Emma Cookson - Diving & Marine Conservation in Cambodia
After a sleepless journey filled with as many clichés as a romantic comedy (the obese snorer in the seat next to you, the screaming child who keeps poking your seat…) I finally arrived in a very clean Shanghai airport. Momentarily perturbed by the numerous guards pacing the decks in Soviet-style uniforms, my spirits were soon replenished by a friendly Michael, from Projects Abroad, who whisked me off to my accommodation.
Although being a born-and-bred Londoner, I felt distinctly ‘country bumpkin’ gawking at the vertigo-inducing Shanghai skyline on the taxi ride there. This feeling was not aided when, stepping out of the taxi, I was nearly made into some sort of foreign-flavored jam by the swarm of oncoming motorbikes going what I naively thought was the wrong way.
One lesson I was certainly quick to learn in Shanghai: when it comes to driving, there is no such thing as the wrong way or, when it comes to that, an over-use of the horn - an instrument I was not previously that au fait with. Following this near-death experience, and what proved to be a valuable lesson in road-crossing Shanghai-style, my bag and I were ushered up to what would be our home for three months.
Journalism in Shanghai
The project I had decided to partake in was Journalism, largely due to the fact I want to work as a news foreign correspondent post university. Although having written for both school and local magazines before, this was a whole new level and one that was intensely rewarding, as well as being hugely enjoyable. Writing for ‘That’s Shanghai’ (an ex-pat magazine dedicated to what’s going on in the city), my position as the only intern meant a variety of jobs.
An average day might see me going over listings, researching (and writing) articles, doing interviews, transcribing and some general out and about stuff in the city. Yes, there were boring parts (editing listings being one of them) but that’s part of any job, and also just served to make me realize I relish the boring bits almost as much as the exciting bits. Some of my highlights included some spa and club reviews.
As well as loving every minute spent with the magazine, I managed to squeeze in a plethora of Chinese fun on the side. Living with three other flat mates (only one of whom was also English, which made for very interesting mixes of conversation!) meant that I was never bored or lonely, which I had been slightly worried about before leaving. Dinner with up to 25 other volunteers from other flats was a nightly occurrence, and there was always something going on. Unknown menus, huge sharing tables, and the local brew of Tsing Tao just add to the lively atmosphere.
Aside from food, the rest of my free time was spent exploring this amazing city and all it has to offer, from fascinating modern art galleries to embarrassing KTV karaoke nights. Trips with friends to explore the Yellow Mountains and Beijing (both of which I would highly recommend) were also hugely memorable — even if, in terms of the former, they required a slightly higher level of physical fitness than I possessed!
Conservation in Cambodia
After a ridiculously action-packed three months I made my way to Cambodia to tackle my next, very different, project: Marine Conservation. Again welcomed by an extremely friendly Projects Abroad staff member (incidentally also called Emma) I was taken to Koh Rong Samleom Island, which was about two hours by ferry from the nearest mainland.
Managing to hit one of the early monsoon rains, I arrived soaked through and bedraggled to the main bungalow to meet the other volunteers. Slightly more basic than my city-self was used to — and, by that, read no electricity until the generator ran in the evening, no running water and a bucket shower — the bungalows were none the less cozy, and made even more homely by my three very friendly roommates, as well as our resident geckos: Tinky, Winky, Dipsy, La-La, Po and Baby Sunshine.
Having only done Try Dives previously, I turned up on the island up and at ‘em to start my PADI Open Water, the basic qualification for scuba diving. Sadly, due to aforementioned pesky monsoon rains, I wasn’t able to start the course until three days later. On the plus side, this did give me ample time to get to know the other volunteers through numerous card games and hanging round in hammocks.
Led through both the Open Water and Advanced (the two qualifications necessary for the project) by my amazing instructor Kim, I was soon prepped and ready for starting my Point Dives. Sectioned up into Invertebrates and Fish, I was put onto invertebrates, which meant surveying the huge variety of reef life on the island.
One of my highlights was seeing a cuttlefish for the first time, as well as a massive puffer fish, which sent me and my buddy into clipboard graffiti overdrive. Finally a fully-fledged member of the survey team, I was doing at least two dives a day (weather dependant) on different points around the island, leaving either mornings or afternoons free for beach clean-ups and teaching in the school.
When you weren’t doing surveys, fun dives or helping out on land activities, time was generally spent hanging out in hammocks, playing cards or swimming on Long Beach. Evenings often saw mass game or pool nights outside Hua’s — one of the two local bars on the island. One of my highlights, however, was the occasional night swim off the pier into the stunning bioluminescent plankton, which saw me happily reverted to my excitable six-year-old self.
Overall, these were the best four months of my life. What made them so special, however, were the people I met along the way. I made some amazing friends (a couple of whom I continued to travel with to Vietnam afterwards) and I know that these memories are going to stick with me for quite some time — I wouldn’t change anything, even the lack of flushing toilets and some interesting Chinese delicacies.