Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Opportune Okinawa Odyssey Part 1: Tropical Scuba

I was surprised how few people I talked with back home had heard of Okinawa, but I guess my travel guide said it’s largely overlooked by most tourists and I’m not sure if I even heard about it too much either before I came here; save for all those “Iwo Jima” movies and video games depicting the war. Either way, it’s the prefecture furthest to the south with the most American Military bases or something like that. As such, it carries a heavy American influence, so much so that Japanese people will travel here to get a feel for America as odd as that sounds.

Well let’s start off talking about my trip as I usually do, waking up at the beautiful time of 3 in the morning so I may walk ½ hour to catch my 3-hour bus to the airport. Atleast that’s the story I’d love to tell. No, it was much worse than that. I awoke at 3:50 wondering why my alarm(s) hadn’t gone off; I guess they both failed me. Either way my bus was a ½ hour walk away leaving at 4:03 sharp (it’s Japan) and it was pouring rain outside.

I dressed as quickly as I could and jumped on my bike. I later realized I forgot some stuff at home in my haste, but that’s to be expected. So there I was in the pouring rain with this large backpack on my back, on my bike coasting and slipping downhill in the dark (few streetlamps and no light on my bike) then later pedaling uphill like crazy. When I got to the highway overpass I quickly ditched my bike. Now there I was running up stairs with my luggage on my back and ran however far it was for the bus. I got on the bus at 4:08 just before it started to pull away, I think the driver saw me waving and running from the other side of the fence. I was so lucky, and I spent the next hour or so trying not to throw up from running so hard.

My new town mate since Jake left, Michelle, was nice enough to pick up my bike for me later, before it was impounded or anything like that. Either way Neal and I had been talking about karma during our last Wednesday’s unwinding. I lost my camera on the weekend. My car’s engine exploded/seized on Tuesday. I found my old camera somehow Wednesday after the replacement one had been used ironically enough to take a picture or two of my car and now can’t be returned. Thursday was a day of hassle trying to junk my car before my holidays; not to mention having to pack and make plans. And now Friday morning there I was at 4 in the morning soaking wet and now freezing trying to stave off a heart attack and getting sick into a bag. If karma is real, I’d better be getting some sort of compensation one-way or another, I don’t deserve this crap.

Time to forget all that, it’s my holiday now after all. As we flew over Okinawa you knew you were going somewhere special. It was a lot like all those shows on TV where you seen these islands surrounded by blue/green water, white surfs, reefs, and crystal clear water. It was really beautiful. I took a bus to Chatan, a town a little bit north of the capital Naha where the international airport is. On the ride up I spotted a gem that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Japan: an A&W restaurant.

Although I was lost, had a lot of luggage on my back and was sweating up a storm, I managed the hour journey or so for a taste of home; not to mention they had root beer on tap! ROOT BEER! Hell, I drank 3 frosty mugs of the stuff before I left, gotta love refills. The menu was different (pre ‘family’ burgers?), and they had the drive through things in front. I’ve never seen this myself before, although you see it in the old commercials and some movies like ‘Greese’ you see them. I kinda wish I rented a car just so I could drive into one an orda’ me up som berrgerrs.

Perhaps this is what the fast food joint back in the 60’s looked like? Either way I was tempted to buy a mug and mascot out of nostalgia alone, except it had “All American Food” plastered all over the store as if it was more prominent than its own “A&W” symbol. As the nostalgia faded I regained composure and remembered I don’t need that stuff. (See the sundae in the picture? Yup, those are sweet beans on the ice cream. Nothing escapes Japan's influence!)

While I was there, lots of cute locals came and went, and some of their clothing had to have been breaking some laws with how much was showing. Apparently because of this heavy American influence, Okinawa is supposed to harbor Japan’s obese population. I think that is all a lie; just because the woman have some curves doesn’t make them overweight. Also they sported some heavy tans here, something practically unheard of on the mainland, save for the students that play outdoor sports day in and day out. Another cool thing was the constant bomber planes, fighter jets, and attack helicopters that were constantly buzzing around the sky; something that needs getting used to for sure.

After eating two burgers and realizing how much my body can’t handle that much junk food in it anymore, I headed out to confirm my scuba lessons that were to start the next day and got a ride to a nearby hotel. The place was alright and I got a discount for the scuba, but the best part, and quickly becoming my number one reason for traveling, was the people I was meeting.

After a much-needed shower, change and nap after toting around my luggage in that heat over those distances, I headed out to a local bar for some supper. I picked a small place that looked like it might have some specialties and was treated to an amazing evening. I was hoping to study my scuba book a bit and take it easy, but I was encouraged to belly up to the bar with some other travelers from Tokyo. There I had some amazing pork specialties and Okinawa’s own beer: “Orion”. Wow that’s some good stuff.

Anyways we had great conversations for hours, and a lot of in Japanese! My new friends from Tokyo were giving my compliments on my pronunciation and all kinds of other things that make your head swell. I learnt how the foreigners in Okinawa hardly learn any of the language at all, which was apparent to me from reactions I was getting constantly from people. Just saying something simple as “thank you for the meal” in Japanese got this one girl to jump back wide eyed in shock, knocking over her co-worker, and cover her mouth while she gasped “Bikkurishta!!!” (roughly: what a surprise! Shock!) later on in the trip. Oh and there was English signs everywhere! I was tempted to pull out my camera and take a picture of a simple road sign that had English on it; it was that surprising to me.

We got a group photo and traded many stories, but it was time for some sleep because I had scuba class the next day. While I was waiting to get picked up for scuba I got talking with a cute university girl from Tokyo. We talked and talked, as her nervous boyfriend kept getting closer and closer to her, but she was having none of that; not with the way she was staring and smiling at me, even when I did try to include him in the conversation. By the time I left and got in the car I realized to myself: “Did I really just have a 15 minute conversation with a total cutie… completely in Japanese?” It was an amazing accomplishment for me, one that ended up repeating itself many times on my trip, but definitely a milestone for me.

I spent the morning learning the basics of scuba, then the afternoon in a swimming pool learning more basics. For lunch we had Okinawa soba noodles; super tasty. They are a bit thinner, almost crossing the line from soba to udon. There was a typhoon passing to the south so the winds and rains were starting to get crazy encouraging a night in. I ended up reading a book I bought back in Vietnam, something also almost unheard of for me and I really enjoyed it! Holidays are for relaxing after all eh?

Sure enough the next day, Sunday Sept 28, we couldn’t go into the water because of the weather and finished up the rest of our classroom work. We had the afternoon to ourselves so I took a walk to the nearby “American Village”. It was basically a bunch of malls and a ferris wheel on the roof; nothing too spectacular. But of course, since it looked like you were in America it was a rather big tourist draw. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t resist the A&W restaurant that popped up soon after, drinking another 3 mugs of frosty, tasty root beer, and then later watched a movie in the nearby theater.

On Monday we went out on a boat to dive in the ocean for the first time. We did 3 dives and went over many skills, after which we swam around to enjoy that which is scuba. Because I was in training, they advised against me taking pictures, and as such I don’t have any. I guess these pictures I took a couple days later at the aquarium will have to suffice, as I was swimming inches from those beautiful things all around me.

You see it in videos and all kinds of promotional pictures, but it’s a different experience entirely being in the warm water yourself surrounded by these living, moving, colourful creatures. We saw those weird blobby coral things slowly moving in the current, and the bright purple fish that swam around their fingers. We saw weird toothpick like fish swimming near the surface looking like currents of their own, and all kinds of colorful delights I can’t begin to describe because I don’t know their names or what they do. The dive master led me through interesting paths like through a tiny little tunnel, where I saw spiky animals hiding in the rocks. Naturally I fear the ocean, so I didn’t want to touch much; too many stories of the poison things out there.

The second and third dive went further out on the boat, one of them was up along a cliff.
Along this wall were other cool things like large rocks that moved and revealed themselves as fish when the dive master came close to them. Now when I say cliff, it hardly does justice to this monolith of a wall that stood in front of you. It was almost literally straight up and down, maybe 5 or 10 degrees gradient if that. I lost vertigo and panicked more than a couple times being up against something of this magnitude. I mean if you looked straight up you saw 15 meters of water above you, if you looked down, you saw another 20-30 meters of wall sliding down into an endless vat of dark blue far below your dangling feet hung in limbo.

If you looked behind you, you were at real risk of suffering from total sensory loss. You couldn’t see anything but being surrounded by a massive container of blue. You couldn’t hear anything other than yourself breathing. You couldn’t feel anything other than your clothing and untold liters of water all around you. I didn’t do this much or often, and this wall help keep me feel a bit sane. I have a little idea now what being an astronaut must feel like; floating around in an infinity where even gravity doesn’t seem to have any rules on you; we area all but infinitesimal.

After all the activities, that night, I was tired. I already had enough emails from cute girls already which I know won’t go anywhere because of distances involved, and had enough of talking to ones that already had boyfriends. I remember being shocked when Neal talked to some strangers in Vietnam and didn’t swap any details after, but now I understand completely and stopped getting them from people I met too. There are so many people out there, offering so many different things. I’m still new enough at being social where talking to people still feels like work; or maybe it’s the Japanese having the effect. So I decided to take the day off from being ‘social’ as I was on holidays.

With this ‘break’ and exhaustion in mind, (not to mention studying for a scuba test) I didn’t realize until the next day what a large opportunity I missed with one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever talked to. At the time I was just happy being able to talk in Japanese and other now-small accomplishments, but now I realize she was really interested and I didn’t even get her name after talking to her for hours. Everything’s a learning experience eh?

The next day, Tuesday Sept 30, we went out to finish up my scuba lessons. We entered from the beach this time, where I learnt how to handle crazy water conditions and current, as you had to crawl along a chain that went out into the ocean to a ‘cliff’ where the water wouldn’t kill you. There I went over the last skills, and started to get really good at the hardest ones to master: buoyancy and movement. Our dive master even found what used to be an explosive on the ocean floor; perhaps a dud bomb? Real interesting stuff for sure, I wish I got pictures of my adventure. I went back, wrote the test, passed it, got my scuba license and then hopped on a bus to try and meet up with my students that had just arrived in this wonder tropical paradise.

Either way I know I’ve come such a far way from a month or two ago and am understanding more and more some of these quotes I keep posting. It suddenly occurred to me one day when I was like “wow, I don’t recall the world being this friendly, this attractive and this exciting” when I remembered how you see the world is a reflection on how you see yourself. Here I was, traveling solo in a tropical climate, completely comfortable with being totally alone for the first time in my life. I truly have come a long way.

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." Lao Tzu



Anonymous said...

hi tony.
dad here.wish i was there,one of these times one of those hotty's is going to hook you like you would those fish you describe.ha ha.keep up with the great story's.
love dad.

Tnoy said...

Hooked like a fish? You make it sounds so evil :) I just hope it's not painful.

Thanks for the input! I'll keep the stories coming, life has no shortage of new ones here