Huge plumes of black smoke were billowing across the city centre as I made my way across Bangkok on my last day in Thailand. It was a sad end to my time in the country, as soldiers moved in to destroy the Red Shirts' encampment which had disrupted businesses and forced the closure of hotels in the Silom area for the previous seven weeks.
The dispute had dominated news in Thailand for a couple of months and I felt as though I was in the equivalent of Bangkok's 9/11 as I watched the fires blaze while taking a taxi across town to visit a Galway man, Tony O'Connell, who has been living in the city for the past six years.
A curfew was announced for the night of my departure and, thankfully, I got out to the airport with a couple of hours to spare.
But I felt sorry for the people of the country, who seemed so divided, and especially those who work in tourism, most of whom are oblivious to the dispute between the supporters of the former and current PMs. One things for sure, ordinary people were being manipulated by powerful figures who were never in the front line. Oh, and the Thai tourism industry will suffer yet again ... after the Tsunami and the 2008 airport occupation, the Red Shirts had done their bit by ensuring something like 50 countries had warned their citizens not to go to the so-called 'Land of Smiles'.
There had been some bizarre scenes through the previous months, such as the day when a group of Red Shirts held up a train full of soldiers and argued with them over whether they were on their way to Bangkok or the troubled south, where there has been an Islamic insurrection for almost a decade. Eventually, after being told the soldiers were not going to Bangkok, 50 of them accompanied the train to the south, just to make sure.
Koh Lanta, where I was based for the first four months of the year, might as well be on a different planet, but the fact is that most people have to fly through the capital to get there and after all the turmoil of the early months of 2010 I can see a lot of people opting to go elsewhere next season. What places like Lanta need are more connecting flights through Phuket and Kuala Lumpur.
But now Thailand has a reputation for trouble yet again. It's a pity, because for all its expansion over the past decade, Lanta still has a lovely pace of life and a laid-back feel which makes it a hard place to leave. Even though the island was virtually deserted of tourists by the time I left, I really found it a bit sad to have to say goodbye.
I still don't think I could live in Thailand, long-term, for a variety of reasons, but doing the Divemaster course over three months was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. It's not always a great idea to turn your hobby into your job, but those of us who scuba dive tend to really love diving and it was probably a dream of mine for a decade to turn professional. I feel that I learned so much about diving, about business, about life in the tropics, and about myself, that you really couldn't put a price on it. I also met some really wonderful new friends, whereas I felt that I wasn't learning much in my same old job back in Galway.
I spent five days in Geneva to break the journey home, staying in my brother's fantastic apartment and going to Marseille for what was a holiday weekend in France and Switzerland. Bizarrely, the place was taken over by Cardiff and Toulon fans. We hadn't realised that the final of the Amlin Cup - Connacht had lost the semi to Toulon - was taking place on the day after we arrived.
It was great to get home and see the family, especially my parents and little niece, Sofia, after being away for five months. Sofia wasn't a bit strange with me and thankfully appreciated the present I picked up in Marseille.
It felt really strange being back in Galway, with no job or car, but it was time to make plans for the next leg of my 2010 adventures .... a month at a language school in the Basque Country, some backpacking around Spain and visits to Peniscula and Valencia, and then hopefully a few months of volunteer work in South America to round off the most rewarding year of my life.
I'm also hoping to do some DM work at some stage, either in Spain or Latin America, but the main thing is that I'm living out my dreams before I'm too old to travel and see the world. Perhaps it's costing me a bit more than I expected, but you can't put a price on the kind of experiences I'm having during this 12 month career break.
Ayudante Profile #5: Concepcion
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