Days 254-255: The Journey to Dive Certification

I met Birgit at 7:00 am like I promised. I did the mask clearing in the shallow end and then in the deep end. We swam back to the shallow end and I tried the mask removal. I did it, but Birgit wanted me to do it again. She wanted me to be confident and not scared. On the second try, I struggled a little bit. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the deep end and our hour was up.

I went to the office while Birgit finished the classroom work with the other girls. While I was waiting to talk with the owner about my options to do a “try dive” that day, I met Gary. He was another instructor there. Gary was petite, around 40 years old, and was from England. He told me that I should buy a mask there because having a good mask makes a big difference. Over time, it would conform to my face and would develop a good seal. After trying a few on, I bought a mask and snorkel.

I signed up for a try-dive on the boat that afternoon. I had some time, so I ate breakfast down the street at the same place I went to the morning the day prior. The waiter came over and said, “Do you want the same? Thank you for coming everyday.”

I walked back to the dive shop and did a quick orientation with the try-dive group. Our instructor was Lewis. He was in his late 20s, had semi-long, curly blonde hair, and was from Scotland. He went over the basics and then we all boarded some pickup trucks that took us to the boat.

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I sat on the top deck of the boat and talked with Michael. He was tall, had brown hair and a beard, appeared to be in his early 30s, and was from Serbia. He was traveling in Thailand for three weeks on a holiday. Once that ended, he was going to work from Chiang Mai. He was a programmer and the company he worked for agreed to let him work remotely for a couple of weeks. This was his first time diving and he was in my group of four for the try-dive. It was Michale’s first time traveling solo and he thought it was fascinating that I had been traveling solo for so long.

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We arrived at our dive spot and I met Frankie, our instructor. He was tall, athletic, had short blonde hair, appeared to be in his mid-20s, and was from England. He was really friendly and helped all of us get our wetsuits and equipment on. I did as I was instructed and used one hand to hold the mask and regular against my face, and the other hand to hold my weight belt in place. Then I jumped off the boat and into the ocean.

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We swam a long way to get to a shallow part of the ocean and then we deflated our BCD’s and descended. We all got into a circle and were asked to do a few simple skills. I found it really difficult to stay down and Frankie had to add some weights to my BCD, for a total of eight weights. Birgit told me that she was very buoyant and I quickly found out that I am too.

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I did all of the skills successfully, even the mask clearing. I found it difficult to stay put though. We briefly swam around the coral, following behind Frankie. The water was fairly warm and it was really clear. We didn’t get a lot of time to explore because we spent so much time doing the skills. We swam back to the boat to go to the next dive site.

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Frankie gave a lot of good reminders, like keeping our hands clasped in front of us so we didn’t use them.  Using just our legs would help with our buoyancy. Once we got back to the boat, they said we could do another dive for $1,000 baht ($32 USD). Three of us said yes. Micheal didn’t want to go because his sinuses were really hurting him after the first dive. The other two people in our group were a German couple in their late 20s.

For the second dive, we used a rope that was anchored in the water to get us to the bottom. This time I knew what I was doing and my breathing was much better, but getting my breathing under control made me sink quickly because I was overweighted. I had to put a few puffs of air in my BCD.

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We swam around, following Frankie. The water was clear, the fish were colorful, and it was fun. I spent a lot of time thinking about my breathing and realized that when I breathed out, I slowly sank. When I breathe in, I slowly rose. We were under the water exploring for 47 minutes. My buoyancy was pretty good, I was horizontal, and I was feeling more confident.

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The dive went really well and Frankie told me that he thought I would have no problems finishing the certification. The problem was timing. I had to catch a flight out of Thailand in two days because my Visa would expire and you can’t fly for 18-24 hours after that much diving.

Diving below the surface of the ocean increases the pressure around you. Nitrogen is absorbed into your body tissues and bloodstream from the air you breath compared to the pressure surrounding you. As you ascend, built up nitrogen becomes little bubbles and leave your body. Flying in a plane too soon after a dive causes the same effects as ascending too quickly. Large nitrogen bubbles go into your bloodstream, creating the bends.

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When I arrived back at the shop, I talked with the manager. He told me that one of my dives that day could count towards my certification. He could arrange for a one-on-one instructor the following day to complete my pool session, the one hour of classroom work on dive planning, taking the exam, and the final three dives. I was surprised that he was able to make this work. I paid for the two extra dives and it was settled.

That evening, Roctopus Dive was having a celebration for those who just completed their various certifications. I was invited to attend as well. The outdoor bar was off of the beach and was mostly filled with dive instructors and their students. When I arrived, Frankie walked over to me and said he would be my one-on-one instructor the next day. He high-fived me saying, “Dream Team!” We got along well, so I was happy about that.

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Birgit was there too. She still had the final two dives with the German girls from my original class the next morning. She was so encouraging as well and it really pumped me up. Birgit told me that she used to be a graphic designer, but spent the last two years getting her Divemaster certification. She wasn’t sure how long she’d keep doing it, but she realized she’s made for warm weather and Estonia is too cold!

Harry, my new British friend, arrived on the island and I told him to come down to meet the team. He was scheduled to start his Open Water 20 the following day with Roctopus Dive. He stopped by and I introduced him to Lewis, who would be his instructor. Harry wanted a good nights’ sleep, so he left shortly after.

I continued talking with people at the bar. I met Frankie’s girlfriend, who was from Boulder, Colorado. She was really nice and we talked all about Colorado because I used to live there. Next, I talked with a girl named Nicole. She was from Norway and was in the middle of her Divemaster training. She was 25, but seemed more mature. I told Nicole about my love of Norway and how I’d like to live there one day. A 34-year-old man from Ireland started talking to us and he was flirting with Nicole. I excused myself from the conversation so they could continue flirting.

I also met Lauren from England. She was in her mid-20’s and had medium-length, blonde hair. She was traveling alone and had just finished her Open Water 20 and wanted to do the advanced course next. She very much wanted a boyfriend because she felt alone on this island full of couples. She told me that she fell for her instructor, Gary, but he didn’t seem to reciprocate. I felt for her. Learning to dive is a very personal experience with your life at stake. It’s easy to develop feelings for your instructors. She was interested in a couple other guys at the bar, but wasn’t having much luck. My heart broke for her broken heart and I understood her feelings. I needed to get some sleep, so I said my goodbyes and drove back to my Airbnb.

The next morning, I met Frankie in the pool for an hour. I needed to do the last few skills before I could move on. Everyone pumped me up the previous day, so I was determined to get through successfully. There were two tips that Frankie gave me that were game-changers for me.

First, Frankie told me to stop lifting my mask up at the top when I was trying to clear it. He showed me how he does it with just one finger. He pressed it in the middle top part of the mask and then blows out of his nose. That’s really all that is needed because the air from the nose slightly opens the bottom of the mask, allowing the water to get out, but not allowing for more water to get in. When I was trying to lift the bottom part of the mask and tilt it back, it was coming off too much and more water would get in.

Second, Frankie told me to tilt my head to the side when I took my mask off. He said the bubbles coming out of my regulator were probably causing me to struggle with water going up my nose. Turning my head to the side made all the difference! As soon as I turned my head, the water didn’t get in because the bubbles weren’t going into my nose.

Frankie made me do the mask clearing and mask removal in the shallow end for 20 seconds instead of 10 seconds to make sure I was comfortable. He told me that I smashed it, which fueled me to keep doing well. Next, we had to do a few skills in the deep end, including the mask removal swim. Frankie told me that he was going to make me swim longer than most people to, again, to make sure I was comfortable. I aced it! I wasn’t in a hurry at all and I had no problems putting my mask back on and clearing the water.

After the hour in the pool, Frankie and I went to an outdoor restaurant on the beach. We studied dive planning while eating breakfast. Then I had to take the exam. I was so nervous because I had to pass. I got 43 out of 45 correct!

Next up, it was time for three dives. We took the pickup trucks to the boat, Frankie briefed me on the plan, and we jumped into the ocean. We swam to a shallow end where I did the mask removal again and a few other skills. I passed those and felt really good. After a quick 30 minute dive, we went back to the boat for another tank of air. Frankie was pumping me up saying things like, “You smashed it! You crushed it! Great job!”

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For the second dive, Frankie told me that we’d swim around the coral and enjoy the dive. There were a few things I had to do, like keep him updated on my air levels. On the way to the surface, he told me that we’d stop at five meters for a safety stop for three minutes. Our watches would tell us when we were at five meters and would begin a three-minute countdown.

When you ascend, the pressure eases and the nitrogen from the compressed air gets absorbed into your tissues. Ascending too fast will reduce the pressure too quickly. A safety stop helps to control the off-gassing. We weren’t deep enough to actually need a safety stop, but I needed to do it for certification. It’s also good practice to do one on every dive.

In addition to the safety stop, I needed to do two more skills where I was either the hero or the victim (air-share). If I was the victim, I would signal that I was out of air, accept Frankie’s spare regulator, and ascend together using his air. Then we’d reverse it and I’d be the hero and give him my spare regulator.

To descend, I didn’t have a rope this time and it took me longer to get down. I was trying, but I’m very buoyant. We swam around and Frankie pointed out fish and beautiful coral. After 25 minutes, we started to ascend to do the safety stop. We patiently waited, but after two minutes I took a deep breath. That breath made me start to ascend and I panicked. I also forgot that as I ascend, the air that was in my BCD expands and I didn’t let it out.

Frankie was angry. He was forcefully pointing for me to get back down. I looked at him like, “I don’t know why I’m ascending.” Then I looked up and realized I was almost at the surface. I looked around to make sure it was safe to surface and then was there. A minute later, Frankie surfaced. He was not happy, “Why did you surface? You were kicking. Now we can’t just enjoy the last dive. We have to do the safety stop and both air-share skills. If you miss the stop on this last dive, I can’t certify you.”

I had made Frankie disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people. I am much more motivated by positive reinforcement than I am negative remarks. I felt like I had let him down. It went from a fun and exciting time to a real drag. Before we got back on the boat, I had to do some surface skills like taking my BCD and tank off and back on again.

I passed those and climbed back on the boat. Then we headed to the next dive site. I was trying not to freak out about the pressure of having to do everything perfectly on the last dive. If I didn’t do them successfully, I couldn’t get certified and all of this would be for nothing.

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Before our last dive, Frankie said I needed to tell him when I was at 120 PSI, we had to do a safety stop, and the two air-share exercises. We jumped into the ocean and started our dive. Things were going well. My buoyancy was good, I was swimming behind Frankie, and keeping my eyes on my air. Frankie excitedly pointed out fish and coral, but I was focused. I told Frankie when I was at 120 PSI and we were able to continue. About 40 minutes into the dive, we slowly started to ascend.

I was so scared that I would start to ascend too quickly and miss the stop. I felt like I couldn’t stop it last time. This time, we stopped at five meters and I controlled my breathing. I made it for three minutes and we ascended. After that, we lowered five meters and did the air-share, ascended, and descended to do the final air-share.

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I completed the skills, but it was hard to be excited because I felt like I let Frankie down. I was also exhausted. It was a long day. Frankie talked about the things we saw and said I didn’t even seem excited. I told him it was hard to be excited when there was so much on the line. We got back on the boat and went back to the dive shop. Frankie told me to meet him at the bar on the beach and we’d log our dives and then I’d be certified.

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We sat on cushions on the sand drinking a beer. Frankie congratulated me, but I felt sad. I have been working hard on expressing myself instead of holding things in, only to cause resentment later. I told Frankie that he really bummed me out when he was yelling at me in the water when I missed the safety stop. I explained that his forceful pointing made me panic even more. It felt like he thought I barely scraped by on getting certified, when earlier he was saying I smashed it.

Frankie apologized and felt bad. He explained that he was stressed out by the other instructors and their impatience. There were several groups on the boat that day, but they didn’t have to do the skills that we had to, which takes more time. He felt pressure from them to hurry up and get on the boat, so we could go to the next site. I understood because I felt the pressure too.

It was a long 10-hour day and we were both exhausted. We ended on good terms and I was really happy that I cleared the air. I wanted to be happy about getting certified and I didn’t want to leave being angry. We hugged and I appreciated all of his efforts. I was able to get a personal one-on-one training and I couldn’t have asked for better instructors.

Birgit was patient, thorough, gave clear instructions, and was encouraging. Frankie gave me tips that changed the game for me, pumped me up, and taught me what I needed to know. I would go on to dive in Vietnam, Western Australia and Queensland Australia. Those dives would highlight for me just how good Birgit, Frankie, and Roctopus Dive are. I haven’t experienced a better group of people or safety standards as I did with this group.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 253: Dive Certification Failure

I drove the scooter to my diving class that started promptly at 8:00 am. Birgit, our instructor, started the class by going over the questions that we had failed on the quizzes on our homework. I wasn’t aware that she could see how many times we failed and which questions we got wrong. Oops. Next, we continued with academics, learning all about the math that goes into it, the different types of oxygen, hand signals, and all of the ways you can die.

I know this is all necessary, but there are so many ways you can die when diving. Not just running out of air, but getting the bends. Initially, I was worried about sharks. After all of the academics, I didn’t even think about sharks. I only cared about all of the science that goes into breathing under several meters of ocean water and how not to die. The number one thing to remember is to “never hold your breath.”

We got an hour break before going into the pool. I went to a restaurant and got some food and then headed back down the street to the dive shop. We put shorty wetsuits on (a one piece short-sleeve shirt and shorts). It was thick and helped with the cold. We got into the shallow end of the pool and put our BCD (vest) with tanks on.

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We had to do a lot of skill tests under the water, but in the shallow end first. We put the regulators in (the piece that goes into your mouth and gives you oxygen) and got on our knees so that we were completely submerged in the water. Birgit would demonstrate a skill and we would each do it one-by-one while she watched us. She always had me go first, which was good because I didn’t have time to overthink anything.

We performed the following skills:

  • Swim in a circle for two minutes straight without touching anything to demonstrate that we could swim.
  • Use hand signals to show that we were out of air, accept the spare regulator on Birgit’s BCD, and switch regulators while still breathing and surfacing.
  • Use hand signals saying we were ok, signal that we wanted to surface, signal that we wanted to go down, etc.

There were about 24 different skills that we had to perform to show Birgit that we could do them with confidence. The hardest one for me was the mask removal. First, we had to demonstrate clearing our masks. We’d pinch the top to get some water inside the mask, than we’d breathe out forcefully through our nose while holding the top sides of our mask, allowing the water to go out the bottom.

I had two problems: 1) I have always plugged my nose when I go under water, so letting water into my mask was causing water to go up my nose. 2) I was lifting my mask up too much, so more water would just come in instead of it emptying.

Birgit assured me that if someone struggles with diving, it’s always the mask removal and clearing part. She encouraged me, was patient, and talked me through it.

I was eventually able to clear the mask, but then I had to do the mask removal. In this skill, we had to remove our mask entirely, keep it off for about three seconds, and then put it back on. It would be full of water, so we’d have to clear the mask. We had to do all of this under water. Because the chlorine would burn our eyes, Birgit said we could close them, which I did.

Once I took my mask off, it felt like water was gushing up my nose. Birgit told me that water would stop going up and it would be fine, but there was something causing me to breathe in bursts. It wasn’t natural for me to close off my nose. I am someone who only breathes through my nose when I sleep. I am not conditioned to not breathe through my nose.

After a few tries, I was able to do the mask clearing and the mask removal. However, because I had struggled with it, Birgit made me do it a few times successfully before she was satisfied. It made sense. In order to certify me, she needed to know that I could do it calmly and not panic. Doing this several times was exhausting, but I completed it.

We took a quick five minute break to use the restrooms and then were back in the pool, but this time it was in the deep end. I had to equalize my ears a few times on the way down. Then we were tasked with doing all of the same skills. They would be back-to-back, without surfacing. Once we passed this part, we’d go into the ocean the next day and do some of the skills there, including the mask removal.

In the deep end, we had to do an additional skill. It would involve taking our mask off, swimming with Birgit so she could guide us with our eyes closed to one end of the pool and back, and then putting our mask on and clearing the water. This time, Birgit had the other girls do the skill before me.

As I watched Birgit guide the other girls one-by-one, I had time to think. I was exhausted. At this point, we had been in the pool for almost five hours, I was hungry, and I was also nauseous. I didn’t take any motion sickness medicine and the motion of the water over several hours was making me feel sick.

My mind wandered, Why am I doing this? I won’t be able to have my mask off that long because water will go up my nose. I won’t be able to clear my mask. If I’m panicked in the pool, I’m going to really panic in the ocean. Do I even want to dive? Am I just doing this because it’s cheaper here and it would be cool to say I did it? Maybe I don’t even like diving. I’ve never even done a ‘try dive.’ I don’t need to do this. I should just give up.

I looked to the surface and contemplated swimming up. Then Birgit came to me and it was my turn to do the mask-removal swim. I took off my mask and almost immediately swam to the surface. Sweet Birgit tried to convince me that I was so close and to return to the bottom, but I told her I needed a break.

I sat on the side of the pool while Birgit finished the last few skills with the other girls. Once they were finished, Birgit asked what I wanted to do. I told her that I couldn’t do it and I wanted to do the “try dive” the next day instead of continuing with the class. Birgit told me that it’s natural to struggle with mask removal and that I was so close to finishing, she didn’t want to see me give up.

I felt defeated. I’ve never quit anything in my life. I was drained and I felt like a loser. Birgit convinced me to meet her from 7:00-8:00 am the next morning before class and we could finish the last few skill exercises in the deep end and if I passed, I could continue with the certification. I thought maybe I’d feel better the next day, so I agreed.

I drove back to my Airbnb, showered, and met Davina at a restaurant for dinner. I met her on Phi Phi Island a few days prior. She’s in her 40s, is from Wales, and was traveling solo. I told Davina about my diving experience, how I thought I couldn’t do it, and felt like a failure. She was so encouraging and told me that I could do it. She is certified to dive and was going to get her advanced certification while on Koh Tao.

Davina and I had a nice dinner by the water. We talked about our previous relationships and dating at our age. It’s not easy and we both had stories (more like nightmares) of trying to find a good man. Davina has kids aged 18 and 23. She talked about them and how she encouraged her daughter to be an independent, strong female. Davina was really encouraging and I’m so happy I had her there to support me and make me feel like less of a failure.

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When I got back to my Airbnb, I did the homework and tried to sleep. I had a difficult time because I knew what awaited me in the morning. I tossed and turned, hoping that I would be able to complete my dive certification.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 228-229: Overcoming Fears? Maybe Not…

I arrived at the hotel and met the 15 people who I would be spending the next nine days with through REI Adventures. My taxi was late getting to my previous hotel to pick me up, so I arrived about ten minutes late. Everyone was fit and standing in the lobby of the outdoor/indoor hotel. The guide, Tri, was giving the group an overview of what the week would look like. I met everyone so quickly, I couldn’t remember who came with who or anybody’s name.

The two vans would be leaving soon to take us to our first destination for the afternoon. While we briefly waited, a girl walked up to me and said, “Hi, you must be my roommate. I’m Nicole.”

We were both solo travelers and neither of us paid the $600 single supplement fee, so we were roomed together. Nicole was 44, but looked like she was in her early 30s. She had brown hair, a sweet smile, and was very athletic. She lived in Denver, Colorado and worked from home as a project manager.

It would take me two days to learn everyone’s names and remember where they were all from, but here they are!

Nancy and Steve: Married couple in their 50s who live in North Carolina

Andrea and Scott: Married couple in their 40s who live in Minnesota

Christian and Kristen: Married couple in their early 30s who live in Washington

Terri and Cathy: Two women friends in their 50s who live in California

Mimi and Lisa: Two women friends in their 50s who also live in California

Tien and Clark: Friends Tien (in his 40s) and Clark (in his early 60s) who live in New Mexico

Neil: Man in his 60s who also lives in Washington

Nicole: Woman in her 40s who lives in Colorado

We boarded the two ten-passenger vans and drove to Wat Suan Dok Temple. I sat in the front row of one of the vans, next to Cathy and Clark. We talked and got to know each other. It was clear that there were different personalities on this trip.

We arrived at the temple and had to climb up 300 steps. I was wearing mid-length jeans that made it an uncomfortable journey to the top. To get into the temple, women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. I was wearing a tank top, so I was provided a short-sleeve shirt to wear while I was inside.

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Our guide, Tri, had been leading tours for several years. He was short, had black hair, and had a huge, welcoming smile. His English was pretty good, but sometimes we struggled to understand each other.

The temple was outdoors and I was sweating in the sun. We had to take off our shoes and leave them outside. The stone floor was warm on my feet and I didn’t like walking around barefoot. We huddled around statues as Tri told us about the stories behind them. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist. I was starting to get overwhelmed after 30 minutes. It was a lot of information to take in and the heat wasn’t helping.

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The temple was full of tourists. With a group of 15, it was difficult to navigate through the crowd. At one point, I accidentally lost the group and the people behind me were now lost with me. Clark teased me because he had been following me. Oops. We eventually found the rest of the group and then headed back down the 300 steps.

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We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant. All of our meals would be shared family-style. There were five vegetarians, so Tri asked that they sit together to make sharing easier. During lunch, I was able to talk to a few people and tell them about my travels. They were surprised to hear that I had been traveling for seven months and they enthusiastically asked me questions.

Nancy works at an REI store, which is a separate division of REI Adventures. Her khaki clothes gave her an outdoorsy look. It seemed to make sense that she’d work there. She knows a lot about the outdoors, so I’m sure she is super helpful to customers. Her husband, Steve, works as an engineer and is also into the outdoors. He struck me as responsible and smart.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to check-in and clean up a bit. The hotel was a beautiful resort that had a lot of green trees and impeccable landscaping. It had soft, comfortable beds.

For dinner, we boarded the vans again and went to a restaurant. Because it was Chinese New Year, Tri gave us the option of going to an outdoor market to check out some festivities. Some people in the group had just flown in that morning, so they were exhausted and opted to go back to the hotel. A few of us went to the market.

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It turned out to be the market I had visited the day prior. Now that it was nighttime, it was packed! It was difficult not to get separated from the others. We watched some festivities on a stage and walked around the booths.

After walking around a little bit, we decided to go back to the hotel and get some rest. The next day would be our first hike and ziplining. I was excited for hiking, but less excited about ziplining.

We ate breakfast at the hotel, which had an incredible buffet spread, and left for our hike. We drove to a small village of wooden houses precariously built on a steep hillside on the side of a mountain and started our hike.

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Once we passed the houses, we started to climb on a trail through the forest. It was warm outside, but there was a cool breeze. I quickly fell to the back of the group. Ascending is harder for me because it’s hard to catch my breath. My slow heartbeat starts beating too fast and I need small, 30-second breaks.

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I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. They’re the young married couple from Washington (Seattle). Christian works for REI Adventures and does the planning part before people leave for the trip so they’re all prepared. He had been working there for less than a year and really liked it. He wanted to make it clear he was just on vacation and wasn’t working.

Kristen worked in admissions at a university in Seattle. She was so sweet and friendly and also wanted little breaks, so we stuck together. They are one of those couples that is really cute together because they are both kind and thoughtful.

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The trail was narrow and not very well maintained. Trees and bushes often overtook the trail. The dense forest was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t more humid. It was “cool season” for them and being in the mountains made it much cooler than the rest of Thailand. Thailand has three seasons: Cool, Hot, and Rainy.

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We arrived at a beautiful waterfall where we took pictures and ate snacks. I took a picture with Nicole, my roommate. She was hiking at the front of the group because she’s very athletic.

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After our snack, we continued climbing. There were a few bridges, which were ladders laid down with some fences, that we had a cross. One bridge was more a swing-type bridge.

At times, the trail was steep and narrow on the side of the mountain. Tri said once during the rainy season, a guest slipped and slid down the side. She ended up being ok, but was cut up. I was grateful it wasn’t raining.

After several miles of hiking, we went to a beautiful outdoor restaurant for lunch. Most places in Thailand are outdoors, which makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.

During lunch, I talked with Tien. He’s a psychiatrist, but was going to start a new job soon working in more of the administration side of a healthcare company. He was married with two young kids. Tien had a subtle sense of humor. We talked about my travels and his job throughout lunch.

I also talked with Clark. I told him about my solo travels and some of the things I need to be aware of as a solo female. He said, “You’d be hard to kidnap.” I asked why and he replied “Because of your attitude. You don’t seem like a victim.”

After lunch, it was time for ziplining. We drove five minutes to Flight of the Gibbon. We were fitted with gear and weighed because they have weight limits. Because our group was so large, we split into two. My group had the following: Clark, Tien, Scott, Andrea, Mimi and Lisa.

Clark and I were both nervous. He’s tall and extremely fit. He does a lot of trail running behind his house in New Mexico and can be pretty hardcore with his workouts, but ziplining didn’t appeal to him very much.

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We jumped off the platform one by one. To stop, this zipline company doesn’t use brakes. The zipline in Canada that I had gone on a few months prior had a brake system. Instead, you have to raise your legs when you’re coming into the treetop platform and the guide will help stop you before you smash into the tree. I was nervous about this because on the zipline in Canada, I kept inadvertently turning around, so I always went backwards. This time I needed to make sure I didn’t turn or I wouldn’t know when to raise my feet.

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The zipline has 14 lines, which is a lot. The two other places I’ve ziplined only had six to seven lines. I zipped across, tightly holding my harness. I could not relax because I kept thinking I’d be too heavy and I’d fall. What if the safety standards haven’t been met? I tried to convince myself thousands of people do this and I’d be fine.

Once I landed on a tree platform, the guide would hook my harness onto a cable wrapped around the tree. This was necessary because the platforms were very high into the tree with very limited space for standing. The seven of us would pile on, hugging the tree as we waited for everyone to finish. A couple of times, there were still people on the tiny platform from a group in front of us. I worried there were too many people on the platforms, but at least we were clipped to the tree.

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We continued zipping through the forest, and each time I was scared. I just wanted to get done with it. The trees were beautiful, but I just couldn’t shake the fear. The local guides sometimes did crazy things like pulling on the line when someone was on it, making the person bounce. On one line, they recommended we go “Superman” style where our face would go first, facing the ground. Then we’d have to climb up a rope net. I just did the regular line instead of that contraption.

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Most people were really enjoying the adventure, even if they questioned some of the safety standards. Clark, on the other hand, was like me. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first because he’s a big jokester, but he was just as frightened as me. Fourteen lines is a lot and it was starting to weigh on him. He knew there was no way out – we had to complete the lines. At one point, he turned to me, “I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m serious. I have nothing left to give.” I knew exactly how he felt.

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Halfway through, we came to a section where we had to rappel down from high above on the tree platform. I’ve never repelled before and having to rely on the guides lowering me down was not comforting. I knew I had no other option to get down. I sat down and tried to get myself to go through the small square hole in the platform. I told the guy to go slow and said I just want to get home alive.

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We continued on several more lines until we were finally done. The final line was to rappel down again. This time I enjoyed it. The guide lowered me slower than others, which made me feel better. Once we were done, I was relieved.

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A few months later, Scott came across an article about that zipline, Flight of the Gibbon. A 25-year-old Canadian tourist was on those same lines two months later and fell to his death. He was halfway through one of the lines when “the lock on his body harness and the main line broke.” His girlfriend watched as he fell and I can only imagine the horror they both felt. My heart breaks for them.

Reading about that accident and the history of accidents at that zipline made me incredibly grateful we were all safe. I recognize that many thousands of people have been on those lines and have not gotten injured. However, the company has had other accidents and even deaths over the years. From my own experience, I can say the safety standards were poor. Pulling on lines to make people bounce around was not safe. The company is currently shut down for an investigation. REI Adventures has discontinued using that operator and instead of zip lining, people will now meet elephants. I think that’s a great alternative and I’m happy they are always looking out for the safety of their members. I can confidently say that was my last zipline adventure!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 40: Glamping in Madeira Park

After checking out of my Airbnb and grabbing a quick breakfast at a local café, I headed to the Hard Rock casino so I could buy the one souvenir that I collect: a Hard Rock shot glass. At the front entrance of the casino, a young girl scolded me for trying to walk inside, and asked me for my ID. Surprised since the gambling and drinking age in Canada is 19, I showed her my ID. Shocked, she said, “Oh wow. I’m sorry. You just look very young for your age.” I told her it was no problem and I happily headed towards the gift shop.

While I was there, I figured it couldn’t hurt to gamble a little bit. I changed a $20 US bill for $25 Canadian dollars. Within five minutes, it was gone on slot machines. That was fine since I didn’t really have the time and I was nervous leaving my car outside with all of my stuff (worried ever since my car was broken into in Portland).

My next reservations were in Madeira Park on the Sunshine coast. It’s not technically an island, but since it’s only connected to land many miles up north with no road access, you have to take a ferry to get there from Vancouver.

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I got in line for the ferry and saw row upon row of cars lined up for the ferry to Vancouver Island. Thankfully, I was going to Gibsons, and there weren’t nearly as many people trying to get there. I didn’t have a reservation, but thankfully I made it on the next ferry. After sitting for about 45 minutes, I drove my car onto the ferry and walked to the top deck.

The 40-minute ferry ride was stunning!  The giant mountains rising above the ocean reminded me of traveling through a fjord in Norway. Not many people were outside because it was incredibly windy. So windy that I tried not to take many pictures for fear my phone would be ripped from my hand. I used my GoPro since I could grip it better.

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At the front, top deck was one other person – a guy close to my age. He was thin with blonde dreadlocks reaching his lower back. He had headphones on and looked out to the ocean in a whimsical way. I wanted to talk to him but didn’t know how to start a conversation.

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https://vimeo.com/301753810

When the ferry arrived in Gibsons, I drove my car off and headed towards Madeira Park. The road winded through the trees and gave glimpse of the ocean as it followed along the coast. I lost cell service but still made it to my next Airbnb, a tent.

I arrived to the resort at 5:30 pm and checked-in at the outdoor front desk. I had booked the “safari style” tent for $99, but it was only available for one night. They also offered cabins, but I wanted the experience of staying in a safari tent. I asked the women if they had anything available for a second night and she said the only one they had available was their private, romantic tent. It cost more but since she didn’t have it booked, she’d give it to me for two nights at a discount.

I figured since I spent the time and money getting there, I should stay for two nights, so I told her to sign me up for the romantic private tent.

The only problem with this tent is that I had to park my car on this little gravel area just off a road on their property, walk down a steep gravel road, then down steep stairs, before arriving to my tent.

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See my car in the top left corner

The tent had a front porch and a side porch with two chairs and a mosquito net.

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I unzipped the plastic covering over the door, unlatched the screen door, and went inside.

It had a beautiful bed, a small table, and a little fireplace-looking heater. The wood floor was nice to have for a tent, but it had cracks in it between boards and I worried bugs would get in. It definitely had a romantic vibe and I was a little sad I didn’t have a partner to spend time with there…like that cute, dreadlocked stranger on the ferry.

The property also had a porta potty near a large wooden gate to keep the area private. In front of the cabin was a ravine falling away into a river below.

After I brought a few things down the hill from my car, I was ready for dinner. I walked down the road past the cabins to the restaurant they had on site. The entire place was very outdoorsy and I only had cell service in a couple of spots.

The only food available was at the Italian restaurant near the check-in area, which was pretty expensive. Having no other options, I sat down and ordered some salmon tortellini and dessert.

As I was finishing dinner, the sun was setting across the lake on the other side of the main paved road. The resort owned the dock entrance to the lake so I walked over and took some pictures.

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On the way back to my tent, I walked across a shaky low bridge over a lake and past the cabins again.

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To wash my face, I had to walk back up the hill near my car to use the shared bathrooms. It was now dark so I headed back to my cabin. String lights lit up the porch and surrounded the tent, which helped.

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Once inside, I saw a spider hanging out in the corner. I figured he’d leave me alone and I was in his territory so I didn’t kill him. Having no cell reception or TV, I read a book and went to sleep. However, as I started to fall asleep, I heard something walking towards the tent. I figured it was my mind wandering, but then I definitely heard something or someone walking on the rocks right outside my tent.

My heart started racing. Was it a person who would attack me? Was it a bear who would eat me? I was defenseless with no cell reception. I tried to rationalize it by saying my tent was secluded and someone would have to climb down the hill and stairs, or open the wooden gate to even know I was there. If it were a bear, he’d have to climb up the ravine. I panicked at the sound of each leaf I heard crumpling.

I slowly got up, put on my glasses, and closed the plastic flaps over the two screened windows. I slowly laid back in bed, trying to prevent the bed from creaking. For some reason, having my glasses on and being wide awake staring at the ceiling made me feel better – like I would be prepared for an attack. I tried not to make any noise and hoped whatever was out there would eventually leave.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

 

Day 37: Stuck at the Canadian Border

I made myself a delicious breakfast at my friend Chanell’s house while she kept me company, trying not to throw up from morning sickness. I felt so had for her. I could see the nausea she was going through and she still had to care for two small children. She was a trooper.

Once I left Chanell’s house, I drove north towards Vancouver.

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I got to the Canadian border around 3:30 pm. With excitement, I drove up to the drive-through window when it was my turn.

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The middle-aged man asked me all sorts of questions as I handed over my passport.

“Where do you live?” – Los Angeles

“What do you do for a living?” – Well, I used to be an operations manager, lol.

Used to be?” – Yeah, I quit my job and sold my house so I can travel.

“How much money do you have access to?” Um, that seems personal.

“Credit cards?” – Yes. I have plenty of money.

“What are you doing in Canada?” – I’m driving the Alaska highway to Alaska!

“How long will you be in Canada?” – Um, a few weeks as I drive up north.

“Do you have any weapons? Guns? Knives?” – I have a small backpacking knife.

“Pepper spray?” – Oh yes, I do have a small thing of pepper spray.

“That’s illegal in Canada.” – Oh, I didn’t know. I can give it to you (digging through my purse)

“No, you need to pull your car over there. We’re going to search your entire car.”  – But I can give it to you right now…once I find it.

“No, pull your car over there and go inside.”

Oh no. I had no idea pepper spray was illegal in Canada. I parked my car and went inside the building. I stood in the line for Americans (I was the only one) and nervously looked around at the immigration officers who now seemed unfriendly.

Definitely trying to intimidate me, the officer called me to the desk and asked for my passport. I explained I didn’t know pepper spray was illegal. I never carry it on me but as I was packing up my house, I saw a bottle in a drawer I had forgotten about. I purchased it years ago but figured since I was a single female traveling alone, I’d bring it with me. I was now regretting that decision.

I was told to sit down in the waiting area while they searched my car and took my pepper spray. I started freaking out while sitting in the hard, plastic chair. I thought, “What else do I have in my car that’s illegal? I don’t know Canada’s laws. OMG, am I not getting into Canada? I just want to turn around. What if there is something else in there and they detain me? Every time I travel, I meet a Canadian and they’re always nice. But these guys are not nice.”

There was a TV in the corner with no sound and of course, a hockey game was on. The other 20 people sitting there were all Asian or Middle Eastern. A guy next to me was sending a text to someone and asked me how to spell immigration.I feel you, dude, I thought. I helped him and asked why he was there. He replied, “My visa expired.” I said, “Oh. I brought in pepper spray, which is illegal apparently.”

I didn’t have cell service (I think they purposely block signals) so I couldn’t search for Canadian laws. I noticed the agent who had helped me was on the phone at the counter. Thoughts raced through my head, “Oh no, who’s he talking to? What’s happening?

After 30 painstaking minutes, my name was called so I headed to the desk. “You also had apples in your car. You cannot bring them into Canada. I put them on your hood and you need to throw them away”, he said.

“So I can go?” I asked.

He lightened up, “You need to sign off on the pepper spray. Did you want to pick it up when you leave, or have us dispose of it?”

“You can dispose of it.”

“You know, this probably cost you $10 in the States. But it costs us $50-$60 to dispose of it properly in an environmentally friendly way.”

“Sorry?”

“Bear spray is legal. But not people pepper spray.”

“Really? That’s funny. In California, bear spray is illegal and people pepper spray is legal.”

I headed to my car and threw the apples away as the officers watched me. I felt relieved but also still shook up. It’s not a good feeling when you think you’re about to be detained. I am a law-abiding citizen, and I respect law enforcement. Being made to feel like a criminal felt horrible. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

I always meet Canadians when I travel and I’ve always thought they were so nice. I wondered, “Are the border patrol agents tired of the “nice” reputation so they overcompensate and intimidate people?” At any rate, I would end up crossing the border many times and each time I was nervous because of this incident.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek

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