A coral cradle

The instructor pointed at my son, gently swimming over the wreck of the WWII US warship 3 metres below us, bubbles rising from his oxygen tank. A master diver from Norway, he cradled his arms in a rocking motion, speaking to me with gestures: ‘this your baby boy, and now look at him – a newly qualified PADI diver’. I nodded and smiled – in as much as you can smile with a regulator in your mouth. Where does the time disappear?

My son, Josh, and I were on an expedition. We had spent a week in Singapore, staying with Josh’s Godfather in his beautiful ‘Black and White’ ex-colonial home. It is, to my mind, the nicest of only a handful of such historical houses in Alexandra Park, one of the only green spaces left in this highly developed city state. The sheltered enclave where the British Imperial Military officer elite had their homes between the wars. The excuse for the trip was to give Josh some work experience – The Godfather ran an advertising network in Asia and generously held it within his gift to set my son up with a day in each of five different work streams in his group: media, production, account handling, creative and planning. Every night, Josh returned home to tell us that the one he had worked at that day was, definitely, the one for him – the chosen profession he would pursue. In the space of one working week, he had changed jobs five times. Four future career paths were run up only to be unceremoniously abandoned for the new path that had been explored that day, until the last day, when, the final path was revealed. Needless to say, Josh didn’t ever pursue any of those five routes – he’s a teacher now, and loves it. But the point was to whet his appetite and actually experience different workplaces. And it was a wonderful chance for us to be together in some of my favourite places in Asia.

Josh wasn’t prepared for the tropics. The humidity crucified him. As did the jet lag. In his adolescent life, he hadn’t travelled long haul so the double whammy of arriving seven hours adrift from normality into a water-sodden air weighty with oppressive heat, well, he just wiped out on arriving at our hosts in Russell’s Road. As his Godfather and I sat on the open air veranda and ate dinner prepared by his Amah – one of two, live ins – Josh zonked out in his bedroom. It was my fourth or fifth visit to this little Eden, and a glass of cold white in hand with the prospect of a week living like a colonial was a pleasant prospect.

I made Josh turn up for work on day one in a suit. Probably cruel. He didn’t wear one after that; the people said it was fine to be informal. I went on a run and explored Alexandra Park and its environs. Just to salve my business conscience I even made a trip to the British Consul and enquired about the help they provide for companies trying to win business in Singapore. Cocktail parties and introductions was what it all amounted to. Very civilised. In the evenings we went to various favourite haunts – the Marina Bay Sands (the enormous triple-towered complex with the pool on top), a beach restaurant with sandy foreshore and huge oil tankers moored off the coast (Josh had a dip in the South China Sea), and cocktails on Sentosa Island, and the now defunct China Club.

Josh couldn’t get his head around the servant thing. To our guests’ children, having staff to bottle-wash and prepare a snack anytime and, to Josh’s horror, fetch them over the ketchup, was just the natural order of things. An Amah, Siri, lived in a little mini bungalow down the steps and tucked round the back of the main house. She tended to all the domestic stuff and took a ferry one weekend in four over to a little island where her husband brought up their kids.

It is an alien world more akin to Ivory Merchant films than modern day life. I remember my father telling me that when he served in the Royal Navy for the last few years of the War, he entered a club in what was then a part of the British Empire, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and saw the notice on the wall by the entrance at the top of the steps: “No natives”. Plus ca change. The ex-pat lifestyle is circa RN 1947.

Our adventure moved premises. A three hour flight from Singapore across cloud-scudded ocean and tantalising peeks of five volcanoes lies Bali – our destination. We had booked for 5 days with Bali Scuba to do our PADI certificate as open water divers. Three days in class learning theory and practicals in the pool and 4 dives over two days in open water. We broke every rule and went with an unlicensed cab who had all hell’s delight finding the hotel we were due to stay at for 6 nights. Our hearts fell – yes, it did look like it looked on the website, with one crucial difference – a picture of the main road in to Sanur, which is the busiest road you could imagine, seems to have been omitted from either the photo gallery or the description of the facilities. Our room was hot, not sound proof and, well, we were crestfallen. A phone call to the Dive Centre later and they were investigating our immediate re-location to The Godfather’s preferred choice of Balinese venue, the Tanjun Sari hotel in Sanur.

The Tanjun was, well, more in keeping with the fantasy you’d have about being in Bali. Acres of greenery, a shady green pool, beach front, daiquiris. We felt better. Ready for our diving.

There were three of us on the course. Us and a bearded Aussie undergoing a very visible mid-life crisis. One night we went to a night club. Well, a flesh market, really. The Aussie was in hunting mode. He spied a girl at the bar and summoned the waiter. “That lady at the bar,” he instructed, “get her whatever she wants and put this on the tray”. With that, he gave the waiter his business card. The waiter understood. Five minutes later, the woman joined us. Josh and I were invisible from that moment. It was a slightly daunting environment for Josh but an eye opener for sure. We left. No point cramping the Aussie’s style. Not that he even noticed we were still there by then.

He arrived late for class the next morning.

Doing your PADI, you do about 5 dives in all down to, ultimately, a depth of 18 metres. Our qualifying dive took place at a well known dive site, about an hour’s drive by minibus with all the dive equipment from the school. We checked and prepped the tanks and then our instructor took us in. We had to clear our masks underwater and each of us had to set a bearing and demonstrate that we could navigate to and from the given location. We did and we officially passed our PADI. Photos were taken underwater to commemorate the occasion – one of which you can see here. We surfaced and shook hands. Then we returned below the surface to cruise over the deck of the wreck and enjoy the sea life. It was then that our instructor made the cradling gesture. It was an unforgettable moment in a once in a lifetime trip.

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