Monday, December 30, 2013

Professional diving and the tsunami

The six diving guides aboard Oktavia were all single men between their late twenties and mid-fifties. Of them the only local, Aey, came from a village about 70 km away from Khao Lak. Thai government requires foreign-owned businesses to hire a certain percentage of locals: a good thing, and yet, though we were told Aey was an excellent diver, the company didn't seem to know what to do with him. His English wasn't strong enough, English being the lingua franca among divers. Snorkeling together, Aey and I communicated mostly in diving signs--wordless gestures for "turtle," "eel," "Okay."

One of the guides, an expat from Europe, gave us a glimpse into the life of a nomadic diving guide. Each location had a particular season: the Andaman Sea season, for example, lasted from November to May. Guides who had been at it the longest, and given a measure of luck in establishing the right relationships, could get hired for the entire season. This allowed them to stack seasons and after Andaman, go, for example, to Egypt, where the season was from May to October. Sometimes there could be an unfortunate overlap, where Egypt's season might start a few weeks before the Andaman's ended: but that wasn't the worst problem to have, a problem of over-employment. In addition to Aey, two most senior diving guides on Oktavia were hired for the season; three others, including the speaker himself, had short term contracts for Christmas and New Year's trips, and their reemployment depended on the number of tourists booked for the following weeks. A short-term contractor established a base in a town like Khao Lak, and every couple of weeks went around all the diving companies to drop off his resume. And sometimes that strategy worked out, and at other times, he would run into the company owners and managers at the local pubs, and that worked just as well.

This was a very particular lifestyle, infinitely fascinating to hear about; it seemed singularly suited for the single men who didn't mind remaining single. The opportunities to settle down existed in larger cities and year-round tourist destinations, long-term gigs at dive shops, teaching beginners. Many of these men had done stints on land in the past, but opted for the nomadic life on the sea. If there were any women guides on the live-aboards, they were certainly in the minority. (I've yet to meet one.)

For Dave's perspective and pictures, check out his blog:

Due to their exposure to nitrogen, divers are not allowed to fly for twenty-four hours after their last dive. Dave and I spent one night in Khao Lak, where Oktavia had dropped us off. This coastal village was one of the hardest-hit areas in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami. A ten-meter high wave that formed after an earthquake in the Indian Ocean washed over the Similan Islands, destroying much of the sea floor and corals there, and then crashed into the mainland, wiping all the coastal hotels and local dwellings. Somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people died. The township designated the memorial to the tsunami: a large police boat that had landed a mile into the shore.

On our ride from Khao Lak back to Phuket airport, our driver turned out to be a former dive guide. He'd spent nearly fifteen years on the live-aboards in the Similans, and he'd been out at sea when the tsunami hit. They had no radio or any other kind of advance warning before the tsunami. Half hour before the wave came, the sea changed color. From blue it turned yellow: the wave was sucking up all the sand from the sea floor. The crew canceled all the dives for the day and returned to Khao Lak. Being in the deep, they hardly noticed the wave onboard--nothing beyond the normal rocking. Upon returning to town, they found total devastation, levels of damage "like you wouldn't believe," our driver said.

The police boat memorial (img from Wikimedia Commons)
In the decade since the tsunami, Thai government invested into the system of advance warning towers all along the coastline to give the people a bit longer notice. We saw two of these towers on the Similan Islands; solidly constructed and equipped with large antennae, they inspired confidence. And the corals, our driver said, were recovering much faster than had been predicted. They were possibly not as colorful as the corals of old. Manta rays and whale sharks became much harder to spot in the last ten years. Why was this? The water temperature seemed colder. The fishing industry did its damage. The whole world was changing.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Aboard Oktavia

After two days of travel from San Francisco, Dave and I boarded MV Oktavia at the port in Khao Lak in south Thailand, on the Andaman Sea. Oktavia, the largest live-aboard diving ship on the Andaman, was headed to the Similan islands for five days. Experienced divers prize this archipelago for the biodiversity in the coral reefs on the eastern side of the islands (protected from the Indian Ocean) and the larger marine creatures that also prey there: the barracudas, manta rays, whale sharks, moray eels, sea turtles, octopi, cuttlefish, sea snakes, scorpion fish.

During the five days on board, Dave more than doubled his diving record. I snorkeled three-four times a day, and thanks to the experience of my guide, Aey, was able to spot nearly as much as the divers: though I didn't see the bottom-feeders, the cuttle fish, the octopus, I got very friendly with the turtles, the barracuda, the schools of fusiliers, and a few eels. For more pictures and stories, check out Dave's blog.

Sunrise on the Similans

Boarding the ship for five days was a disorienting experience. Though Oktavia was large for the area, it was about three times smaller than the previous ship we'd stayed on (when two years ago Dave dove in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia). It had three passenger decks (including the dive deck and the rooftop sundeck), and filled to maximum capacity for the Christmas holidays, housed twenty-two passengers, six diving staff, and six boat staff. The co-owner of the company, an expat from Sweden, supervised the departure in the port, but didn't himself go on board. All six of the boat staff were locals and also one of the dive staff--Aey, assigned as my snorkeling companion. The rest of the dive guides were expats from Serbia, Germany, Belgium, and England. They were well matched with the passengers: one German couple, a French couple who lived in Singapore, a Swiss man, an Israeli woman, one couple from Hong Kong, one couple from India, a man from Korea, and four couples (one with teenage daughter) of American military stationed in Okinawa. And us: Dave and I had traveled the longest to get to the Andaman. We were also the least experienced. Most people on board had clocked hundreds of dives over many years; diving for them was a weekend activity. Dave held his own and earned the advanced PADI certification during this trip, allowing him to go on deeper and more adventurous dives. I came up with a dozen new answers to the question why I didn't dive (none of them very good).

Gearing up
The indoctrination to life on board began on dock. We were asked to put our shoes in a large crate--they were promptly stowed away somewhere, and we didn't see our sneakers and flip flops again until the end of the five days. From then on everything we did--hanging out at dinner, going to the bathroom, to our cabins, to bed, we did barefoot. Boat rules (shoes are a liability when it's rocky) seemed combined with Thai culture: Thais take off shoes when entering living quarters. At the airport in Phuket, I watched as a cleaning woman took off her shoes before entering the women's bathroom to clean, upending all of my notions of hygiene. At a public bathroom on one of the Similan islands, the entrance to the bathroom was blocked by a deep basin for feet: day-trippers were encouraged to leave their shoes on the beach, and rinse feet on both entering and exiting the bathroom. Thais also don't use paper for wiping, and so every stall was outfitted with a special hose for washing up. Luckily, there was plenty of toilet paper for the foreigners on the boat, though it got pretty wet, especially on the first day or two: bathrooms on the boat also served as shower cabins, and after every dive or swim we used them to rinse off the salt water. This, I supposed, helped to keep the bathrooms clean. I stopped cringing on the third or fourth day aboard.

The divers meant serious business. The amount of time they could spend underwater was strictly regimented by their exposure to nitrogen; within that they maximized their diving opportunities. At 7 am people assembled in the common area for early breakfast (toast and/or cornflakes with bananas, Nescafe or Lipton tea) and dive briefing. At 7:30 am they started putting on their gear and set off for 45-60 min underwater. By 9 am they were back and the breakfast was served: bacon, chicken sausages and nuggets, eggs. Fruit--pineapples, watermelons, apples, lychee, bananas--was available with practically every meal.

Divers at briefing

At 10:30 am, the second briefing began, and by 11 am the divers set off for the second dive of the day. That was followed by "snack" at 12:20 pm--the most desserty meal of the day. One day this was rice porridge with coconut milk; on other days we had pancakes, fried bananas. After an hour-long break, the third dive commenced around 2 pm. Lunch was served at 3:30 pm--a heavy meal with fried pork or chicken and a Thai curry and coleslaw. The chef always made a veggie curry for Dave, one of the two people on board who didn't eat meat.

After lunch, divers were given the long two hour break. On the two first days, the crew organized shore trips: the ship's dinghy took us to shore of Similan islands 4 and 8 (the largest). We went on short jungle walks, spotted some very rare pigeons that looked a bit greener than city pigeons (fish people are NOT bird people), mingled with large crowds of Russian day-trippers, and lingered on the beaches of fine white sand. On the other two full days at sea, the boat was moored away from inhabitable land, so one time Dave went snorkeling with me. Snorkelers, he confirmed, saw the large picture: like getting the bird's eye view of the landscape that divers were able to explore in greater detail.

The last dive of the day took place just before or just after sunset: the sunset or the night dive. Divers were equipped with flashlights and took off around 6:30-7pm to look for crawlers: the shrimp and the crabs and other shellfish that could be easily spotted when the light reflected from their eyes. For me, this was a reading and writing break: I took notes for future stories. The social dynamics between all the passengers and the staff of the diving boat were fascinating; the mixes of cultures and languages and occupations and social classes all brought into play as people were forced to mingle in the constraints of the diving ship. More on that to come.

Leaving on a night dive
The divers returned to the boat in time for dinner, served at 8 pm sharp. They shared a beer or two (alcohol and diving don't mix; after drinking a single beer a diver is disqualified for the rest of the day), exchanged pictures they took during the day, and then quickly dropped off to their cabins, dead tired, to sleep. 

Leaving Koh Bon

Monday, October 7, 2013

Writing That Risks Reading

Litquake's approaching! An amazing festival of hundreds of readings and thousands of authors, all taking over San Francisco for one week, from 11th to 19th of October. I'll be reading as a part of Writing That Risks anthology release party, on October 17th at Alley Cat books. Come hear my alien story and the wonderful and surprising work of my fellow authors.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pride Weekend

On June 26 the US Supreme Court made the historical decision to repeal DOMA and lifted prop 8 ban on gay marriages in California. On the same day, Russian Federation Council, the upper body of the Russian government, approved the law against "Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual Relationships Among Under-Age Children." Sex between men was a criminally prosecuted offense in the Soviet Union, the law was repealed only in 1993. That law had been created in 1933, supported by the rhetoric of "recruiting into homosexuality" and equating "pederasts" with "foreign spies"--the rhetoric that's being recycled today. Under the new law, punishment for foreign citizens "promoting homosexuality" is steeper than for Russian citizens, it includes arrest and deportation. Putin is yet to sign this new anti-propaganda law into action, and already news reports that two women seen hugging on St. Petersburg subway were escorted out; in Moscow two women kissing at a restaurant were asked to leave. A small protest took place in St. Petersburg this morning and resulted in more arrests and physical violence. At the same time as the law against "propaganda" was approved, another law passed that made it illegal for gay couples to adopt. This Pride weekend, I'm thinking of all of my friends.

Friday, April 12, 2013

More fun stuff!

The super secret NYRB Salon (a book group where we read books published by New York Review of Books) is no longer as secret -- there's now a Facebook group, where we can post meeting dates and book titles. We meet first Sunday of every month, in the evenings, at Dog Eared Books in the Mission. If you are in the area at the proper time, stop by whether or not you've read the book. The discussion might make no sense and give away the ending, but at least you can pick up more fun books!

On April 25th, I'll be reading my work at the release party for Eleven Eleven Journal's 14th issue. This should be a fun event, as I'll be performing alongside several local poets. Time and place: 8 pm, at LeQuiVive Gallery in Downtown Oakland (1525 Webster St.). This event also has a proper Facebook invite page here. My story "Survivors" that has appeared in the magazine has also been performed by actors at Action Fiction!, and so I don't know if I should read it again. They're giving me a good chunk of time for the reading, so maybe there'll be time for that and for something new as well.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Small Press Love Fest

On February 23, 2013 (the day before my birthday), I'm participating in this reading event -- Small Press Love Fest, organized by three local and one New York-based magazines and publishers: great weather for MEDIA, Ambush Review, Corium Magazine, and Red Bridge Press (who is publishing a story of mine in an upcoming anthology). This will take place at Alley Books in the Mission, and will be a midday reading, after which it is oh so convenient to move the party to some bar in the neighborhood and to continue talking lit and new media.. Also, birthday. I have in mind three bakeries whose chocolate cakes I want to sample.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Last day in Rio

January first in Rio was a day of rest. We woke up after noon and whiled away a good part of the afternoon at Marcelle and Davog's, blogging, packing, having a leisurely breakfast. Marcelle made eggs and heated more cheesy puffs--our daily nutritional requirement of pão de queijo. Marcelle had lived in San Francisco before, and she mentioned that there's a store in the Mission that sells Brazilian staples. We googled it immediately: Mercado Brazil, ten blocks down Valencia Street from our house. The word is that the cheese that goes into these cheese balls is unavailable outside of Brazil, but Parmesan, cheddar, and maybe even feta can be used to achieve a close texture if not flavor.

The shopping for edible souvenirs was one of the things we'd hoped to do on our last day in Rio, but every convenience store and supermarket was tightly shut after last night's festivities. Some luncheonettes, juice bars, and regular bars were still open (one per neighborhood), but I'd hoped to stock up on manioc and tapioc flour goodies and fruit and nut products in some kind of packaged variety. The modern art museum we'd been hoping to visit was also closed. Our friend Alex had better luck--he'd gone to the Sugarloaf that afternoon, and not only were the cable cars running, but also he encountered very little lines and spent a lot of time hanging out at the top, enjoying the view. Dave and I meantime made our way to Leblon beach, where Dave disappeared into the sea for a while, and I hung about watching the sun set behind a mountain that looked like a Saint-Exupery drawing of a hat (or a python who swallowed an elephant). Later, we met up with Alex for dinner. He had been considering traveling on to Ilha Grande in the next couple of days, but decided to stay in Rio: Rio's huge, and there are lots of things to see and do. Dave and I had a flight to catch that night (for some reason, most of our flights in South America had departure times in the middle of the night) and were parting with Rio with a feeling of many things left to be explored, to come back to.

As I'm writing this in the series of flights and airports on the way back to San Francisco, here's a partial list of things I will miss about Brazil: the one hundred degree heat that makes it Ok to drink three or four servings of crazy cool tropical juices a day, and eat fruit with every meal; the slovenly pace of pedestrian traffic downtown Rio that reminds you that you're on vacation, and--what's the rush?; reading in the hammock on the veranda at Marcelle and Davog's (there's really no better way to read than in a nice, sturdy hammock); the ease with which we made new friends despite the language barrier; the Amazon, of course--I can already tell that the Amazon will form the bulk of the narrative we'll be telling about this trip; seeing Dave wear his white straw hat, dance samba, and sip juice from the coconut.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years in Rio de Janeiro

Happy 2013, everybody! A mathematician I know, once upon a time my brother's classmate in grade school, shared this nerdy fact on Facebook: 2013 is the first year since 1987 to have all digits different from one another. "So there's something special about this year," he wrote. Possibly because its lack of repeated digits, the number looks odd in every sense of the word, like making fire by striking a piece of iron against a flintstone. The lack of symmetry is slightly off-putting and at the same time feels exciting and daring.

Dave and I met the New Year at the beach in Copacobana with about two million people who flocked to Rio from Brazil and all over the world for the occasion. It was at the same time the most laid back and festive New Year's party we'd experienced. We spent most of the night lying around on the warm beach, surrounded by the bright lights of the beach-front hotels and cruise ships facing off with the hotels from the ocean. Dave took a couple of dips in the warm water; I abstained until after midnight. We sipped our drinks and chatted, half listening to the music that carried from the stages set up to our left and right, and messaged friends scattered in various parts of the beach, making vague plans to meet up later. Between all the electric lights, we could see the stars; I recognized the easily identifiable Orion's Belt, and looked for but did not positively find the Southern Cross.

Dave called his parents from the beach--it was still a few hours till New Year's in Philadelphia, and they were getting ready to go to a party. Earlier in the day, I'd called my parents, catching them about half hour after New Year's in St. Petersburg, where they were partying with their friends. My brother and his girlfriend, they reported, were celebrating New Year's in Sochi, in the south of Russia--the place hosting the next Olympics (the winter Olympics before the summer Olympics coming to Rio). Dave's brother and his fiancee celebrated in Seattle, Washington. 

My mother, when I called, was excited to hear from us, and asked if in Rio everyone was wearing white--and they were. Most people weren't wearing all white outfits, but rather something white--a shirt or shorts or a skirt, but many local women wore white dresses clearly reserved for this occasion. White in Brazil is the color of peace; other colors of the rainbow mean different things: yellow is for money, red is for passion, green is for good health, and so on. Vendors in the city and on the beach that night sold color-coded flowers, cotton candy, hats, glow-in-the-dark drinking glasses. Even the color of the underwear you pick to wear for New Year's carries symbolic significance. The tradition of throwing white flowers in the sea at midnight is an offering to the goddess Yemaja of the Yoruba religion, the goddess of the sea, who looked over the African slaves as they were brought to the Americas. Her worship is very much alive in Rio alongside the Catholic traditions.

After midnight, we met up with Alex, a friend of my Israeli cousin Jenya (who now lives in Germany). Alex and his wife Tanya live in San Francisco, not far from us, but he was spending his holiday in Rio, and after texting back and forth for a while we met up and walked over together to a party on a small beach between Copacabana and Ipanema. The crowd there was mostly in their twenties and thirties, the music was low key, and at three am many started drifting off to sleep right there on the beach, tired but yet unwilling to return home before sunrise. Dave and I met up with Marcelle and Davog (our hosts), had another drink, and chilled until we couldn't chill anymore. We left the party before everyone else and still didn't get to sleep before the sun was up.

The local superstitions around how to properly welcome in the New Year are elaborate and varied, but one of the few that we tried to follow was to jump over seven waves in a row, making a wish each time. We had changed into our flip-flops for this (after my adventures with footwear this week, my feet are still plastered with band aids, and I'd been sticking to wearing tennis shoes with socks). On the second jump, I managed to lose both of my flip flops in the water. Dave leaned down and fished both of them out of the tide. We continued jumping the waves and making wishes, and later, in better lighting, we saw that the pair was mismatched--the two flip flops were of different colors, although of the same brand and size. We took this for a good sign. In the words of Kozma Prutkov, a Russian 19th C equivalent to Monty Pythons, If you want to be happy, be that.