Monday 12 March 2012

Diving Right In

It was 1997 and scuba diving had become the new social thing to do. It had actually started a few years earlier but I've never been much of a fad person and so resisted. I had also learned earlier from a young person at the Curse of the Witch Queen event that diving was a costly affair. It involved buying much 'personal' equipment and ultimately owning a good computer watch. If it was going to be a fad, it would be one expensive BTDT (been there, done that) thing. It didn't make sense at the time. Also, if I were to dive, I would do so professionally and with explosives - something I explored as a career choice right after National Service.

But the boss of that diving outfit turned me off.

The interview was strange, to say the least. The boss, a lean, youngish chap, probably in his mid-30s, was looking at a fax when I stepped in. He was behind his desk.

"What the chee bye is this?" he exclaimed, upset at what he had read. A lady, whom I later identified as his secretary and wife, replied. "Probably the same old thing."

I introduced myself and we thus began a conversation that had more CBs than I would ever hear from a platoon of Hokkien peng. Reservist included.

"Do you know what the fuck you are getting into?" he asked.

"I think so," I said, somewhat unnerved by his choice of vocab and angry tone.

"You know this job is not for any chee bye son-of-a-bitch."

At this point, I think I rolled my eyes, but said, "Yeah, I think so. I've handled explosives before."

"I know, but do you know the first chee bye thing about diving."

"Um, no. I thought this would be a good place to start."

"Nao hia, you think this is a school, is it?!"

Well, I was beginning to wonder if there was any point in continuing the conversation. I mean it is good to act tough and try and throw a potential candidate off, but there's such a thing as polite exchange in conversation. All I was getting from this guy was that he liked his chee byes a lot.

And his wife was right there in the office. Does she curse with "lun chiao"? That would make them an ideal couple.

Can you imagine the conversation?

She: "Eh, lun chiao tau, wanna go for lunch?"
He: "Aiyah, always eating the same old chee bye."

Sigh. In any case, before I left I found out that it was a family business. That put me off completely. In a family business, an outsider is always considered an outsider. After 20 years an idiot son would be chosen to head the company even if you knew the business like the back of your hand. You will always be a lackey in their eyes.

Now, back to that social/casual diving thing.

A close friend of mine (Set) from my Thomson days called. He needed a buddy for his diving course and wondered if I would like to stand in. We had been to many off-shore adventures together in Malaysia so it didn't take me long (nor much persuasion) to say yes. If we ventured out again, we would each have a buddy to dive with.

Before long, we found ourselves attending lessons at the Raffles JC pool in Bishan. Our instructors were two guys who taught SSI scuba diving. At the time, there were only two popular dive certifying bodies: SSI or PADI, so we often referred to the instructors according to their affiliation, much like in kung fu: Wudang or Er-mei?

PADI was more popular but some folks felt they were too lax. I liked SSI for their systematic approach.

We couldn't ask for two better instructors in Kelvin and Robert. They were very professional, patient yet fun; great guys to be with. They made our dive lessons and open-sea outings very enjoyable.

Kelvin was a supervisor at a precision engineering firm. But his real talent was in taking very professional grade underwater photographs. I've told him many times that they deserved to be in a coffee table book.

Robert flew fixed wing for the RSAF. He had a big pot belly which matched his jolly sense. He's the only guy I knew who drove his car like he was sitting in a deck chair. The backrest was that far back. Was that how they flew helicopters back then?

We did quite a number of pool lessons and then went to the open sea for more. We had to be open-water certified before being able to dive on our own. We went to Pulau Hantu for that, which was in Singapore's own backyard.

At first we were disappointed that our instructors did not bring us to a more exotic locale, like those blue-water ones in Indonesia. Pulau Hantu's claim to fame was sediment. Diving in there was like swimming in tea with a burst teabag. Visibility was as far as the guy's backside in front of you... on a good day.

But Kelvin and Robert were adamant. They believed that training in the worst places brings out the best in people. I just thought they were cheap bastards.

And the island itself was nothing to shout about. A few park benches and simple showering facilities overshadowed by terribly sullen-looking Casuarina trees drained of most color.

But having gone through the course, I must say Kelvin and Robert were 100% right on that score. If you train in a sea with extremely clear visibility, you quickly learn a false sense of comfort. In Pulau Hantu waters, you learn instead (and very quickly) that your buddy is your second lifeline - the first being your air tank. In murky waters that hide even an outstretched hand, keeping your buddy close in case of danger becomes paramount.

In clear waters, one tends to chase fish and explore coral and forget all about having a buddy. So, I was very, very glad to have trained under Kelvin and Robert and dived in Pulau Hantu. I'd also learnt that the waters at Pulau Hantu, although sedimentary was teeming with life. One just had to look closer, nose a nudi branch even.

My dive certificate eventually took me to Pulau Perhentian (east coast), Pulau Gemia (west coast, where one could swim with sharks) and the famous Pulau Redang in Malaysia. That one was deep. The sea life below was truly amazing. It really was like walking in a coral garden replete with pebble paths and coral arch. I am not kidding nor exaggerating. That alone made up for all the money spent on what was then to me a faddish sport.

(Set and I paid $460 each for our SSI open-water course in 1997. We only had to buy our own set of fins and googles. (A good set is extremely useful for snorkeling, especially in places with strong currents) By the early 2000s, operators were offering $280. I know of a friend who was considering a $230 course. It made me wonder about its depth and quality and if that friend of mine has become fish food floating along some South Pacific current tow.)

Soon after, in 1998, golf took off like nobody's business, thanks to one guy named Tiger Woods. Everybody switched to golf. Come to think of it, Tiger had a lot in common with the fella who ran that underwater demolition outfit. Both of them liked their CBs very much.

Afternote: Taking this diving course introduced me to Wee Nam Kee chicken porridge opp Novena. We would go there after our pool lessons. I would eat the porridge with a few dollops of their minced ginger/sesame oil condiment. The more the merrier. The ginger heat is great after a old session in the pool. This rigged porridge reminds me of the street chicken porridge I used to eat as a kid growing up in Geylang. You can read more about it here: Dog Bite Porridge

To see Curse of the Witch Queen pictures, click here. My explosive past: Lost Fingers

Next story: A Walkman Legacy

Photo (L): At Raffles JC pool. L-R: Alfred, Set, Me, SK & Regina; photo (R): Filling in our dive logs during lunch on Pulau Hantu, with tips from Robert. Also present were asst instructors Justin and Eric.

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