Sometimes what you really need to live the life you dreamed of is for everything to go suddenly, horribly, terribly wrong.
My journey started when I moved to Johannesburg with my ex-girlfriend in 2006. My life in suburbia was a pretty typical big city existence. Working for a trade magazine based in Northcliff, I was well settled into the typical daily cross-city commute. My days were enlivened by the road rage exhibited by my fellow commuters; the uncanny ability of taxi drivers to do the exact opposite of whatever it was I had expected and the fact that I lived in a complex yet barely ever saw my neighbours, let alone spoke to them.
And then came the messy break-up – what I now know to be a catalyst for changing my life. I moved into a digs with some old university mates and re-lived digs life from my varsity days. I lasted about a year in Johannesburg after that, but my heart was no longer in it. I had moved there for her and I knew it wasn‚Äôt the life I wanted. So I handed in my resignation and went home to my parents in Botswana.
I had little inkling at the time that this would be the beginning of a series of events that would change the entire course of my life. I was looking into possibilities when my friend Kerri contacted me late in 2008 to ask how I felt about teaching second language English in Thailand; two weeks later we touched down in Bangkok. Thailand was a chance to do something for me, and no one else. I wanted to travel, to have experiences and to escape the superficial veneer of the big city life rat race. With visions of sitting under trees teaching small children how to say ‚Äútomato‚Äù, I set off on my grand adventure.
Escaping Big City Life; Discovering BIG CITY LIFE
The first night in Khao San Road was like stepping into a scene from ‚ÄúThe Beach‚Äù – not the idyllic paradise part; the part where he returns to the sensory assault of crowds and techno music and elephants led through the streets on chains and prostitutes draped over drunken Westerners‚Ä¶
From there it didn’t take long for the bubble to burst. We arrived in Korat to find that the promised jobs weren‚Äôt available. While our hotel was covered by the agent, we hung around for three weeks waiting for nothing to happen. Eventually we decided enough was enough and boarded a train back to Bangkok. The school year was well underway by this time, but with a bit of luck Kerri got a great gig working as a substitute teacher, while I was needed to replace a teacher at a school in the capital.
I congratulated myself on escaping the metropolis of Johannesburg for the laid-back, country living of Bangkok. Times were tough. I was pick-pocketed and the thieves maxed out my credit card. I was so broke I was drinking the notoriously dodgy Bangkok tap water because I couldn‚Äôt afford the cheap bottled water. The dream was swiftly taking on nightmarish proportions.
How Hangman Saved My Life
The school provided me with no syllabus and a broken microphone. Armed with these I was thrown into a class of sixty screaming 12 year olds. I lost my voice three times in the first week. The day I discovered the power of Hangman was pure bliss. Who knew this simple pastime could captivate an audience for forty beautiful minutes? Hangman may have saved my sanity. I don‚Äôt think I could have survived those first few brutal days without it.
When I finally managed to get a transfer, my new school was a stark contrast. Moving into the suburbs I escaped the worst of Bangkok‚Äôs seedy underbelly. The people were friendlier, the kids were enthusiastic; I received talented caricatures of myself and heard ‚ÄúWe love you teacher Rowan‚Äù on a daily basis.
On my walks home from school, I stopped at the local markets to buy fresh fruits and show off my limited Thai to the enthusiastic vendors. Thai people are some of the most genuinely kind and friendly people you will meet, and I was grateful for the chance to be exposed to more authentic Thai culture away from the typical tourist trail. We experienced this firsthand while travelling with some friends to an almost deserted beach. We prepared a meal over the fire and were in the process of dishing up when the Thai family camping beside us arrived with a tray generously laden with leftovers. ‚ÄúBecause you need more food!‚Äù they exclaimed, handing us the little feast. This was not an isolated event and at other campsites we had several camping groups inviting us to share their whiskey and food, which led to many unique conversations.
Onwards and Downwards
Thailand also gave me the opportunity to embark on what would become my new passion. I had always known I wanted to scuba dive and spent my holidays completing my courses up to Rescue Diver before heading out for my next adventure ‚Äì to become a Dive Master in Bali.
I had many amazing experiences in Bali but mostly it was diving, diving, diving. A night-dive on a World War II wreck and my first interaction with manta rays were stand outs. I also had the opportunity to meet and interview Mark Thorpe, the Emmy Award-winning underwater cinematographer and founder of the Global Shark Conservation Initiative. I will never forget my squat toilet, complete with butt-washing cup, in my $100-a-month room with its mattress on the floor, where I used my hammock as a sheet.
After six months I decided to head back to South Africa. Once I was home I helped out on a couple of projects in wildlife conservation, with sea turtle researchers near Kosi Bay and the Cape Parrot Trust in the Hogsback mountains, before landing up in Sodwana Bay managing a small marine ecology volunteering project.
As unforgettable as my time in Asia had been, it was incredible to be home. South Africa really is a uniquely fascinating place with endless possibilities. The sun rising over the Indian Ocean as I worked with newly hatched leatherback turtles was as beautiful an experience as I‚Äôve had anywhere in the world. In Sodwana I free-dived with mating dolphins, came face-to-face with a majestic tiger shark and interacted with a lifetime’s worth of whale sharks. My respect for the ocean and its denizens deepened immeasurably and continues to do so, as has the conviction that the health of our oceans is crucial to the survival of our species.
Sodwana Bay was another major turning point in my life: I was 30 years old, earning an intern‚Äôs salary, living in small huts – but I was happy. I was diving every day, teaching volunteers about reef ecology, and integrating into a small coastal community. Learning and growing daily, I felt I had finally found my calling. My stay in Sodwana was extremely rewarding, as was working with an organisation like WEI dedicated to furthering conservation and environmental research and not least meeting a lovely, quirky German girl on her travels. But then the travel bug struck again.
Central America: A Lifelong Dream
In June we headed to Cuba to work on a two-month marine expedition for school and university students with British organisation Operation Wallacea. Based on the isolated Isla de la Juventud, we made firm new friends and managed to get possibly the last glance at the true Cuba before it gets flooded by the American market.
We celebrated my partner Lynn‚Äôs birthday on our day off by drinking rum in a run-down playground behind the hotel, fondly dubbed ‚ÄòChernobyl‚Äô, and spent a couple of days after the project prowling through Havana Vieja before heading to the gorgeous town of Vi√±ales, nestled amongst domed limestone outcrops known as mogotes.
Amidst sprawling tobacco farms we smoked hand-rolled Cuban cigars, hiked through the picturesque karst landscape and wandered through tunnels and caves straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
From Cuba we headed to Mexico in the midst of a whirlwind of visa complications, with a stress and rum-filled week in Havana culminating in managing to get into Mexico on the transit visa I had needed for passing through Madrid en route to Cuba, but on≈Çy finding out for sure that it would work on arrival in Cancun: one of the perks of travelling with the South African ‚ÄúGreen Mamba‚Äù.
Work and Travel, Minus the Work
Dive jobs in Mexico during low season were as rare as unicorns, so we moved on to Honduras. Though, not before fulfilling a dream of mine to visit Mayan ruins in Tulum and Coba. The latter in particular took my breath away – shrouded in jungle and with some areas still being uncovered by archeologists, it manages to mostly avoid the crowds that throng around the more famous pyramid at Chich√©n Itz√° – and in Coba you are still allowed to climb to the top of the main pyramid.
We stopped over for a few days in the backpacking hotspot of Bacalar on the banks of the tranquil Lagoon of Seven Colours, before crossing into Belize and braving the cheaper ‚Äòchicken bus‚Äô to Dangriga, four hours south. These retired US school buses, while lacking the comforts of the luxury buses, more than make up for it in economy – Belize is not a cheap country! We arrived in the quaint fishing town of Dangriga a fortuitous day early. Apparently the weekly ferry to Puerto Cortes in Honduras now runs on a Friday, not a Saturday, although this is something that doesn‚Äôt warrant any online information updates.
We arrived at the international ferry dock the next morning, our mountains of bags in tow. The rickety wooden dock was riddled with holes, while a couple of jolly fishermen were kept company by some pelicans and terns fighting for spots on the best poles. We wondered if this ferry actually existed, but sure enough, the boat turned up about an hour late (Central American for ‚Äòon time‚Äô) and we set off to start the next phase of our adventure.
As I write I am sitting in Ecodivers Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, where we are instructing, guiding dives and working in partnership with the Roatan Marine Park on environmental initiatives. In just one month we have already had the amazing opportunity to be trained in different methodologies for coral bleaching and reef life surveys. By the end of November will have taken part in around 40 survey dives around the region, through the Smithsonian Institute-sponsored Healthy Reefs Initiative and the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Program (AGRRA), including dives to gather scientific data that will be used to push for a higher level of protection from the government of Honduras, for an area called Lobster City off the east coast of Roatan.
We have no idea how long we plan to stay, we don‚Äôt know yet where we will go next, we‚Äôre being paid in accommodation, food and tips; and we‚Äôre loving it. We’re not really sure right now what the future holds, but who does, really? At the moment we’re considering our options for when we come to the end of our Central American tour, but for the next few months we’re taking it as it comes and enjoying the journey – destination unknown.
Photography by Rowan Watt-Pringle and Lynn Jula Kessler