A day in a United World School

Thursday, 24 January 2013

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life.

Greetings, my people.

Yesterday I published a post about my last days in Malaysia. As a last remark from that period, I'd like you to go into Google Images and look up "Snorkel Test".

Song of the day: Dirty Rotten Bastards - Green Day (¡Tré!)

Let's close the Malaysian chapter - it's been enough of that, and you don't need any more details. Now comes a new adventure: a life in a French colony, Cambodge, Cambodia, land of Khmer kingdoms and merciless dictatorship. 

Map of Continental South-East Asia

Concretely, I moved to Banlung, the capital city of Ratanakiri. Its population barely reaches 20,000, so it's more like a village. Not much bigger than my home, Espartinas. But it still is a charming little town. The only buildings of more than two stories all surround the central market, swarming with traders and farmers of ethnic minorities from the surrounding villages. It is also the hub of tourism in the area - mostly young backpackers searching for an experience of the real rural Cambodia, ready to trek and sleep on hammocks in the midst of the jungle. However, there exist several fancier places: a few hotels and several Western-oriented restaurants. We weren't short of places to hang out in the evenings, at least!

Anyways, let's get to the point: my experiences.

Upon my arrival at Phnom Penh airport my future colleagues came to pick me up. As I walked out, a crowd of tuk-tuk drivers assaulted me (as is the norm in these places), but I fended them off. A few steps further I heard a sweet, warm voice calling out my name. There they were: three people that, each on their own way, changed my life and left a mark on my soul. Sorry for the cheesiness, but I feel the need of acknowledging them rightfully. Let's introduce them separately.

On the left, and the tallest of them all, was Chris Howarth. A (ahem) young Brit, firm in both appearance and personality. Some of you know him already as the founder of United World Schools, the NGO I worked for. I have much to say about this organization, but that'll come in a later post. This man of convictions often came with us to the villages and worked hand-to-hand with us, even though he's the ultimate boss. I take pride upon having worked with him and having held my ground through several discussions and arguments I didn't let him win. Chris, if you're reading this... don't take it too seriously, neither the praises nor the criticism! I'll leave that to your biography.

But honestly, he's a great man I have learned much from, and the oldest person (he's sixty) I'd dare to call a friend.

In the middle of the reception committee was Leak, the young woman whose position is defined as "translatress", though her labour is much more than just that. She's from Phnom Penh. Her biography is rather rough and I won't share it here, but her experiences have made her a sensible, sensitive and strong woman. I shed much admiration for her, and I can't wait for the time that I'll go back to Cambodia to see her and, hopefully, finally meet her daughter. Leak, you have been to me the elder sister I've never had. Thank you for everything.

On the right was the person to whom the voice that called me belonged. I won't go into details for several reasons, but I'd like you to know that she is Vera, and that we shared a unique and intense romance.

Already feeling the effects of chemistry, I offered to accompany her to buy the couple things she needed, which allowed me to revisit part of the Cambodian Capital while getting to know who seemed to be a person full of wonders.

Phnom Penh Central Market

On our way back, and before we got too lost (my orientation sense didn't want to get us to the river), a Khmer young man on a motorbike stopped to ask us something we didn't quite understand - it seemed he was looking for some club, any club. We didn't know what to tell him, so he left... only to stop us a minute later, again. Rather than annoyed we were thrilled, but then he offered to give us a ride seeing that we looked kind of lost. And so, Vera and I jumped on his motorbike and the three of us traversed the city on a tiny scooter. I could only catch glimpses of the conversation, but apparently the man was an architect intending to improve his English skills.

The point of this little anecdote is to introduce the gentleness and hospitality of Cambodian people. I was struck by the randomness of our situation, and by how nice it was!

We stopped by the Blue Pumpkin, one of Phnom Penh's best bakeries and home to the best chocolate fondant cake I've ever tried.

Bought two small cakes:
one for dessert, one for breakfast.

We spent the rest of the evening having dinner and chatting with Chris - an introduction to the life I'd be having for the following two months!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Volume II - Episode I - The Return of the Bard

Ladies, gentlemen and alien species,

Better late than never, they say. Time flies, I have experienced. Now, almost four months after publishing my last post, I have decided to bring this blog back from the grave and cast some light onto my recent endeavours and ordeals.

In order to do so with reasonable ease I must ask for your forgiveness. Although my prolonged silence may be seen as a betrayal, please understand that the circumstances which I have endured did not allow for many scriptures to be created, let alone published. I beg for your welcome me as I come out of the shadows of the Mirkwood I've been in. Bring me to the nearest tavern, for although I may not have exercised the role of raconteur for long, I come loaded with stories for your delight.

Let's begin with no further delay. Ready yourselves: following is a piece of writing I typed long ago as is indicated. I will try to follow a chronological order in my forthcoming narrations.

As I type this, I travel at several hundred kilometers an hour, from Borneo to peninsular Malaysia. It is time for a change: most probably, I won’t bathe in salt sea water in many months, and my existence will be limited to the ground I stand upon. The little fish will have to wait to see me again.

And as I ran out of battery, I am taking this document two days later while sitting outside my wonderful room in Banlung. But, I can’t leave bits of my story untold, so this chapter will still narrate the events occurred in Semporna, Borneo.

There is much to tell, actually. It is no easy task to structure all of this, but let’s get it going and see how the story evolves.

The one reason why I haven’t been writing for so long is the good company I have enjoyed. About a week and a half before I departed, we welcomed three new members of staff – a French instructor, Marie, and two Divemasters, Tom (from the UK) and Kelly (Australian). They all stayed at the staff house, so at that point it was them, Andrew (American), Awang (Pilipino) and myself. Sara, the Swiss DMT (Divemaster Trainee) was still around, but she was staying somewhere else. As you can see we were quite a crew, and I must say I’ve loved my time with them. I didn’t spend a moment alone – we hung out every evening. That distraction, the business of finishing off my course, and the lack of a reliable internet connection have kept me from reaching out and using my computer, but hey, I had a solid amount of genuine fun.

Let’s get to the events, shall we?
So that’s the crew, and this one night we decide to make a little party/hang out/gathering at the staff quarters. I carried some sixteen liters of beer through half the town, while others went to buy some pasta to cook.

The apartment got full of uplifted spirits as each came back from a well-deserved shower after a day of blue-sea diving. Let’s have it good tonight! We invited a couple of costumers – one of whom is a British journalist living in KL. It’s an important fact, so keep it in mind. She had come to Semporna to write about diving in the Celebes Sea – recently she’s been focusing on adventure sports and such activities. She’s a wonderful lady, a woman who lives life to the fullest and greets the Sun and the Rain with a smile.

I’m getting carried away. Enough compliments for you, Pip. I’ve things to tell my readers.

There we are, all the staff and a few costumers, gathered at a balcony, with a bucket of Dutch beers and Malaysian ice and a pot of hot pasta ready to go down our throats. Then, Zeus unleashed thunder and lightning. Like, you know, a metaphor for what’s coming next. Good writers use them, right? Am I writing well yet? Nevermind.

The door opens, and in comes a (pretty short) Chinese lady with a rather unfriendly visage, from now on known as The Dragon, followed closely by Jerry, the dive centre’s boss.

I shall feast on your guts!

Resuming the story: we got told off, just as kids, by a woman who didn’t even introduce herself. “You have to clean up after yourselves! Do not make noise, the neighbours complain! (funny thing is, there are absolutely no neighbors around – it’s all commerce and restaurants around) Outsiders not allowed in the staff quarters!” And so on. It’s ok to be told the rules; anyone can accept there are some directions that should be followed. What is not right is the way that this random woman, who turns out to be Jerry’s fierce wife, comes in and treats us like children, with no trace or hue of respect in her speech, telling off staff and customers altogether.  Very infuriating, but we were happy to be hanging out and paid no attention to her 45-minute-long rant. As she left we resumed our party without further delay, except the time due to mock her and laugh at the comedy we had just attended.

Is the first song done? Because now comes Sweet Child O’ Mine, by Guns ‘N Roses!

Where do we go now? Ah, yes, that evening. Somebody took out a bit of vodka from a plastic water bottle, and we had a little bit of Tanduay rum left. So, yes, we had a lot of fun. I walked Pip back (she was staying a bit far from the centre of the town, so the way was a bit too dodgy for this gentleman to let her go alone), and spent some time around places that bring cherished memories to my heart. Magically, Semporna quiets down at certain hours, and all that can be heard is the moaning of the sea and the rumour of the stars. Magical, to a soul trained to appreciate moments of serene loneliness in company of the Moon. 


The next day, I’m sitting at the hotel reception, trying to write some emails and see if there’s still a world outside, when The Dragon sits in front of me, and without even waiting for me to take off my headphones, she starts shooting an interrogatory at me, about “who dumped the cigarette ashes down the balcony the previous night”. Needless to say I’m a non-smoker, and that I didn’t quite analyze the movements of my companions that evening. “But you must know!”. I ended up saying along the lines of “You’re not going to get any more information from me, because I simply don’t know. Nonetheless, if you shall speak to me, do so with respect, for you are nobody to me and have no right to tell me off this way”. “Well then, if you ever have any problem, don’t come asking us for help!” were her last words before storming out of the hotel.
After a minute, Merle (the lady in charge of management for the dive centre) comes up to me asking for the money for the rent, stating it was absolutely urgent, so I had to go all the way to the ATM across the town. Groaning in my mind, I realized something was suspicious in all this. Indeed, to my question, Merle said a simple “yes” with an ashamed expression, as I handed her the money. They were kicking me out.


In the end, Andrew got kicked out too, but we got our money back, and we were facilitated new accommodation – we actually got promoted! Our new room had air conditioning and a bathroom of its own. Not bad for the last four nights of my stay in Malaysia. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Woods

Song of the day: Lothlorien - Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

Why hello there, my dear humanlings. No, I haven't mutated into a hybrid life form yet, my wounds are healing at a reasonable pace. In fact, my right foot is almost completely healed. The left one, though, will still take a couple of days, but today it's definitely less painful than yesterday - when I would be at the threshold of sobbing with every step I'd take.

Sadly (and boringly) I haven't been able to do much for the past three days. No diving, of course, and as walking is still inconvenient and there aren't great attractions around here, I haven't been exploring. I've spent my days migrating from the internet cafe to any of the restaurants at the sea front, back to the hotel lobby, and all around once again.

Because of this, I find myself in a difficult situation. I intend to make this an enjoyable blog, one you can read and relax and let your imagination fly. But how can I do so, if I have no adventurous tales to tell you?

There is a way. Should I dare?
I'll give it a try. But, dear readers, please consider one thing: this is absolutely spontaneous. If you are to continue reading, make sure you can afford a few minutes of dreaming, for the journey doesn't end where the writing halts.

He instinctively brought his hand to his sword's pommel. He had developed this healthy habit through his numerous travels crossing the woods - every cracking leaf could reveal a mortal threat. Ninthalas stopped, watching the dark forest around him. Rather than fearful, he felt vexed. He couldn't afford any more distractions, after the incident at the Inn of the Drunken Bard. His quest required him to be swift as the elusive white bucks of the Eastern Lands. Though staying alert, he began to stride over the tangling roots. 

Soon after the minstrel convoy arrived at the settlement, he was summoned by the Town Watch's foreman.  He had only been given a sealed envelope and a safe-conduct to traverse the Bear's Pass, and from the uneasy tone of the foreman it was clear that this was a mission of the utmost importance. The promised reward didn't meet his general standards, but Harth lied upon his route anyways, and he intended to earn a reputation around those lands, so he accepted the task.

It consisted only on bringing the intact, sealed envelope to the frontier town, but Foreman Thrandur insisted on the necessity of haste. He refused to give any explanation.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A Hero's Wounds

Song of the day: You're Gonna Go Far Kid - The Offspring (Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace)

The day started in a very usual manner. Woke up, had my chicken roti and tea Madras (I've stopped going to the place I had banana roti and ice Milo, they never smile at you and it was getting to my nerves), then went to help loading the tanks on the boats. Damn, those things really are heavy, and there's lots of them.

Anyways, once in the dive shop, there was a bit of a chaos in the management. After being told I was going to three different islands performing two different jobs, I ended up being sent to Mataking one more time. What's the news, then?

Well, I was the Supreme Authority on the boat.

Thou shall bow before me!

No instructor
came on the boat: it was just me leading, and Sara, with less experience than me, under my command. Hence I did all the briefings (and the customers loved me!), though for the first dive we went in two separate groups, that eventually came together in the water. The first thing I saw upon descent were two lionfish under a coral shelf:

Never touch one of these: their venom could kill you in minute  

Yup, that's a fish. A crocodile fish. Ain't it cool? 

Yeah, I saw several of those crocodile fish, also known as flatheads. They blend in with the rubble in the bottom, but a well trained eye can easily spot them.

Unfortunately I am still not fully recovered from the cold and I couldn't equalize my sinuses (little spaces of air behind your eyebrows) when coming back up. Equalizing means adding or removing air from air spaces in your body to match the external pressure - PV = nRT, for those physicists out there. So it hurts like a motherfocker, because there's no way to remove air intentionally - normally it just happens naturally, but with every airway blocked it's much harder. After a while at the surface the pain decreased as the air would slowly find its way out. However, I wasn't feeling very well by then, so I decided to skip the second dive, and I took a pill to be able to go on the third dive.

But then, Fate happened.
Mataking Island.

We had left a couple of Chinese non-divers on the beach you can see in the distance on the above photograph, but by the time we came to pick them up the tide was too low and the boat could to get to the beach, because the water was too shallow where there were corals. Not a real problem, you barely have to swim four or five metres to reach average standing level.

But the lady couldn't swim.

Obviously I couldn't let her alone, so I jumped off the boat to give her a life vest, with the bad fortune of miscalculating the depth (these clear waters are tricky) and hitting a coral with my right foot. It only hurt a little and for a moment, and I didn't find any wound, so that was fine. I swam towards the sand and gave her the vest with a comforting smile on my face.

But then, as I was swimming and dragging her to the boat, I kicked a coral I couldn't see - that one did hurt. I've awfully scratched the area where my toes join my foot. And later on, I found a cut and another scratch on the other foot, from the jump.

Apart from huge pain, what worries me about these wounds is the risk of infection in this filthy town. Of course I've washed them and bandaged them, and I am now wearing socks and shoes. And I can't go diving for a couple of days, until they are reasonable healed.

But I got these wounds from being a hero. Or something like that. What if there had been a tiger trying to reach the lady? Then I'd have saved her from certain death. So there. I'm a hero.

The bards will sing my tales.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Somebody help me out, I've lost count of the episodes. BUT I'M BACK ON THE TRACK!!

Technically I should share several songs to make up for the lost days, but in an effort to save you from going through such tedium I'll only share one. For now.

Song of the day: Watch Over You - Alter Bridge (Blackbird)

Why hello there, my dear readers. Once again, please accept my apologies for having this blog abandoned for some time. As you should already know, my dearly beloved MacBook crashed with a broken motherboard. I still haven't been able to fix it - after having it sent to a nearby city and receiving the diagnostic, I contacted the only authorized Apple Reseller in Borneo to have them fix it, but they still haven't replied to my email, and I probably don't have enough time anyways: I'm leaving in two and a half weeks. Instead, my always helpful parents are sending me a small PC that will at least provide me with the basic uses of a computer, essentially Skyping and writing documents.

Many things have happened since I last posted on Dark Water & Stars. Let's start from the rightful beginning.

My biryani was not that good. In fact, that was no biryani. Not at all like the one in blessed Bangladesh - you guys do know how to make it good. My new life goal is to become a jury in biryani cooking competitions.

'Nyways. The same night my computer crashed, a new Divemaster student arrived, Steve. We had dinner together and all, he's an alright guy. Canadian, 29, and a ladies' man. Next morning we met another Divemaster student, Andrew, with whom I've developed a nice friendship. He's from Oregon and only 19 years old, and a very cool dude.

So that day we went diving at Mantabuan, and on the very first dive, Steve descended too fast and, forcing his ears, got a perforated eardrum. Which means he can't dive for three months. So he's not doing his course, obviously, but has stayed around Semporna like a wandering soul for the past few days - I don't know if he has left yet.

Apart from not founding much of a friendship with Steve, there's another Divemaster Trainee: Sara, from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. She's cool, and the three of us together (including Andrew) have started our Divemaster Training doing several skills both underwater and on the surface.

A couple of days ago I was given the opportunity to go to Sipadan island, covering for a customer who hadn't come. I only had to sign with his Russian name on arrival, and I was immediately diving in one of the best spots in the world! Visibility was not the best, but on the first dive I could spot several sharks and turtles:
White-tip Reef Shark
Green turtle in front of a school of jackfish

The following dives were even better, with more sharks, more turtles, and a couple breath-taking additions:

Each single one of these bumphead parrotifsh measures over one and a half armlengths (of mine) in length, and although they feed in coral, the sight of their faces is in extreme macabre.     
Swimming amongst a school of jackfish becomes an irreal, fairy-tale experience, when they surround you and block the sun rays from entering the water.

Special training is required to enter the 200 meter long cavern known as Turtle Tomb, named after the many skeletons found from turtles who drowned while trying to find an exit.

I really do not want to leave this place without paying a visit to the inside of the cave. We only visited the entrance, but an irrational impulse, the willingness to explore the unexplored, kept dragging my attention to the interior corridors where turtle bones lay. Similarly, every time I dive along a wall I feel the urge of diving deeper and deeper. From these feelings I've concluded that I must sometime take the Technical Diver and Cave Diver courses.

More about me will be coming in the next posts. Until then, get delighted with those pictures!

Song of the day #2: Professor Satchafunkilus - Joe Satriani (Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock)

Friday, 21 September 2012

BrrZZZhhhhKKSHSSSHHHHHHHH [Sound of Static]


Ladies and gentlemen,

My computer... has died. Despite the First Aid and CPR I performed on it, I have not been able to bring it back from the other side.

Now I really am finding myself alone.

You'd say, "Well, at least you have your eBook". And I'd reply, "Well, you see, the issue is that... I CAN ONLY CHARGE IT THROUGH MY COMPUTER."

Dave has offered to charge it from his, but that means I'll have to give it to him for the evening every now and then, which leaves me without anything to do.

I'm getting a bit scared now.

Furthermore, I haven't had electricity in my room for 4 days now.

On another note, I'm now a certified Rescue Diver (YAY), and today being Friday, Insha'Allah, I'll be having biryani and chai for dinner.

I gotta go now. Mostly because I'm getting tired of standing here in front of this awful computer typing in this terrible keyboard. 

Wish me luck, and, if you are religious, dedicate a couple prayers to my computer.

I won't be able to update the blog much unless I find a solution to my technological problems. Apologies for that.

Farewell, my people.

Layla - Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton (Live at Lincoln Center)

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Episode X - The Rescuer

Canción del día: Contigo - Joaquín Sabina (Yo, Mi, Me, Contigo)

With all due honesty, I'm only writing this post as an excuse to share the previous song. I could very comfortably wait until tomorrow to be able to provide a more complete and interesting story, but I'll do what I can.

Actually, I barely have anything to tell. But let's get it done.

In spite of the cold I've been suffering from, I decided to take the risk and get on the boat. I knew anyways that today I was going to practice rescuing skills, which occur mostly on the surface. Indeed, I have learned how to surface, provide rescue breaths and carry a
n unresponsive diver out of the water, following all the right steps. It's just a bit tricky, but after a couple scenarios I could perform it without a mistake.

We needed to descend at least three meters for some skills, and so Dave taught me an interesting technique to clear out my ear and sine conducts: snorting salt water. It works wonders, and it burns pleasantly.

So now I'm almost out of that cold. We did another exploration dive, this time going West from The Shire. While geographically inaccurate, in my inside I named the new site Rohan, for its sandy plains and golden coral hills. There was even a forest of acropora, which deliciously corresponds to Fangorn.

A forest of acropora.
And so, this is what today's dive was all about. Sadly, I didn't find any new marine life worth mentioning, but hopefully tomorrow there'll be more.

Back in Semporna, we (the instructors and I) had dinner together - probably the tastiest burger I've ever had. Or perhaps it's just that I haven't eaten any beef in the past two weeks. But, let me say, it was great. 


All coming from Dave's hard drive - I'm glad I'll have some entertainment, because I've already finished four books in a week and a half, which is a bit of an unsustainable rate.

You all should already know about my nostalgia for my country, so please forgive these short episodes of Spanish music. Soon I'll be back with more international music, but meanwhile, if you really wish to know my soul, give a listen to this, and perhaps try to find a translation for the lyrics. Sabina, more than a musician, is a poet, and a very cunning one. He has found the formula to distill the spirit of my España and shape it into music.

Ave, sailors of life. That's all from me. Keep your homes in your hearts and your aims in your sight.