||JEN HILL, Contributor
There’s a little gem in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Tao where the sun kisses the water as it laps gently upon the white sand beach. It is where the most aromatic Thai green curry is eaten on cushions laying on the floor, and anything more than a bikini will make you feel out of place.
Southwest Pinnacle, Ko Tao, Thailand. Photo Credit: yeowatzup @ Flickr
Under the surface, clownfish zip in and out of their anemone houses and sharks patrol pinnacles that protrude from the depths. Wide-eyed scuba divers try to take in these wonders with flailing limbs, trying helplessly to gain control of their bodies in this three-dimensional environment.
When in Southeast Asia, it is on almost every backpacker’s itinerary to stop here and learn to dive. In fact, only Cairns, Australia certifies more divers each year. Most seasoned travelers will know the basics of Koh Tao, but let’s dive a little deeper and see what it’s like to live here as a scuba instructor.
Moving overseas to become an instructor is no small feat. Imagine having to say goodbye to your current job (OK, this may be the easy part), your friends and your family. No more Sundays watching football, taking Rover for a walk, or shopping at the mall. Dorothy was bang on when she said, “I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore,” since there is not much about life on Koh Tao that will remind you of your life back home.
For most new instructors living off the meagre pay means there will be a downward adjustment in living accommodations. On this island, electricity doesn’t come cheap.
Sometimes, electricity doesn’t come at all. Air-conditioning is a luxury generally only affordable to those subsidizing their cost of living with another income from back home. I recall many restless nights lying starfish on my rickety bed with a wet sarong draped over my body, trying desperately to sleep despite the suffocating hotness of the air. I would catch a brief moment of relief when the solitary fan in the room rotated its way towards me. But, before I could say, “ahhhh,” it would be turning its way back to the other corner of the room. It would seem that only on the most humid of nights, the fan would cease to oscillate at all — signaling yet another power failure on the island.
Jansom Bay, Ko Tao, Thailand. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
A typical day starts at 7 a.m. for instructors, which can be difficult after a late night of partying (more on that later). Classes can have upwards of eight students, more if you have the help of an assistant. In places like this where travelers are in a hurry to get to the next destination, an Open Water diving course is crammed into three very long days.
The first day, you will be spending long hours teaching in a hot classroom, followed by even longer hours in a cold pool. Repeat this for the next two days, except instead of being in a pool you are guiding your students down into the depths of the ocean.
At the end of each day, you will be cleaning scuba gear and making sure all of the rental equipment is accounted for and neatly organized. Only then can you relax with a Heineken as the sun sets and swap stories with your mates about the vicious triggerfish known for taking sizeable chunks out of instructors’ fins with their teeth.
With only three days to take a student from rookie to certified diver, the pace is fast and there isn’t much room for problems to arise. Most people who embark on this mission are as you would expect — water lovers who are eager to plunge deeper and longer than their lungs will allow. But occasionally, you will encounter a student who does not fit this profile.
I once had a girl ask me if it was certain that we would see fish on our first dive. I replied enthusiastically, “of course!” and proceeded to tell the class about all of the cool creatures we would see that afternoon. “Oh,” she replied. “I am actually terrified of fish. But I have been trying to get over my fear.” She paused. “By sticking my finger in my friend’s fish tank back home.” Oh my.
I also had a young male student who was scared of having water touching his face. I took a page from my days teaching children how to swim and spent my lunch break with the guy blowing bubbles with our faces in the water.
Then there was the 40-something recent divorcee who did not like sports, water, or water sports but was determined to learn to dive as she was in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
Such a stressful occupation it is to teach diving. It’s a good thing that Koh Tao has more than its share of nightlife. From fist-pumping clubs to fire poi dancing on the beach, it’s easy to get caught up in the all-night drinking scene here. When I first moved to the island, I was downing a bottle of Gatorade and a grilled cheese sandwich every morning to sober up. But when you make the transition from tourist to resident, a new kind of nightlife emerges. Movie nights on your “rich” friend’s flat screen, a game of foosball at the British pub, or a few Spy Coolers on the steps of 7-Eleven. All of a sudden, this little island in the Gulf of Thailand will start to feel a lot like home.
For those willing to take on the challenge of teaching diving overseas, I promise the experience will be worth it. For everything that you leave behind, there is something to be gained.
Whether it’s learning that you are capable of living a simpler life or embracing the land of smiles and chicken on a stick, being a scuba instructor on Koh Tao will be a positive life-changing experience. The friends I made on the island are friends for life.
My most recent vacation was to visit an old colleague who is now working in the Cayman Islands. I was fortunate to dive for free through his dive shop and sleep in his spare bedroom. Our first meal together? Thai green curry, of course.
Sunset on Sairee Beach, Ko Tao, Thailand. Photo Credit: victoriapeckham @ Flickr
• PADI is the world’s most recognized certifying agency for divers and instructors alike. Visit: padi.com for more information.
• Open Water Diver — three days. This course will introduce you to the basics of diving and certify you to dive on your own with a buddy.
• Advanced Open Water Diver — two days. Top up your skills in navigation, deep diving and three other areas of your choice.
• Rescue Diver — three-plus days. Learn what to do in an emergency through role playing and life-like scenarios.
• Divemaster — two weeks and upward. Hone your leadership skills and assist on actual scuba courses while gaining an extensive knowledge of the science of diving.
• Assistant Instructor and Instructor — two weeks. Perfect your ability to demonstrate skills to your students and learn how to apply PADI’s educational philosophy.
Copyright @ 2011 Chic Savvy Travels
Date Added: January 10, 2011 | Comments (0)
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