Sabang Part 3: Yet More Diving and Distractions
Trip Start Unknown
13Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Sonny's Guest House
The dive shop is the "Diver's Cafe", a small operation run in partnership by Herman (Belgian) and Dani (Dutch). Dani is mostly in charge of the dive shop and Herman is mostly in charge of the cafe/restaurant. Herman is a swell fellow who laughs at the end of everything he says, which tends to make him seem funnier than he is (although he is quite entertaining). He's got a five year old son named Maximus (after the character from the 300 movie....yes, it's true) and Herman's pizza shop in Puerta Galera also bears the same name. Like many people (mostly foreigners) here, Herman and Dani have their hands in several different businesses to diversify their interests and to protect them a little if one suffers more than the others. In the case of these guys, we're talking about a dive shop, a cafe/restaurant/bar, a pizza shop, a paintball facility, an ice cream stand, buggy and motorbike rentals and rooms to rent above the cafe among other smaller ventures. Dani's focus is the dive shop and the list of diving qualifications and credentials that this chap has accrued are beyond impressive, they are mind boggling. The dive shops' walls are chalk full of Dani's certifications for instructing, including all levels of standard recreational diving certification (Discover Scuba through to Dive Master), underwater photography, deep diving, wreck diving, nitrox diving, drift diving, night diving, rebreather diving, dry suit diving and the list goes on and on.....most of which have been completed in both schools, PADI and SSI. So there's no question in my mind that this guy has got the experience necessary to deliver professional training. The question surfaces: Do I have what it takes to make it through?
Whatever the case is I sign up and begin my training immediately. The days tend to start between 8 AM - 9:30ish and end anywhere from 4 PM to 5:30 PM and are much more demanding and challenging than I had anticipated. Dani has 2 employees who assist him in running the shop, John, an English bloke and Phil, a Polish guy. John is an instructor and has a decent amount of experience while Phil is a DiveMaster (one level below an instructor) and only recently finished his course, so his experience is a little more limited but he is capable. For the first several days I end up helping John as he takes out divers in training who are doing their introductory level courses in scuba, such as Discover Scuba Diving Open Water Diver. It's during the course this that I realize how much work it can be to manage people who are diving for their first time. We're talking about people who sink when they should float, float when they should sink, swim like they're digging a tunnel out of Alcatraz, break away from the group on inspired solo adventures, panic at the slightest thing and just generally, cause underwater chaos. As a diver who has, in the whole scheme of things, relatively little experience, I find these outings quite demanding and realize I've underestimated the possibilities of what could go wrong. Often I end up leading really bad swimmers around by their tank valve, like an underwater physical escort. John and Dani tell me that the Koreans in particular have a reputation for being bad divers and at first I assume this is just a little convenient stereotyping based on their personal experience. And then we get our first group of 5 Discover Scuba students (Discover Scuba students have NEVER dived before), all Korean. This proves to be quite frantic and I find out by the end of it, this group of 5 have lived up to the stereotype quite easily.
During the course of my instruction, some dive stories that circulate around town include:
The story of John Bennett, a professional and competitive diver from Britain. That John Bennett broke the world record for deepest dive, 308 meters right here off of the coast of Sabang, is well documented. Apparently it took him no more than 20 minutes to descend to this depth, but more than 12 hours to ascend. The 12 hours was necessary to avoid decompression sickness (the bends) and people say that he actually read a book to pass the the time on the way up (yes, and underwater book). But what happened to John after that is subject to speculation and variation of detail based on who you speak to. The record shows that no more than one month later he died in a diving incident in South Korea. The unusual thing about it was that it was a very simple, recreational dive to no more than 45 meters. In consideration of the fact that even a novice diver like myself could quite safely perform a dive at 45 meters with very little chance of trouble, many people have invented their own version of the story with regard to what actually happened to John Bennett. A popular version of the story goes that John faked his own death to escape a crippling mountain of debt back in the UK, and that he's probably off in some remote corner of the globe living under a new identity. I happened to meet a guy who claimed to be one of John Bennett's best friends and this fellow says that John stayed at his place in Australia immediately before leaving for his dive in Korea. This guy said that John left all of his diving gear at his house before he left for Korea, which was extremely unusual as John would have always taken all of his equipment with him. This anecdote (if true) somewhat supports the theory that John knew he was going on a "one way dive" so to speak. Another version of the story suggests that the dive site was immediately on the border of North and South Korea and that he may have surfaced on the North side, to be promptly apprehended by the eager North Korean border patrol. Whatever the case really was, John's body was never recovered and unless a picture of him in Timbuktu surfaces in the years to come, it's likely no one will ever know for sure what happened.
One story that is sad but true is that someone died on a dive at a site just around the corner from here last week. There were two divers out for a technical dive which had them at well more than 60 meters deep. Technical or deep diving inherently has more risk and requires a good degree of special training, mostly with regard to the use of hypoxic breathing gas mixtures other than air such as trimix, heliox, and heliair. Details are limited on what may have happened as people don't really want word to get around that much as it could cause panic in the diving community here. All most people know for sure is that two divers went down and only one came up.
My own diving incident story (that is more funny than dangerous....although still a little danger involved!) goes like this: I was helping Dani with an Open Water course instructing one American student. We were taking him out on what was his first proper dive, which basically comes immediately after it's established that he's got enough basic skills to be able to handle himself in the water. We took him to a site called Monkey Beach, which of course got it's name because monkeys have been spotted at the beach immediately in front of where the dive site sits. Monkey Beach sometimes ends up being more similar to a drift dive, meaning that the current can be strong there and as long as it's heading the way that you intend to go, you can relax a little and just let the current take you there. The current was strong enough that day and accordingly we drifted down the beach and the dive itself went off without a hitch. The problem came when we sent up the surface balloon to let our bangka (boat) driver know exactly where we were so he could pick us up. We waited on the surface for around 10 minutes before we fully accepted that out bangka driver was off having a snooze somewhere. Our Bangka driver Bernie, a slight local dude had been on a bender starting quite early that morning, gulping booze-drinks as the sun came up. As a result he was off catching his beauty sleep but we were out on the open sea, quite stranded and still about 1 KM or more away from Sabang. Having obtained plenty of buoyancy to stay afloat, we resolved to swim all the way back to Sabang. Quite understandably Dani was really pissed-off, and it didn't exactly look professional in front of a new student to have the bangka driver pissed out of his tree and leaving us in the middle of nowhere. As we were swimming back, Dani signaled to passing boats to go wake up Bernie and after about 45 minutes on the surface, perhaps 10 minutes away from shore, who shows up but crusty looking Bernie, with eyes all bright red and puffy. Bernie did not say a word. To make matters worse, Bernie in his drunken state, managed to drop one of Dani's flippers in the water and it sank like a stone. Dani descended quickly to retrieve his flipper and in the process managed to get stung in the face by a jellyfish. Jellyfish stings, if small, don't pose a huge threat and only require a thorough rinse with an acetic solution such as everyday vinegar. But the stinging incident did not help make Dani feel better about the entire thing, and Bernie received a proper verbal lashing upon our return.
Days go by and training continues, honing skills and diving as much as time and energy will allow. In a very delayed fashion, I finally realize that some one has been systematically stealing money from my guest room. Within the first few days of my check in I count my "emergency" cash and realize it is short by $40 USD. I stupidly assume that it must have been someone from the last hotel where I stayed at, largely because I hadn't counted the cash in a couple of weeks so there was no way to say for sure when it had disappeared. Shortly after I do a cash run to Puerta Galera (Sabang does not have an ATM) and after extracting my personal share of spending cash I leave 10,000 pesos (around $230 CAD) in what I think is a reasonably safe hiding place. I go about my business and a few days later do another count only to find out that my stash has been reduced to 7000 pesos. Confused and in disbelief I come to the conclusion that someone has been helping themselves to my cash, but I leave allowance for the slight possibility that maybe I just got too drunk the other day and had a memory lapse as to how much cash I actually had hidden away. As a final test (stupid I know) I leave a measly 1000 pesos in the stash and count it the next day only to find that there is now 800 pesos left. So the door is closed on any other possibility and there's no doubt that a thief is afoot. The room has two locks so the only possibility is that it is one of the employees who has been rifling my money. The next day, with a calm and courteous demeanor, I ask the manager to come up to my room for a chat. She comes up and I offer her a drink and a chair, asking her to take a few minutes to speak with me. She listens carefully as I explain the chronology of missing dough, nodding and frowning as my story continues. Although she seems somewhat concerned, and admits that she is ashamed of the incident (it means allot for a Filipino to admit they are shameful) her overall reaction is largely what I had expected. "Do you have girl in your room?" (She means a girl from the girlie bar of course). No, this is not a possibility. "Do you lose cash?". No, I did not lose the cash. By and large the conversation ends as I had expected it to, with her saying she is sorry but that there is nothing she can do. I know and understand that even if she goes to her staff and asks who took the money that absolutely no one will admit to it and there is no tracing the money anyway - it's well gone. I tell her that I know the girls do not make allot of money and that they probably really need it badly (perhaps too understanding, I know) but the reality is that the cash is gone and the story is over. I ask my pal Lucky (a nice older German guy who manages Herman's cafe in the evening) what he thinks about the incident as he has lived here 23 years and knows everything there is to know about the strange goings on in Sabang. Lucky tells me that even if I were to walk into my room and find a Filipino girl in there with my cash in her pocket, it would still be the case that "She did not do it"...."Someone put the money in my pocket" Lucky says she would claim. His point is that when it comes to sneaking around, the Filipinos are among the best of them and a dozen or more excuses and stories are always readily available to "prove their innocence". I've accepted that my lazy cash hiding has in part yielded this result and take some consolation that my problem is really peanuts compared to some other stories I've heard in these parts about astounding rip-offs...more on that later.