It took 3 planes and a 3.5 hour ferry ride, totaling 31 hours of travel, to reach Tao (by the way, this is probably as quickly as you can there from Boston). Jet lagged and overtired as I got on the ferry from Samui, my mind was still struck at just how far I had come to see a place that means so much to Elizabeth. A place everyone in her life has heard about but very few had made the exhausting journey to visit. Sitting on the bow of that ferry, I felt as if I had traveled not only a great physical distance to get my Divemaster certification, which felt pretty secondary, but also traveled so deeply into Elizabeth’s mind to learn more about this special place that has come to define and explain some of the most amazing parts of her. As Tao came into focus, so did the giant pink boat of Phoenix Divers; just like when I arrived at Burning Man Festival in 2012 my mind said to me, “Welcome Home”.
For two years now I had heard about all these faces on Tao; Claus, the lifer that has been there for 20 years; Neil, the Scott that did Elizabeth’s Open Water and is one of the better instructors you’ll come across; Nui, Elizabeth’s Thai friend that stayed with Elizabeth in the hospital after her accident; John, the former dive instructor gone internet poker player; Pooh (or Pooh Bear), the queen bee of the island that you can always turn to for everything; Ella, the Austrian Elizabeth stayed with in Bali; Jeremy, the nicest person you’ll meet; Fin, the Irish friend that I didn’t think I’d ever run into but happy I did. I’ll stop here for the sake of the reader but this list goes on and on; Pim, F, Xavi, Heather, Gail, Rory, Ay, Alex, Israel, Telek, Billy, Sarah, Michelle, Neus, Pee Ow, Simo. We walked from the pier to Phoenix Divers and Elizabeth was met with hugs as we walked along the ‘Yellow Brick Road’. In that moment I felt so lucky to be a part of this place with her and to be welcomed into the beautiful friends and memories she had created here.
What I realized quickly about Tao is that certain people and traditions remain constant all while new faces and dynamics are created. And it is those new people you meet that makes each experience on this paradise so unique. Shannon (Shaz), Luke, Mara, Carlito, Fabian, James, Lamai, Axel, Ping, Matt, Arvid, Julian, Casper, Manu, Kwan, Hugo, Cienna, and Carmen are some of the people, combined with the ones that have been here, that made this experience special for Elizabeth and me.
You quickly fall into the rhythm of the Tao life. Dive during the day, beers and hanging out in the evening. Everything circles around this, which makes life feel very simple. We work so hard in life for simplicity and, at its core, Tao is a simple life. Because of that simplicity I think so many people on Tao are able to really appreciate so much of life and feel in the moment, some for just a few weeks on their vacation and some for the years they’ve spent there. With the occasional BBQ hosted by John and Shaz or the cooking class taught by Lamai’s mother, it feels like Tao has just enough to keep everyone happy and always looking forward to something, whatever that might be.
I was eager to get my Divemaster training started and I wanted to prove quickly to those at Phoenix that I was someone that had put in the time and felt ready to take the next step with my diver education. I decided to choose Neil as my mentor during this process.
When you get to the instructor level, being a good diver is pretty secondary in that you simply cannot become an instructor unless you can handle yourself underwater. What makes you stand out as an instructor is how you interact with your students and how you instill the perfect balance of humility and direction to get them comfortable underwater and ultimately certified. Not taking anything away from the other instructors at Phoenix Divers, but Neil is hands down the best at this that I’ve ever seen. I think it comes down to the fact that he truly LOVES his life and job and he brings every bit of energy that he has to it. There is no part of Neil that is “going through the motions,” whether it’s with Open Water students or helping Arvid and Rory train for their Instructor Exam. He’ll spend hours in the pool perfecting a student’s skills then wake up at 7am for the morning dive with his 7-11 toasty and juice box and be ready to laugh and joke with his students. Whether diving becomes my career or not, I hope that whatever I do with my life, that I can be as enthusiastic and committed as Neil is to his profession.
As part of your Divemaster certification, you must assist on a handful of courses and it was so amazing to assist these instructors and pick up certain parts of their styles and teaching habits. I took an aspect of each instructor’s style that I now feel is my own. I came to Tao confident in my diving but after one and a half months assisting as many courses as I could, I realized after the face just how much further I had come. When Neil told me that I’m ready and that I should take my final exam, I understood what the Divemaster program is all about. It’s not about checking everything off the checklist, it’s about getting to a level of your diving where you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the skills necessary to not only get certified but to do it, at least in your opinion, as good or better than the other Divemasters sitting alongside you.
After a 150 question final exam and the infamous Snorkel Test I was welcomed as a Divemaster with Phoenix Divers. It was a really proud moment for me as this is probably the only hobby I’ve ever had as an adult that I’ve been able to excel at and receiving a Divemaster certification in recognition of what I’ve put into this hobby really meant a lot to me.
This my second trip in two years that focused on diving. When I think about what a career in diving could mean, it makes me a little anxious because I feel just as lost as ever about what to do with my life and where to live it. But what I do know is that when I’m diving, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I quickly received my PADI Pro Number, officially allowing me to take certified divers to fun dive. Days after, while taking two Swedish divers to one of the best dive sites on Tao, it was the first time I could picture happily doing this for the rest of my life. Life is as complicated as you want it to be and, as cliché as it sounds, you must pursue what makes you happy first and foremost and the rest falls into place. Something to think about once this trip is over I guess.
I feel so thankful Elizabeth has shown me this incredible place. This island represents a very core part of her mind and what she is and I’m thankful to feel at home here, literally and figuratively. I am also so thankful for all the people on Tao that welcomed me as if I had been there for years. You people are all amazing and I look forward to continuing to grow our friendships whether on Tao or at a distance.
Sometimes you have to travel great distances to tap the pulse of life or to see further into the life you may want to lead. While Tao will always be a place to visit for me and never my permanent residence, I will now always feel at home there and look forward to the journey of finding how to connect all the pieces I love so much about this island together in some new place with Elizabeth.
Check out our video of a day on Tao!