Becoming a PADI Certified Diver while traveling

Alicia & John - Great Barrier Reef - GoPro underwater Selfie

Diving has become one of our favorite activities.  It’s actually not too hard to become a certified diver while on a trip!  Getting an Open Water diving certification can take between 2-4 days depending on how rigorous the course is and how much you want to cover.  Here’s what we experienced to become PADI Open Water divers.

We are PADI Certified Divers!

Cairns, Australia

We knew we wanted to do it in a more developed country.  While we love places like Thailand, they usually do not have very high safety standards.  Or any thought to safety at all.  As one Brit put it: “The Buddhists believe in fate, so they don’t plan things out.  If it’s meant to go badly, it will.  If it’s meant to go well, it will.”  That’s terrifying.  SCUBA diving does entail some risks, especially for those unfamiliar with it.  But good training in the beginning can go a long way towards keeping you safe and making sure your future dives are enjoyable as well.

diving-classroom-training

First up, there’s some book knowledge you need

I know, I know.  Who wants to be in a classroom on vacation?  But learning the theory behind what you’re doing can go a long way to making it more fun as well as much safer.  That’s what I really like about the diving community: it’s a safety culture first and foremost.  You’ll learn and practice safe diving over and over again.  By the time you get certified, you’ll be very comfortable with what to do if something goes wrong.

The dive shops that we’ve been to have been mostly staffed by younger people looking for a fun career in the sun.  There’s a lot of 20-somethings that are effectively guarding your life when underwater.  When I was in my 20’s, I wasn’t exactly the most responsible person out there nor did I have a ton of attention to detail.  And I still had a bit of the “live forever” mentality from my teenage years.  This is a really long winded way of saying: PAY ATTENTION TO THE SAFETY PART OF THE CLASSES.  While all of our divemasters have been outstanding, at heart they are still young adults who came to this life to party and night and swim during the day.  Don’t test their limits.  Expand yours.

pool-play-time

Pool play time!

After learning some theory about how to dive safely, it’s time to get in the water and practice some techniques in the kiddie pool.  It’s only mildly embarrassing that you signed up for SCUBA lessons and are using flippers in the shallow end.  Don’t worry, soon you get to the good stuff.

scuba-in-pool

Diving in the pool

Here’s where it starts to get good… and scary.  Sorry for no underwater pictures here, but they don’t allow the GoPro along while training.  I think this is fantastic as it keeps the focus on the training.

The scary part is necessary to learn how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.  They have you remove all of your gear and put it back on underwater.  Off goes the mask and your air.  You have to put them back on yourself.  There’s also the practice of running out of air and having to share your buddies air.  I’ve had my mask and regulator (mouth piece) kicked off underwater by another diver, so it certainly is important to learn these skills so you’re comfortable using them when off on your own.

After all of the pool work (sometimes these are done in the shallow parts of the ocean or lake instead of a pool), it’s off to the real fun: completing your certification in the open water!

dive boat australiaOn board the dive boat

The other nice thing about doing it in Australia is the wonderful accommodations.  This dive boat costs millions of dollars and drives itself by GPS.  Learning on a Thai longboat wouldn’t have been terrible, but in Australia there were so many staff members willing to help as well as space on board.  When learning something like diving that can be stressful, disorienting, and tiring, it’s good to have the little things taken care of.

underwater-certification

Getting your Open Water certification

Everything that you practiced in the pool, you do in the open water.  In the above picture, a class is gathering on an underwater frame before practicing their descent down the descend line.  Did I mention how amazing this boat was?

If you can do it in the pool, you can do it in the open water.  The Great Barrier Reef was a wonderful choice as there was no current to deal with.  When we were in Thailand getting certified on our Advanced Open Water, the current made some of the exercises much more difficult.

alicia double ok

Yay!  We’re certified!

Diving is a wonderful experience and we highly recommend it if you’re even slightly intrigued.  While the certification can cost a fair amount, subsequent dives can be very cheap.  In Thailand, each dive only cost $20!

We’ve gone on to get our Advanced Open water certification to dive deeper, we’ve done night dives, and even dove a wreck!  Diving is a wonderful life-long skill and I’m so glad we did it.

fish overload
Reefs are filled with marine life: it’s like swimming an aquarium!
wreck diving
Diving a wreck in Thailand: they had Western toilets down here, but not on the boat!
night diving coral
Several of us shining light on a coral while night diving

Dining with Hookers

dining-with-hookers

I travel to learn about myself and the rest of the world.  Sometimes I learn things that aren’t pictured on most travel brochures.  Like prostitution.  I’m going to admit straight up that I don’t have first hand experience with it, but we see it all around us when we travel.  Usually at dinner.  The guys will bring the working girls to eat before they presumably go somewhere more private.  And I just have one question: why is dining with hookers so common?

dining-with-hookers

How to spot it

It’s generally pretty easy as it almost always starts with white male and native female.  That can’t be the only factor because obviously people of different ethnicity get together all the time.  It becomes more likely when the two are pretty far apart in age and/or attractiveness.  The clincher is when there’s a language barrier.  A 50 year old eating with a 20 year old and neither are talking?  That’s not some old family friend coming to visit… (Bonus points if only he is eating)

The First Time We Saw It…

…was in Jamaica.  This was our first international trip together, and it wasn’t going smoothly on our first night there.  Everyone and their brother kept offering us drugs, our room was a shit-hole crawling with bugs and lizards, it was hot as hell even at 10 pm, and we were hungry.  Our cabbie took us to a run down place the locals frequented that had the most mediocre food I’ve ever eaten.  And then, sitting at the next table was an aging hippie with two girls that couldn’t have been older than 20.  Neither of the girls were eating, no one was talking, and he was not in any hurry.  All I could think was: Jesus this country is hell on earth… we have how many days left here?

It wouldn’t be the last time we saw Dining with Hookers.  We are in Thailand at the moment, and here they have made working girl dinners into an art form.  We are staying in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok which is a trendy area for tourists to be.  We are a few BTS stations down from Nana plaza which is widely considered to be the hub of prostitution in the city.  Next to us is a collection of tents that is it’s own makeshift mall.  In typical Thai fashion, people set up their shops/bars/restaurants wherever there’s an open piece of cement.  Inside this tent-mall, the clientele is predominantly tourist.  The tables are usually some combination of white guy(s) and Thai girl(s).  There are Thai women dressed in what we’d call “clubbing gear” back home, just whiling away the evening looking at their cell phone or nothing in particular.  Eventually a guy will show up, and they’ll sit to have the ritualistic silent meal.

It got better!

A couple of days later in Jamaica we walked by the restaurant we’d visited on the first evening where we’d had such a bad experience.  One of the working girls we saw before was talking and laughing with a group of friends.  The drug dealers who are on the beach in Negril were playing a pick-up game of soccer.  It was very humanizing to see them this way.  If someone is in abject poverty or a real hopeless situation, it can seem like they are just doomed and you can get an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  But seeing people enjoy the simple things in live was very uplifting.  I even mentally forgave one of the drug dealers for threatening my life the evening before.

tourist-information-full-service
In Thailand, many places you might not expect are “full service”.

Refreshing Honesty

Livingthai.org (not safe for work!) is a fantastic website around the sex trade in Thailand, written by a purveyor.  In his own words, “a pimp”.  Warning: if you have strong moral objections against prostitution in any form, just don’t go there.  If you want to learn about a sub-culture you might have not known existed, it’s a fascinating read.  In many ways it’s a lot more honest than what goes on back in the US.  In between learning about the sex trade, you’ll see people struggling with racism, wanting to create a meaningful life, and building a community.  It’s a fun experience when after reading an article about the best brothels in Chiang Mai there’s an article on how to succeed in building your business.  Surreal.

Getting rid of the demons

I think it’s pretty easy to sympathize with the people who have sex for money.  Maybe they have no other choice or other options are even worse than selling their bodies for sex.  I don’t really know the situation.

Seeing the guys take them out for dinner reveals a less common thought: maybe it’s not even about the sex at all.  Maybe it’s just sheer loneliness.  I mean, these guys fly halfway around the world just to pay a girl to have dinner with them.  When the best option available is to travel thousands of miles just to pay someone to talk to you… It’s difficult to see the guys as sex tourists and easier to see them as social pariahs.

Watching the working girls operate is interesting: they have a method

The working girls typically operate from a few areas in Thailand, namely go-go bars and massage parlors.

Bar girls usually stand in front of the bar to drag in western guys and get them to buy the girls overpriced drinks.  Seriously, the drinks are like double anywhere else nearby.  As long as she has a drink in hand, she will talk to the guy.  It’s sometimes funny to overhear the guys not quite understand what is going on (“Dude, why won’t she talk to me if I don’t buy her a drink?”), like these guys have the most amazing lives that the Thai girls who barely speak English just have to hear about.  After a few drinks, the bar girl is free to negotiate with the guy regarding other services.

The massage parlors are everywhere in Thailand and they are actually more honest than the go-go bars.  If you want a massage for the listed price, that’s what you get.  If you want something else, that’s what you get.  Like the bars, the girls sit out front and offer massages and other services to passersby.  When I’m walking with Alicia, there are only offers of a massage.  When she isn’t with me, that’s when I hear offers for other “hands-on” activities.  On Phi Phi island, where there is a large backpacker presence, the working girls are even more forward.  They walk right up to the guys and grab their junk.  Even the most clueless guy can figure it out.  If he refuses, they even challenge his manhood: “Are you chicken?”.  You can see the wheels turning as he mulls it over while she has him firmly by the nuggets, thinking “1500 baht is like… $45… that’s less than taking a girl to the movies back home”.

I don’t know what to think anymore

Before the trip I would probably have come down on the sex trade much harder than I would now.  On the one hand, I certainly agree with one of our tour guides: “It’s bad for the Thai people.  The culture”.  On the other hand, seeing the clientele doing it out of severe social isolation makes it difficult to condemn them as well.

So now I just roll with it, politely letting the working girls know that I’m not interested so they can go grab the junk of the next guy.  And maybe, even have dinner with him.

How to save money without feeling broke

save-money-big-purchases

We’ve all read the stories about how multi-millionaire athletes lose all their money soon after retiring.  Developing good spending habits is essential, but no one wants to sacrifice a good life just to save a few bucks.  Here’s how to save money without feeling broke.  Yes, it’s possible!

save-money-big-purchases

Some of these may not mesh with your particular situation.  Take those that you like, leave those you don’t.  I’ve made estimates below based on what we save in real dollars.

High-deductible insurance: Go back and count up all the money over the years you’ve spent on insurance, and then count up how much you actually got from insurance.  You won’t like what you see.  Since we are required to have health and car insurance, saving big here is very important.  It’s also very easy to do: raise your deductibles.  The differences between high and low price plans are usually very minimal.  Often they are exactly the same, with the only differences being your monthly payment amount and the deductible.

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have a lot in savings just yet, which is why you want insurance to kick in after you pay $500 or so: because a surprise $2,000 bill would crush you.  But you pay a huge monthly fee for this, often several hundred dollars per insurance plan.  Play around with the numbers and watch how your monthly payment goes down as your deductible goes up (there’s typically a chart you can look at to compare).  Slowly increase your deductibles for insurance over time, making sure you can afford your current deductibles before raising them again.  When you are able to afford $5,000+ out of pocket for an accident, the amount you pay into insurance is minimal.

Savings – $500/month across health, auto, home insurance.

Buy in bulk: If you know that you’ll need something, buying it in large amounts will often get a discount.  For example, auto insurance gives a significant discount if you pay up front.  Our plan for two cars over 6 months was quoted at $850, but if you paid it up front it was $620!  Memberships to Costco or Sam’s Club pay for themselves by loading up on the essentials at great prices.

Savings – $100/month on stuff you were going to buy anyway.

Get rid of the car payment: Not only does this save $300-600 per month, but it also lowers your insurance as well.  I know it’s tempting to trade your old car in for a new one, but keeping your working vehicle for another year instead of taking on another $300/month payment comes out to $3,600 saved: that’s airfare and a month in Thailand for two people!

Savings – $300-600/month.

Preventative care: This is boring and un-sexy, but an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.  Getting regular checkups at the dentist and doctor is covered by insurance, but having to fix big problems isn’t.  It sucks, but get to the doctor.  If you want discount health and dental care, go visit a nearby university that lets graduate students work on you.  Don’t worry, licensed professionals make sure they do a good job.  And it’s much cheaper.

Ditch cable: Hulu costs less than $10/month and gives you 90% of what a cable package does, all for a fraction of the price.  For things you can’t get on Hulu, buy the season off of Amazon.

Savings – $100/month over traditional cable.

Outlet stores, Ebay for clothes: It’s the same stuff, just cheaper.  Look and dress nicely by wearing designer clothes are bargain prices.

Savings – $100/month.  More if you get a lot of new clothes, less if you don’t.

Buy last years’ model: Car, phone, computer, whatever.  It’ll be deeply discounted because people want the latest and greatest out there.  But do you really want to pay 30-50% more for effectively the same thing?  Think about your car: do you even know what has been improved over the previous year?  Most likely not.  Even if you do, was it worth paying several thousand dollars more?  Most likely not.  Computers and phones are notoriously bad with this.  Last years’ model is 90% of what this years’ is, but it costs a fraction of the price.  You’re still buying brand new stuff, just with a different year on it.

Savings – $1,000/year.  You’re not going to be buying big ticket stuff all the time, but when you do it’s substantial.

Amazon Prime: Before you buy anything, check Amazon first.  With Primes’ free 2-day shipping, you can get that thing you saw in the store quickly and for much cheaper.

Google Play: All the music you can handle for $10/month.

Grocery shop at 2 stores: Most stores will have things differently priced, and you want to get the cheaper items at each store.  For example, we buy a lot of produce, dairy, and basic foods at our local Target.  Then we buy the packaged meals and specialty items at Trader Joe’s.  For things like yogurt, Trader Joe’s is very expensive.  However, TJ’s is much cheaper with their heat-and-eat style of meals.

Savings – $200/month.

Buy generic food brands when possible: This TIME article says it best: “The foods [brand and generic] have been known to come out of the same factories, with the same ingredients inside and everything, with the only difference being the label. The result is that often, switching to a store brand is an easy way to save 30% or so, without sacrificing quality.”

Free to Play games or Steam Powered: Instead of that new Xbox game that costs $60, go onto Steam and download several games for less than $1.00 apiece.  Not just any games, award winning and massively popular ones.  Or check out F2P games like Candy Crush, World of Tanks, or Team Fortress 2.

Roku: We had an Xbox for streaming media to our TV.  The Roku does that for just $30 instead of the several hundred for the Xbox or Playstation.

Smartphones: Review your plan and reduce it if you aren’t using what you’re paying for.  Switch providers to get discounts on new phones or plans.  Often your old cell provider will reduce your plan to get you to stay.  If you think you use too much data and can’t downgrade, here’s a tip that will cut down 50-90% of your data usage: go into the settings and set all app background updates to “manual” or turn off that app’s cell data usage completely.  Instead of Facebook/Twitter/etc sucking data and battery all day, they’ll only update when you tell them to.

Savings – $100/month.

Loyalty programs: Get free stuff and discounts on things you were going to buy anyway.  For example, using our Target Red Card and Cartwheel saves us 10% on products we had to buy to live (food, household items).  Using our airlines credit card gives us double points towards the thing we like most: travel!

Do it yourself: Whatever you need to fix in your home, there’s a YouTube video showing you how.  For example, I save $80 by starting my sprinkler system up every spring instead of having the local company do it.  Instead of paying $2,000 to resurface our driveway, we did it ourselves for less than $600.  I’ve even changed my own brakes on my car with no problems and zero prior experience working on cars.  You can do it!

Travel: Fly during the week rather than the weekend saves 30% in airfare costs.  So instead of going from Sunday to Sunday, go from Wednesday to Wednesday.  Getting 30% off for effectively free feels like cheating.

Matinee movies: Same movie, half the price.

Summary

We’ve done all of the above for years.  Most of the above are pretty painless.  I mean, hey, who wants to spend more on insurance?  Literally no one.  Adding up the savings I made above, it comes to $1,500/month saved.  That’s $18,000 per year that you can get with some easy, easy, easy lifestyle changes.

Bagan, Myanmar: city of temples

bagan-myanmar-balloons

Bagan, Myanmar is known as the spiritual center of the country with it’s miles of pagodas and terrible food.  Fine, most people just think of the temples.  The Burmese have a saying that you’re not a real Burmese unless you’ve gone to Bagan.  It’s a location that attracts tourists from all over the region in addition to international travelers.

ruins-baganThe ruins were built in an explosion of religious fervor during 800 AD – 1200 AD.  There used to be over 13,000 temples in this region, but the number dwindled to around 1,300 recently due to the normal reasons: invading Mongols during the 12th century, earthquakes, protests, and general wear and tear.  The pagodas are still in use today.  Many of these have monks that live right next door and pray every day in them.  There’s a small community of monks that live behind the ruins above.

Going to see the sights in the old fashioned way

John Horse and Cart in BaganSure there are motorbikes and electric bikes available for rent everywhere, but it seems more fitting to ride behind a cart pulled by a horse to go and view thousand year old ruins.  Besides, the roads are quite sandy and traffic laws are more like traffic “suggestions”.  After seeing the litany of leg injuries that tourists had in Thailand from scooters, we decided this would be safer and charming.  Until the horse started peeing and some was splashing back.  That took away a tiny bit of the charm.

bagan-pagoda-close up

You may differ, but I like the fish-eye effect the go pro gives this pagoda when close up.  The area feels surreal in a way that’s hard to be captured by photography.  Well, at least with my limited skills.  There is great attention to detail in the stonework.  Engraved in this pagoda are various spirits, gods, and snakes.  To protect these sites, a government worker is assigned to them to make sure people don’t desecrate them.

steep climb pagoda
It’s a steep climb to the top, but the view is worth it!

miles of temples baganThe landscape is very similar to this: miles and miles of temples dotting the landscape.

It’s not all spiritual harmony…

There’s “New Bagan” and “Old Bagan”.  The old city is near the waterfront and dead-center in the sprawl of pagodas.  In ’88-’89, the government told the citizens of the town that they had to move 4 miles to the south so that they could better preserve the pagodas (presumably).  Did the people get money for their trouble?  Nope.  The government just said: LEAVE.  So they did.  Asking the locals about it, there’s no complaining.  People aren’t really comfortable criticizing their government very much.  But New Bagan seems to be doing OK.  There’s even a large complex going up that will become the new center of town market.

The Burmese don’t have a lot

burmese-bamboo-homeThis is the inside of a Burmese home.  The walls are made from thatched bamboo, and the roof is either bamboo as well or made of sheet metal.  If I got a running start at the wall, I’m pretty sure I could take down the entire building.  The table is where the living room used to be a week before we got here.  This person had so much business that they needed to move next door and turn this building into a dedicated hosting space.

The average person in Myanmar makes $40 per month.  Please, for the love of god, don’t try and haggle for 50 cents.  Sure, if the cabbie is trying to charge you $5 on a $1.50 fare, that shouldn’t fly as they are just grossly taking advantage.  But when a vendor on the street charged me 300 kyat (30 cents) for a bottle of water that should be 100 kyat (10 cents), who cares.  Tourism has helped with money coming into the country, and the people running tours and classes have more of the modern accouterments such as smartphones and cars or motorbikes.

Abandon all hope when it comes to the food

burmese-food
One of our cooking classes. The milk curd (middle left) nor the tomato salad (middle right) are safe to eat though I did anyway to be polite. The chicken soup in the middle with the bamboo is just bland. The vegetable dish middle-right is just oily fried mushrooms and kale. And the two side dishes are loaded with fish paste and dried shrimp. Burmese food just isn’t our thing.

We’ve tried for weeks to find something that we enjoy in the Burmese cuisine, and just haven’t found anything.  For the first time on our trip, we are actively seeking out Western food instead of local.  After taking a cooking class in Bagan, a food tour in Yangon, and trying local restaurants or street food for every meal. While we did have some good food on the tour it was only accessible if you speak the language or had a guide with you – half of what we ate was not even listed on the menu. We give up.

There are a few big issues I have with the food:

  1. Fish sauce/paste – they put this on seemingly everything, and it gives the food a dead-fish smell that’s hard to ignore if you’re not used to it.  They do it in Thailand too, but both the spice and sweetness balances it out.  Burmese food isn’t spicy nor nearly as sweet, so even chicken dishes come out tasting like week old fish.
  2. Lack of protein – Being a poor country, meat is just hard to come by.  Thailand is the same way, but there you can have fried eggs a la carte to add protein to any meal.
  3. Dried shrimp – If the fish sauce wasn’t enough, they also add tiny dried shrimp to dishes just in case you actually taste something other than rotting seafood.
  4. It’s either all fried or dangerous – most things are fried in lots of peanut oil, giving the food a greasy taste and texture.  If it’s not fried, it’s likely not safe to eat since the water isn’t even safe for brushing your teeth.

End on a high note

bagan-myanmar-balloons

The highlight of our time in Bagan was certainly taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the fields of temples.  We went with Balloons over Bagan, a company that has been doing this since 1999.  When they started, they did 280 passengers with one balloon.  They’ve since grown and are on pace to have 20,000 passengers this year!  They are a wonderful organization and everything went off without a hitch.  They believe in giving back to the community, paying their crew higher wages than normal.  There were roughly 20 balloons in the air taking off just before sunrise, creating a pretty spectacular scene.

The hour long ride was pretty quiet as everyone was just in awe of the surroundings.  So instead of too much typing, here’s just a bunch of hot air balloon porn!

inflating balloon
I never put any thought into how these actually fly. So imagine my surprise when there will be that huge flame near our heads.  They gave us baseball caps to protect us from the ambient heat.

Ballons over bagan sunrise square

truly amazing views from the hot air balloon at sunrise

sunrise over Bagan from hot air balloon

hot-air-balloon-over-baganWe’d get close enough to temples where you could reach out and touch them.

aerial-view-bagan-temples

Pagoda Close up Vetrical

alicia over bagan