29 March 2013

A Breath of Fresh Air - Learning to Dive on Koh Tao

Hard day at the office.

I have been vagabonding all over the world for damn near 15 years now and whenever I visit a lush, tropical beach I strap on some fins and shove a snorkel in my mouth. I LOVE the ocean, and I have snorkeled stunning reefs in locales such as Mexico, Hawaii, Fiji, Maldives and Indonesia. 

Drifting far above a busy reef and watching the fish play amongst the coral and kelp is a relaxing, calming hobby, one that I indulge as often as possible. But I have a secret confession. Despite my tattoos of ships and seahorses, I am a little bit afraid of sea creatures.

(That was a lie. I am A LOT afraid of sea creatures.)

That’s why I have always preferred to jump off of a boat to snorkel rather that wade out from the shore – it gives me more leeway and keeps the creepy crawlies and the pointy anemones from accidentally grazing my rather ample tum. I like to give them their space. It’s not exactly fear, more like a deep-seated horror aimed at the strangely fecund depths of the ocean and its slimy, slithering inhabitants.  When I would see scuba divers below me navigating their way through caves and reefs I would feel a sick sense of claustrophobic panic, and think to myself, “no sir, that is not for me.  I like to be 3 metres above the action and quietly observe.”

Until now.

When I made plans to visit Jess in Thailand, I wanted to make the most of my holiday and learn a new skill – how to ride a motorcycle, how to surf, how to open a beer bottle with a lighter (ok, that one is less daunting) and so Jess suggested getting our diving certifications. In the heat of the moment and with a positive attitude I would later doubt, I agreed.

The obvious choice was Koh Tao, known for its mellow travelers scene and thriving dive industry, and with that settled I began to look for a reputable school. My friends on Facebook threw out some valuable suggestions, but I decided to rely on trusty ol’ Tripadvisor. The ratings were clear – Roctopus Dive School was our best bet. I was still nervous, but there were still weeks of time separating me from the daunting task at hand and it slipped to the back of my mind.

As the days counted down toward my first oxygen-tank aided dip into the big drink, I began to feel a small amount of trepidation, but Bangkok’s promise of good beer, MAC make-up and skimpy clothing went along way in soothing my jangly nerves and my excitement trumped my fear.  For a while....

Is doing it wrong (or right?); still wearing L'il Bub tank top instead of Roctopus tank top. 

Soon, though, it was go-time. We arrived on Koh Tao bright and early after a night bus and catamaran, and were greeted at the 7/11 by Westy and driven to the Roctopus office. Unlike a lot of the bigger schools located on the beach, Roctopus is a 15 minute walk inland and attracts a more serious clientele who have done their research and are attracted by their impeccable online reputation. We soon met our classmates Rachel, Andy and Pau and our instructor Jay Hayes and we all began the process of acquiring our SSI (Scuba Schools International) Open Water Diving Certification. 

British women require what now?
My fear began to rise, but the course was taught in a very logical progression, and Jay went a long way in soothing my jangly nerves with his calm demeanor and occasionally dirty acronym jokes. We were required to watch 6 DVD lessons and complete 2 nights of homework before learning how to assemble our gear and getting into the water for a basic skills session.  At this point I had always assumed that I would be a messy ball of panic, but I felt fairly calm and prepared as I did a wide step into the ocean, laden down with weights and a bloody heavy tank of air.

As we hit the water I felt a bizarre sense of cognitive dissonance as I discovered I could indeed breathe under the surface. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, and my initial reaction was to flounder my arms around and try to swim normally. It soon became apparent that my arms were useless little T-Rex appendages and my legs were really where it was at in terms of steering and forward momentum. My heart rate started to settle as we knelt down on the ocean floor. Jay led us through a series of important basic skills - clearing our masks, retrieving our air (in the event it comes out of our mouths) and attempting to understand buoyancy (something that continues to confound me).

My BC and my weights, some of my underwater thingamabobs.
 It was exhilarating, exhausting and strange – and I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Over the next two days we went on four more dives, down to a total of eighteen metres. We dove at Japanese Gardens, Pottery, Chumphon Pinnacle and Twin Peaks and with each dive my confidence increased (I wish I could say the same thing about my ability to blow bubbles or like, understand how buoyancy works).

It turns out that I am still pretty creeped out by coral, seaweed and most fish, so while everyone else was pretty jazzed about peeking into suboceanic caves to catch a glimpse of moray eels, I was more like, “naw, I’ll just be floating around over here marveling at breathing underwater, you g’head, g’head.” I simply enjoy being under the water, descending into the foreign depths and swimming around, and that is A-OK with me.

Me and my new BFF. 
 Pau, Jess, Rachel, Andy and I all passed our course with flying colours, and we were awarded our SSI Open Water qualification that entitles us to dive anywhere in the world. I plan to go on to take my Advanced Course as soon as time permits, and I even feel keen to do some diving in Vancouver, which is said to have some of the best cold water sites in the world.

So, while I still need to learn to ride a motorbike, surf and yes, open a beer bottle with a lighter, I have discovered a new hobby - and an entire new world.
"Bottom Time" made me laugh every damn time.

27 March 2013

Life's A Drag - The Ladyboys of Koh Tao

Oh, the glamour of it all!

On our way to the drag cabaret on Koh Tao, I had the following exchange with my friend (and diving buddy) John:
     John: I can't believe you changed into a dress and red lipstick to impress the ladyboys. 
      Me: You don't know me very well.

It's true. I love drag shows. I acquired a fake ID when I was 16 and the very first thing I used it for was to go to the Odyssey (RIP) to see Willie Taylor, Mandy Kamp and Carlotta Gurl perform in Lips Inc. While I slammed 99 cent shots of butter rum schnapps (*shudder*) I fell in love with the glamour of it all - call me a fag hag or a fruit fly, but sister, I have been back to that show- and others - dozens of times over the past decade and a half.

Thailand is a fantastic place to see a drag show. Kathoeys, or ladyboys, are an accepted part of Thai culture, and you will see them working retail and restaurant jobs alongside other women and men. That is, if you can clock them - some kathoeys are more feminine that I could ever dream of being, with willowy waists, perfect skin and flawless make-up. For those with the desire to perform in a revue style show there are thousands across the country, and the Ladyboys of Bangkok is said to be one of the best in the world.

While on Koh Tao, an island that seemingly has everything, I was delighted to discover that they have a ladyboy bar called the Queens Cabaret! I was thrilled to get prettied up, pre-drunk and head to the 11pm show for a night of entertainment and glamour and.... it was... well, it was just ok.

The outfits were a little wilted, the lipsynching a little messy and damn, those girls didn't really know how to beat their faces. BUT we still had a fantastic time - John and Pau got called onstage to participate - and with no admission fee and only a one drink minimum I highly recommend the show. So gurl, break out that MAC Red and your best flip flops and head to the Cabaret!

I actually asked them if they watch RuPaul's Drag Race. They had no idea what I was talking about.
John, me and Jess ready to watch the show. Tres excite!

No T, No shade, hunty.
What is the correct term for a group of ladyboys? A cluster? A murder? A glitter?
That's it. A glitter of drag queens.

Pau, or the Spanish Tom Cruise "Tomas Cruz" shows off his ladyboy kiss with pride. I later heard him have a conversation in the 7/11 with a big dude from South Africa about how much they respect the ladyboys.

With love from Kathmandu (but dreaming of Koh Tao)
xoxox Violet Dear

23 March 2013

The Mellow and the Sleaze - A Week on Koh Tao

 Me and my little Jennifer Grey lookalike in the back of a pick-up truck, on our way to a dive.  

I just left Koh Tao, a little emerald jewel off of the East coast of Thailand, and I am sitting on a coach speeding toward Bangkok, reveling in post-island glow. This was the best short vacation I have ever taken, complete with great food, new friends and the most amazing sunsets in the world. 

I arrived last Friday for my eight-day trip (which explains my absence here, sorry ‘bout it), nearly weeping with joy when I touched down in my beloved Bangkok. A certain amount of weary fatigue had hit me in Kathmandu, and so I decided to make a brief sojourn to Thailand. The flight was cheap, no visa was required and everything is developed and easy. My expectations weren’t high, I just needed some time in a bikini with a bottle of Sang Som in my hand.

My life is probably the best life.  

I made plans to meet up with my friend Jess (you may remember her from Sri Lanka) and we chose to go to Koh Tao based on its proximity to Bangkok, its beauty and its easy going reputation. We decided we would get SSI/PADI certified and learn to dive, something both of us have wanted to do for a long time.

Koh Tao means “Turtle island” and it wasn’t settled until the 1950s. The varied dive sites nearby, beautiful coral reefs and the lack of existing industry proved the perfect conditions for the island to become a diving mecca. You cannot walk 10 metres down the pleasant, pedestrian footpaths of Sairee Beach without encountering another dive shop – only Cairns, Australia issues more certifications each year.

Sunset Singhas. 
 I shouldn’t like Koh Tao. It’s near Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, two “party bro” islands famous for full moon parties and foam bars, and it does attract some of the same clientele. But, Koh Tao has one major difference, a difference that prevents it from being completely overrun with package tourists and drink-til-you-puke bucket specials: diving, diving, diving. People are there to study and try to get the most out of their dives rather than to engage in a hedonistic orgy of booze. Well, that is, until the last day of diving lessons….. ahem.

The nightlife is a solid mix of pubs showing films, beach bars with the pre-requisite firespinners, and casual clubs where djs play drum & bass and house music - but it lacks the exploitative debauchery other Southeast Asian backpacker haunts (my friend Jay would scoff at this sort of behaviour as “amateur bullshit”). The crowd is definitely older than on Phi Phi or Samui, but not too old, at least in spirit.  My diving group and I had one really big night out, and let’s just say that I felt younger (and prettier) than I have in a while. (We can now disregard some of this angst. Huzzah!)

I’ve been to Thailand seven times, and I really thought that I had seen it all, done it all, and that its party-prone beaches weren’t really for me. That’s all changed – I’m in love with Koh Tao. The sun was hot, the boys were pretty, the food was spicy and the drinks were cold – what else could a fatigued Kathmandu expat ask for? It was like a Thai version of “How Violet Dear Got Her Groove Back.”

Me in my Summer Black. Guys, this is how I will dress when I live out my skeezy destiny - but my shorts will be shorter.

I found myself scheming ways that I could abandon grad school and my career and just stay on the island, becoming a dirtbag dive instructor with black hair to my waist, a deep cocoa tan, a mild to moderate drinking problem and a constant Spank Rock/Mickey Avalon playlist. I’d ride a motorcycle and get a dog named Thai-y Tim and have visible abs, carrying out my 30s in a blaze of mildly self-destructive one night stands and recreational drug use. This is hard to resist, but alas, responsibility calls. For now. Until I head back to Koh Tao do the Advanced Course next year….

Barefoot beers. Living the dream. 

11 March 2013

My Favourite Place in Kathmandu: Community Dog Welfare Kopan

I should have titled this entry "Bob Loblaw's Dog Blog"

Anyone who spends more than twenty minutes with me learns one thing: I love dogs. Some days as I walk the streets of Kathmandu I feel like I have hit the jackpot - so many street dogs to pet and hug! I am very careful; I have a surefire system (it is really just me asking "Are you a good dog? Are ya?") that involves a cautious approach and an analysis of how much bum-wiggling is occurring. A lot of bum-wiggling? Proceed. No bum-wiggling? Move on, sir.

While locals and expats alike look at me like I have lost my mind, I find that Nepali street dogs are generally really friendly and sweet. This just makes evolutionary sense - a nice dog has a higher chance of survival (gets fed, doesn't get killed for biting children) and therefore 'gentle dog genes' get passed down more often than 'aggressive dog genes.' 

While cruel abuse does occur, Nepalis are generally very kind to the street dogs, and the famous Newari love of meat means the dogs get a lot of scraps and bones. While there is still a stigma placed on "lowly" street dogs versus "highly desirable" and costly purebreds, the technically owner-less dogs of Kathmandu still often get some love and care from the neighbourhood softies.

Until they get sick. When a street dog contracts mange or any other contagious affliction they become pariahs, outcast by the folks who used to feed them. This is also sometimes the case with owned dogs who fall ill - people can barely afford their own medical treatment, and the notion of paying to heal a sick dog is not widely accepted. The pet that seemed cute and innocent as a puppy is now a burden and is exiled from the home. Sometimes it is a case of laziness and neglect, but often people just genuinely cannot afford to help their pet. I have deep empathy for what must be a tough decision to have to make under the duress of acute poverty.

This is when the wonderful people at Community Dog Care Kopan step in and help the countless needy dogs of Kathmandu. Longtime expats Kate and Doug Clendon (26 years in Nepal!) operate a shelter where sick dogs with seemingly insurmountable health problems are healed, loved and re-homed in the community. They even arrange international adoptions when visitors and expats fall in love with these amazingly resilient creatures.

I go up to the rescue every two weeks for an afternoon of dog-walking, puppy-socializing and laughter. It is truly the best part of my week and I look forward to each and every visit. Kate and Doug thank me profusely and provide a delicious lunch, but I feel like it is me who should be thanking them for letting me spend time with these guys! I genuinely believe that the dogs do more for me than I do for them, and I can't wait to see them again. *chest bursts with puppy love*

Left - severe mange and broken legs. Right - six weeks later and all healed!
Meet Maggie. The first week I went to the Rescue Maggie was nearly hairless, had two broken legs and was recovering from an abortion and spaying (she was too ill to carry her pups to term). When I posted the photo on the left on my facebook, a lot of my friends were worried she couldn't recover from this degree of mange, because we in the West often do not see such advanced cases of neglect and illness (there are much, much worse cases in Nepal). But look on the right! Same dog, only SIX WEEKS later! She is a firecracker and quickly went from sick patient to the boss of the house.

 Oh you had a baby? I guess that's nice, but it isn't this puppy, so....

This little babe was one of two pups who arrived last week, and sadly her brother passed away. She is adorable, and her little googly eyes make us think that she is part pug. In the top picture we had just swaddled her because it was getting cold and stormy, and it is so cute I think I might die.

   I want to borrow this dog the next time I have cramps.

Nothing is better than a hug from Jade. She feels like a hot water bottle, and looks like a Peruvian hairless temple dog.  Her mange is all cleared up, but it was so incredibly advanced that she suffered from permanent skin damage and her hair cannot grow back. We call her Baldy, but I think that offends her femininity, so I call her Princess Baldy.
Just a buncha bitches.

Some of the guys just relaxing in the shade after a nice long walk. Believe it or not, most of these dogs had advanced mange when they arrived, and many had broken limbs. The level of care and standards of the Shelter rival those in the West - these dogs are truly lucky. Some of them will be re-homed, but some will have to be re-released back to the neighbourhoods in which they were found - there is simply not enough space to wait until each dog is adopted.

Adopting shelter or street dogs is not yet a part of Nepali culture, but hopefully that will change! I mean, look at the story of Rikki - he had rickets and tetanus, but was successfully cured and adopted by a local Tibetan family who absolutely ADORE him. Kate is going to enter him and the gorgeous dog pictured above in the next dog show in Patan, under the "non-breed" category, and I think they will sweep the competition. More and more, Nepalis are learning to accept that street dogs are often better pets than the oft-inbred and costly pure breds imported from India and treated as status symbols for the rich. There is even a new campaign to "Adopt a Nepali Mixed Breed!" But seriously - just look at Red here. What a stunner - I call him Gorgeous George.

                                                                                        Unlikely friends!

This is Callie meeting a little calf. Callie has severe mange and malnutrition, but with good food, medicine and a lot of love and kindness he will recover and hopefully will look as lovely as Maggie. I took this picture two weeks ago, and he is already starting to look a lot better - he's still bald as a baby rat, but his sores are healed and he is gaining weight.  

It's kind of like Club Med for dogs. Club Pet? Club Well-Fed? (I'll stop now... Club Dogsled?)

Finally, here is the idyllic location of the Rescue, nestled in the valley below Kopan Hill (quite near to the monastery, but not affiliated). Here the dogs can bark and run around and no one complains. While Kate and Doug say they initially faced skepticism from the neighbours (and the occasional angry line of questioning about why they help dogs and not people) they are now a well-loved member of the community. They provide free sterilization, rabies vaccinations and medical treatment for the dogs nearby, so locals quickly saw the benefit of their programs. I am inspired and humbled by their work, and honoured to play even a miniscule role helping the dogs of Nepal.

While you are in Kathmandu I highly recommend taking the walk from Boudha and visiting Kate and Doug - and of course, all of the dogs! Who knows - you might run into me there, covered in dog slobber and happy as a clam.
You like me! You really, really like me!

For more information, or to donate or inquire about adopting or sponsoring a Kopan dog, please visit their website - http://www.communitydogwelfarekopan.org/how-you-can-help/
US$ 10 covers the cost of vaccination against distemper, hepatitis, parvo-virus, leptospirosis and para-influenza 
US$ 20 feeds a dog for one month 
US$ 50 pays for neutering a dogThanks guys! xoxoxVD

03 March 2013

A Day Trip to Bhaktapur

These guys are totally a Vice Magazine "Do."

The medieval town of Bhaktapur is one of the most impressive sights in the Kathmandu Valley, a storybook city complete with towering temples and bustling artisan squares. Bhaktapur was once a powerful kingdom that regularly battled nearby Kathmandu and Patan and was the capital of all of Nepal in the 15th century. However, its glory faded (no one ever sees it coming, do they?) and by the 19th century the formerly grand district was relegated to a market city, eventually falling into decay. 

The situation was dire for Bhaktapur's architectural treasures by the 1970s. Thankfully, a German development fund stepped in and provided money for restoration work, and the city is now a major tourist attraction and an example of a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for 'living heritage." People live, work and play alongside ancient temples, and so the buildings feel less like roped-off exhibits and more like a rich and vibrant part of daily life. 

So why on earth did it take me, the big heritage nerd, four months to get here?! Bhaktapur is only 45 minutes from Kathmandu (if the traffic is good) but it always seemed to elude me. Something always came up - a leisurely lunch, a day of yoga, a monster hangover after a good 1905 party - until today. I happily headed to the city (also known as Khwopa in the local Newari tongue) with a couchsurfer and a new pal for a day of touristy sightseeing.

We spent the afternoon strolling the pedestrian-only streets, stopping to admire the architecture, gaze up in monolithic squares and sip chai in darkened shops. Here are some of my favourite images from a picture-perfect day in "the city of devotees," Bhaktapur.

People come to chat and mingle on the temple steps. Beats hangin' out at the mall.

                                                     The dumb smile on this horse's face made me laugh all day.

Crafting gorgeous pots by hand in Potters Square.

 The aptly named Potters Square, one of the many artisan sites around the city.
(insert pot joke here)

 A 14th century temple.
A small winding street.
If you lived here, you'd be home by now.
 Totes reminded me of Sweetums.

 Half-peeled Hanuman on a pretty pink wall.
In the words of British art historian Percy Brown, this solid gold gate is "the most lovely piece of art in the whole Kingdom; it is placed like a jewel, flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings'."

Nyatpola Temple, a five story structure built in 1702.
The stunning Durbar Square at sunset. Goodnight, Bhaktapur!