tuna sashimi always tastes better when the Pacific Ocean is in view." - Plato*

*For those feeling a bit gullible today (it's okay, I've been there), this is not the exact quote.
Summoning up a bit more ambition, I darted back through the island with the hope of catching the sunset from the beach. The views were already looking more golden, so I knew I had to move quickly.

Rushing through the market...
Upon reaching the bridge, I couldn't help but notice that several people were staring at something. I presumed it was the sunset, but then I saw what they saw.

No wonder they were staring.

Mt. Fuji was in view.

The pictures won't portray the epicness of the moment, but I'm posting them anyway.

BTW, I eventually made it to the beach.


After watching the sunset for a while and attempting to clean my filthy beach feet before putting my socks back on (sorry, socks), it was time to head back to Tokyo. It was a pretty uneventful return trip, though I did meet a nice guy who was a doctor. He was born in Nepal and emigrated to Australia, and he was just a great guy to chat with for part of the journey back.

Tuesday morning, I said goodbye to the Salony's, who were great hosts to me; met an old friend at Starbucks; and made my way to the airport. At Narita Airport, I had a completely new experience: No line for security or immigration. I was the only person. It was awesome, and it may be the only time I ever experience it!

Arigatou gozaimasu, Japan. It was a grand old time!