Early in 2003 the scuba diving shop I used to dive with was planning a trip to Phuket. The dive master/instructor leading the trip was one of my best mates at the time and he pressured me relentlessly to sign up for the trip. The only problem was that I had zero desire to travel to Asia.
Unlike the stereotypical American I had travelled quite a bit in my day and had even lived in Europe for three years. But Asia never really appealed to me. I guess if you strip back all of my hesitations it really came down to the fact that it was too foreign. One can make their way around Spain or France without speaking the language simply by being able to read words and associating them with a meaning but Asia with the languages consisting of so many funny little characters and scribbles meant I would be completely without reference. That left me uneasy. I felt I would be too exposed; too dependent on others to make my way around. And I hate being dependent on anybody or anything.
When the number of people signed up for the trip began to tip 13 or so my friend came back to me with a slightly different angle; now he wanted me to help and was willing to give me the trip at cost in exchange for helping keep an eye on the divers. As I was also a dive master with an instructor certification he knew that I knew he was pushing the limits in terms of how many people he could safely supervise. I still resisted but over time I began to sympathize with my friend’s plight and reluctantly agreed to serve as his backup on the trip.
I mentally prepared myself for the trip to be more of a job than a vacation. I started checking out websites about Thailand and began to wonder what I had gotten myself into when I read about all of the scams, prostitution, and deception. From what I could tell it was like Mexico on acid. I was even a little angry with myself for having agreed to fly half way across the world to visit some third-world country with mediocre diving. If I was going to go all that way why couldn’t we just go to Palau or Yap?
After an overnight stay in Bangkok we were in Phuket where for the next ten days our itinerary would consist of waking up at around 8am and going down to the marina where a boat would pick us up and take us out into the Andaman Sea for 2 – 3 dives. We would then return back to the hotel around 4pm and everyone would shower up, take a quick nap, and meet up for dinner and hitting the town.
As people often point out; Thailand doesn’t have the best beaches in the world. I can also attest the diving is merely above average. I can think of dozens of places I’ve been with more agreeable weather. But despite all of that, there’s something about Thailand that is hard to shake. For me the culture shock was profound because this was a place I not only had no interest in visiting but I had actively avoided trying to come to. Yet, here I was, captivated by something I couldn’t even put my finger on.
One of the first things that attracted me to scuba diving is that once you descend your buoyancy is mostly controlled via your breathing. You inhale to rise and exhale to fall. The more experienced you become the better able you are to maintain a neutral amount of air in your lungs. Your inhalations and exhalations are slow and methodical so as not to disturb this delicate balance. This produces a very meditative sort of experience with the diver able to lower his heart rate and just exist in the moment.
Thailand had that same effect on me. I found myself to be more calm. Everything was in the moment. There was no tomorrow or yesterday or even 10 minutes from now. Life was lived in the right now.
Was it the Thai smile? Was it the wai and the general courtesy and politeness? Was it the fact that everything was so simple yet at the same time so infinitely complex? I really didn’t, and still to this day, do not know. What I do know is that this experience forever changed me. It shook me up and forced me to realize that there was a world out there I not only didn’t know but would probably never really understand. That is the sort of challenge that inspires me.
When people ask me why I enjoy scuba diving or why a guy who makes a six figure salary would spend his weekends teaching scuba for $200 a class I was always at a loss to explain the feeling it gave me. You cannot explain how beautiful life seems when you’re eighty feet below the surface, your breathing has put you into a bit of a trance, you float weightless in the water, and you’re simply watching some of the most gorgeous scenery on the planet. I began teaching because I wanted to share that feeling with others. How can one explain the joy you get from watching a 50 year old man acting like a school girl, wide-eyed, telling everyone on the boat about the giant sea bass he just saw?
I’m sure that many people assume that the reason I travel to Thailand so frequently is for the bar girls and the nightlife. It’s too difficult to explain to someone who has never been what it is about Thailand that tugs at your heart and keeps you coming back. Only someone who has been to Thailand can truly understand and appreciate what Thailand is about.
I don’t mean this little essay to sound blind to all of the bad parts of Thailand. Yes, I know all about the bad parts. I know about the scams. I know about the corruption. I know about the dishonesty and betrayal. I know about the false Thai smile. I know. I know. I know. I come from one of the biggest cities in the world so I am very street savvy. I see what is going on. Yet none of that changes how Thailand makes me feel. I feel alive and recharged when I’m there.
Just over five years ago I embarked on a journey I did not want to make. Today I cannot imagine how different my life would be if I hadn’t made that journey. It was a journey that has shaped not only my life but how I view the world and think about others. Sometimes the best journey is the one that takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to expand your horizons.