Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Sopping Wet Songkran

For the past four days, every time we left the house, whether for a simple chore or to go eat a meal, we came home in sopping wet clothes. Now, it is not monsoon season and we aren’t being hit with freak thunderstorms. Our inability to return home in dry clothes is due to the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran.

For Thailand, and much of Southeast Asia, this is their New Year.Held every year from April 13-15, Songkran is a time to wash away negative influences from the past year and start anew. And what began as a small ritual practice of pour water on family members to represent this cleansing has become a massive, nationwide, three-day water fight. 

As our first year actually being present in Thailand during April, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. This was particularly true of being in Chiang Rai, which has far less gigantic, public, tourist-attracting Songkran festivities. We were ready for anything. But then, we went out for lunch on the 12th and I returned as a soggy, dripping mess. Had I known that they start a day early here I may have reconsidered the ankle-length skirt and purse full of electronics.  

See, here in Chiang Rai, it’s not so much of a water fight in the sense of a huge crowd gathered somewhere armed with waterguns and buckets. It’s more that the whole city is a war zone; there is nowhere to hide; there isn’t an option of non-participation. It's as though those crowds seen in Bangkok and Chiang Mai are instead deployed to roadside stands and the backs of roving pickup trucks, positioned alongside massive barrels full of water, constantly at the ready. Defenseless, those on motorbikes get the brunt of it, as water is thrown on them from both the streetside soldiers and the roaming pickup truck gangs. 

That being said, everyone is respectful of both the elderly and the smartphone held up as a shield.

Everyone is drenched. And, the whole thing is fueled by massive injections of blasting music, whiskey, dancing, and beer (though obviously there are age limits on a couple of those). I’m amazed that that many of the Thais can make it through four days of this intense partying. We made it through one day, complete with plenty of whisky shots and a brief baby elephant cameo, and left the rest up to the Thais.

Songkran is clearly a beloved holiday here in Thailand, and it was quite fun to participate and to see how much the Thais enjoy themselves for those three or four days. But I have to admit, it was nice to go get lunch today and not get a surprise bucket of water to the face. 

*Pictures courtesy of google image search, as we do not own a waterproof camera and we love our camera too much to break it just before a new round of travel begins.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Open Water


I wanted to be able to share a harrowing story about conquering fear. I wanted to tell everyone my aquatic rags to riches story, the story of going from a non-swimmer to a scuba diver over the course of several years. I had truly wanted that to be how the story played out. But, just because something makes a beautiful narrative doesn’t mean it will come perfectly to fruition. Life’s not like that.

This is instead a story of surrender for some and triumph for others.

In 2010, lifejacket cinched and snorkel in place, I went into the ocean off Koh Tao knowing full well that I’d never really learned to swim and came out moments later in complete panic. Several attempts in calmer water later and I was, well not happy and content in the water, but more capable of being less panicked and enjoying the view of fish.

After several years, I have grown far more comfortable in water. Sure I still hold my nose if I go underwater, but wearing fins doesn’t feel quite so much like some sea monster is trying to drag me to a watery grave and breathing through a snorkel was moderately less claustrophobic.

Surely that’s a good enough base to go for a SCUBA diving course.

Armed with the knowledge of how far I’d come, I was ready to give it a go. I assumed that, even if I wasn’t a perfectly strong swimmer, at least the knowledge and know-how of taking a course, the technical information about the equipment, and the guiding hand of a competent instructor in a small group setting would readily combine to make for an easy, fun diving experience.

And it did. In the classroom.

We then went out on a boat, got all SCUBA suited up, leapt into the water, and I learned several things about myself.  The most relevant of which was this: I hate being underwater. Everything about it felt unnatural.

After swimming into the shallow cove for our confined introductory session, we started with some basics. But even the most basic of the basics, such as breathing through the regulator facedown or sitting underwater with no more than a foot of water overhead, were absolutely, excruciatingly panic-inducing for me. Try as I might, and I did try, repeatedly, I just could not force myself to stay underwater.

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the slow, suffocating grip of panic winding its way around our ribcage, twisting its fingers around your throat, but I’ll tell you this it’s not pleasant. Our instructor was kind and encouraging. Win was patient and helpful. But it just wasn’t happening. Much like my first time snorkeling, the day ended with me in tears, stress smoking on a boat.

Now, to the dive school’s credit, they then offered to do a one-on-one session to try again. Of course, to me this sounded like torture. Especially because once you get past the being fine breathing underwater part, you get to practice things like losing your breathy bit and taking off your mask. It’s like a course that was built to make me cry.

So, I quit. As much as I hate to admit defeat, and as far as I try to push my boundaries, I had reached my limit. I know I missed out on seeing some beautiful things, and I hear that feeling weightless is incredible. But a 4-day learning curve just wasn’t going to get me to that level of comfort with being underwater.

And that is the story of how Win got SCUBA certified and I spent two days reading on the beach.