“So, where are you from,” we asked him as soon as he sat down next to us in the white tour van.
“Argentina,” he replied in a Latino accent, sounding just like The Most Interesting Man in the World. “A town called Mendoza.”
I knew he was awesome, Sheena and I collectively thought.
For the next fifteen minutes, all the way from Krabi town to Ao Nang, we all excitedly reminisced about Argentina: empanadas, Christina de Kirchner and her downward spiraling economy, parrillas, blood sausage, dirty money, banditos, wine, and wide open spaces. By the time the van dropped the three of us off in a dirt lot near the ocean, we’d made ourselves more than a little hungry. From a dirty little shack in the parking lot we purchased some Cup o’ Noodles, extra spicy, and ate them while longing for thick cuts of steak washed down with smooth Mendoza wine.
After close to an hour a man told us to walk down a dirt track, which lead to a skinny pier jutting into the Andaman sea. A small wooden boat with a car motor affixed to the back awaited our arrival, and then shakily transported us to a waiting tour boat moored in the bay for the sunset snorkeling tour.
Once aboard the boat we were joined by a dozen or more other tourists all ready to get their snorkel on. Being that we were to be cruising around and in between several of Southern Thailand’s limestone islands, we quickly bolted to the open-air upper deck to secure ourselves the best seats in the house: a few plastic lawn chairs situated at the front of the boat. And then we waited for the hoards of other passengers to crowd in behind us, but it never happened. For some inexplicable reason, every last one of them decided to pack themselves together in the belowdecks like sardines where they could safely observe the world class scenery and towering limestone cliffs from between the fiberglass pillars supporting the viewing deck above. The very same viewing deck where we three morons sat all by ourselves.
The boat rumbled to life, and slipped away northward along the coastline. Soon, we approached a group of islands jutting straight out of the water like teeth. The boat cut between them while we stared in awe. Soon, we came to rest off the shore of two islands connected by a shallow sandy finger. A rickety boat sputtered toward our vessel to ferry passengers to the islands. Gonzalo looked off of the side.
“Do you think the water is deep enough to jump in?” he asked.
It was hard to tell; several coral heads dotted the sandy bottom, and the small waves messed with our depth perception. “Only one way to find out,” I said.
Before we knew it, he had flung himself over the edge and had disappeared into the water below. “It’s all right!” he yelled as he came to the surface.
I swung my legs over the railing and leapt. Sheena, less danger-seeking, walked down the stairs and lowered herself into the water like a lady. Just then, a skinny, spotty English kid with bad posture I’d noticed earlier appeared above the rail. I hadn’t spoken to him, but my first impression was that he was one of those defiant British youths who would whisper insults about you under his breath using his incomprehensible English slang, but wouldn’t say them to your face. Maybe on a bad day even blow up your car.
“Wow, it’s really fah down theh. Is the wootah ceauld?” he asked. I assured him that in fact the water was really quite warm. It felt like a big bathtub.
“No, it con’t be! It’s prubbly ceauld! It’s seau ceauld, you must be jeauking!”
And with that the spotty English kid plugged his nose, closed his eyes, and fell awkwardly through the air and into the lukewarm water below.
While the rickety boat loaded the other passengers to take them ashore, Sheena, Gonzalo and I decided to swim instead. It didn’t look all very far, but after what seemed like an eternity we became fatigued. The water became shallow and the bottom became littered with dead coral and sea urchins, whose poisonous spines came uncomfortably close to our tiredly kicking feet.
Just before succumbing to fatigue and drowning, we reached the shore. The next forty five minutes would be an amusing study in anthropology; amid all of the available sandy spots in the Andaman Sea, dozens of us ended up on one skinny sand bar, sitting in knee deep hot water wearing rubber masks and snorkels, surrounded by dead coral and leafy detritus floating about in the water. It was what the hip kids might call a snorkeling fail. We happily boarded the rickety boat and left the island.
Once aboard the boat we continued our trajectory up the coast. The captain’s assistant excitedly pointed out “Chicken Rock”. You guessed it, a big rock that looked like a chicken’s head. And at this, I began to ponder the things in nature that people tend to consider interesting. On the scary bus ride to Machu Picchu, a drive that took us through canyons and Andean mountain passes, our driver pointed to the bits that tour guides have come to consider interesting. Namely, several rocks that look like Virgin Maries, eagles, and faces. In the limestone caves of Thailand, we followed tour guides through mazes of enormous stalactites and stalagmites, stopping only to point out the ones that look like crocodiles, heads, elephants, and Buddhas. Apparently to some people nature is only interesting if it looks like something besides what it is. I scoffed at Chicken Rock. It didn’t even look like a chicken anyway.
Finally we reached the rice and beans of the sunset snorkeling tour: the sunset beach barbeque. We disembarked on a small island and made our way to the table on the beach where tin foil-wrapped fish and a pot of rice awaited. The barbecue had apparently happened at a different place and time, but we were here to reap the rewards. We took a couple of big plates of cold fish and rice, Sheena put her sarong on the sand, and the three of us enjoyed the scenery as the sun plunged to the horizon next to a picturesque limestone island jutting out of the sea. Dare I say the island looked just like Cher? Or maybe like a Greek Chariot?
Once the sun had plunged beyond the horizon and our cold fish and rice had been devoured, it was time to head back. We boarded the boat and began weaving back through the islands from whence we came. But the crew had one more surprise.
“Okay everybody, listen to me,” the captain’s assistant announced. “Now it very dark. In fifteen minute we go snorkeling with phosphorescent plankton. Yes, that right, you swim with plankton. Fifteen minute,” and with that she retired to her seat. This was going to be great! I remembered reading about our friends Pat and Ali during their around the world sailing trip. They had described swimming with the phosphorescent plankton and had said that it was like swimming through stars.
The boat approached a limestone wall undercut by millennia of lapping waves, and the captain dropped the anchor. Several of us donned our snorkels and masks and made our way to the back of the boat. We all stood there, peering into the pitch black ocean, waiting for someone to go first. Just then, something appeared in the water.
“What the hell is that?” someone asked. There appeared to be two rather large plastic shopping bags swimming around right where we were supposed to be experiencing the phosphorescent plankton. The captain quickly put his foot into the water and kicked one of them, trying to move it away. It was at this point that I realized that he was attempting to move two seriously large jellyfish aside so that we could frolic in the water. Jellyfish. In the water. Suddenly, seeing phosphorescent plankton wasn’t on the menu any more.
The captain, satisfied that he had rid the water of the deadly floating human-killers, turned back toward us and smiled. “You can see phosphorescent plankton,” he said, timidly.
Hell no I’m not, I thought. Just then, the spotty English boy stepped onto the swimming platform and jumped in. What the!? That little twerp?
He put his head down and slowly wriggled toward the cliff wall. We all stared at him, waiting for his body to convulse and then sink to the bottom in a state of jellyfish shock, but instead he raised his head and spoke.
“Wow, yeah. Thehs loads of ’em. When ah swing my ahm ’round, the wootah lights up wiv all ‘ease bright buggahs.” I couldn’t believe it. This guy? The spotty English boy? Whereas a couple of hours ago he seemed like such a pansy, but now he was swimming through a proper jellyfish farm, waving his arm about like Luke Skywalker’s glowing sword.
Damnation, I thought. If he can do it, I simply must!
I took a quick survey of the immediate area around the boat and saw no jellyfish, so I leapt. It was a simple leap, but it felt as if I were jumping to my death. The warm water enveloped me and I immediately got the heebie jeebies. But the spotty English boy was in the water too, so I had to play it cool. I put my head down and began paddling toward the cliff wall. I didn’t have to go far before I was lost in a trance.
I stared down into the black abyss below me, unable to see a damn thing. The thought of all of the creatures that must be surrounding me, and the untold depth of the ocean below me scared the bejeezus out of me. But when I swiped my arm through the water in front of me, the whole place lit up like a fireworks show! I became entranced, swiping the water left and right, and as I did, stars were born right before my very eyes, whirling in eddies around my hands in 3D. The harder I swiped, the more intense the plankton lit up. It was like I was flying through stars at warp speed. I all but forgot about the deadly jellyfish closing in on me, and about the scary sea creatures below me, and the untold depths that divers would have to dive to retrieve me after I was finally caught by the jellyfish. This was captivating.
Sheena, obviously finding me irresistible in the way I was waving my arms around like a schoolboy, lowered herself into the water like a lady and joined me in my Star Wars warp speed fantasy world. Together we floundered like disoriented Klingons, breathing belabored breaths through our snorkels like Darth Vader, until we sensed that the others were becoming bored back on the boat.
After fifteen minutes or so the spotty English boy headed back, and Sheena and I returned to the boat to reclaim our seats next to Gonzalo.
“Así,” Gonzalo said, “cómo fue?”
“Vale la pena,” was all I could come up with. Worth it. And at that we motored southward.