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Friday, June 01, 2007

My Life as a Streetfighter

In 1999, I packed up my life as I had known it. I booked a 20' container, loaded about 15 percent of it with my worldly possessions and the rest with all the equipment I'd need to set up a scuba diving centre in a part of the world I'd never lived and where I didn't even speak their language. I moved to Tenerife, Canary Islands. We chose Tenerife as it was under Spanish control, and therefore European Union, and no visas were required. Plus, due to warm seas, it has year-round diving.

Why? Because I believed with the entirety of my being, that if I made someone else's dream come true, I would be happy. Andy wanted to follow his dream and had nothing to his name (thank you ex-wife) so I stepped up and sunk everything I had into the business. It's a VERY expensive thing to set up, you need a compressor, all the tanks, the equipment. I bought everything new, Andy's contribution was to go to the suppliers and place the orders for the equipment. I really threw myself into it though, I researched everything down to the water temperatures and what thickness of neoprene we'd need for the wetsuits. Based on that I designed our own two-piece suits which I had tailor-made and were size-identifiable based on the different coloured stripes on the sleeves and legs. The bane of everyone's life in a divecentre is searching those things for the size label, then finding out it has been rubbed off. Usually followed by a 'well this looks like your size, try it and see'. This way, instead, we could rack them up by size and fit people easily.

I also came up with the name (the all-important 'a' listing and which translates to 'sea water') and worked with a graphic designer friend on the logo. I selected and purchased retail items, including a selection of t-shirts with our logo and website to advertise us. We were the first divecentre with a uniform. I planned the layout and bought everything we'd need, down to the display racks and desk. I took a slightly different spin on it, I guess because for me it was a business and not the extension of a hobby, which tends to be the case for many of these centres. I drew up philosophies, which the new owners remain committed to, I had service standards no one had ever seen before (the first centre in Tenerife with hot water, soap and shampoo in the showers and complimentary towels; cold bottled water and chilled, scented face towels on the boat after each dive; thank you postcards sent to each customer after their visit; etc., etc.), I delivered an experience and not just a dive. And people loved it.

I keep saying 'I' when there were two of us involved in the project, mainly because Andy practically checked out on me mentally and emotionally about a month before we left Hong Kong, and too late to change our plans. His soul was shattered when he learned of his 18-year old son's suicide. Or at least it was classified as suicide under very suspicious circumstances in the home of a relative of his ex-wife, in a small town in the northern wastes of Norway, where he'd been sent because she wanted some freedom from him. But as the family was well connected, they classified it as suicide even though apparently he managed to stab himself three times in the heart and the knife was found washed and back on the counter when the police arrived.

Not surprisingly, that changed Andy forever. I tried getting him counselling before we left but nothing helped. And while for the first month or so he put his all into the business, it wasn't long before he started drinking in the middle of the day and disappearing when he had work to do, in fact I spent a good deal of each day dragging him out of the nearest bar, back to work, but always rostering him to the centre and not out diving, when he'd had a few. I was not going to have any accidents on my conscience. He even took to cavorting with female customers right under my nose and more than once took off with them at the end of the day, not coming home until the early hours of the morning. But by then he had me where I had no escape, totally vested in a business and away from everyone I knew. He played on those two things and added a new dimension of stripping away my self-esteem on a daily and continual basis.

And while all this was going on, the 'competition' didn't like what we were doing and made that very obvious. They were breaking every standard in the book, not something to mess with when lives were at stake and I wasn't going to improve my daily take by exploiting anyone's ignorance of the rules. That was actually why we didn't buy their business, which was an early option when we explored this path, and decided instead to set up ourselves. We discovered they were trashing the industry rules, using dangerously sub-standard equipment like out-of-date tanks with faulty valves (if those things fail when you have one strapped to your back, it could potentially take off your head), and had more than three deaths to their name. Not a legacy we wanted to take over and try to turn around. Instead, we found premises nearby and set up our own show.

So, their response to us being there? A campaign of threats. Every night we drove home, I wondered if they'd tampered with the brakes or something else on the van. There are too many examples to quote, it was just a neverending feeling of utter dread. Things escalated to the point that a local guy we befriended, who heard about our troubles, introduced us to whom I later learned, was the local organised crime boss, telling us it was the only way to deal with these people. They were English and in Tenerife, the Spanish police want nothing to do with them, unless they go against the locals, and we were outsiders like the English. So we met up with the guy in a little pizza joint where he was being waited on hand and foot. Honestly it was like something out of The Sopranos. The 'godfather' took a liking to me and went himself to warn the owner of the other dive centre. A warning that included brandishing a pistol and telling him if he had to come back, he'd use it. Boy, oh boy, talk about a different life from all I'd ever known. I have to tell you that at that point, sitting in the pizza joint talking with a man who was involved in god know's what, I wondered what had become of my life.

But we really had no option, we approached the godfather after learning that the mad Mancunian (native of Manchester, England) was going to fire-bomb our business one night and at that point it was all stops out. I was also a little tired of a cohort of his passing by daily, most often when I was alone, and slowly drawing his finger across his throat as he stared at me, and telling me in an almost indecipherable East London accent, that he was going to "slit your fuckin froat". No idle threat, we learned that this man had just been released from prison in the UK, after serving a sentence for murder. He had fled to Tenerife for a 'new life' (there are a lot of people running from many things, in that place).

The gun being waved around in the owner's face, seemed to work for a while, and because the boss liked me, he even assigned a Russian heavy to watch over me every day. No charge. He spent hours and hours working out in the gym opposite, which looked into my office and was a very welcome relief to me. The direct threats stopped and life seemed to be going okay apart from the usual crap such as interfering with our customers, comments written over our signs about our instructor being an alcoholic, and the like. Well, it wasn't even as though I could argue with that as they saw Andy downing vodka at every opportunity in the local bar, situated between our two dive centres. His own staff would joke that if they had to borrow his regulator (the part of the gear containing the mouthpiece), they'd get drunk from the fumes.

Things changed one night when Andy took a small group out for a night dive (on those days I ran physical interference with his bar visits to ensure he was sober come the evening). Off they went and I was alone in the centre preparing for their return in about an hour. Because it was late, the gym was closing and my friend waved goodnight. I never even dreamed what would happen next, or could possibly happen.

About an hour after they left, one of the divers in the group came running back to the centre and said there's trouble. She was visibly upset and shaking so I ran down to where I knew they'd be walking up from the shore, past the promenade populated by an assortment of bars. There was another of the divers holding his face and Andy was lying on the ground, in full gear, carrying some extra equipment back for the girl. Always the gentleman, he was. The owner of the other dive centre and his 'mate' were laying into him, kicking his head and body while at least 50 people looked on, including other members of that guy's team. With his weight-belt still around his waist and a heavy steel tank on his back, he couldn't get up or fight back.

I'm a fight not flight person and my adrenaline started to really pump. I saw red and ploughed into them, grabbing the bastard by the head to pull him off Andy. He turned around and punched me square in the face, a blow I later learned which had broken my nose. But I wasn't letting up, I grabbed a weight-belt that one of the divers had dropped and swung it on his legs. That got him off Andy but let him focus on me again, and he laid into me once more. Then, one of his friends pulled him off me, I think perhaps the fact he was beating up on me and not Andy, pushed a button. Off they went, through the crowd that had gathered around to watch. A crowd which, by the way, did nothing to help either of us, despite the fact some of them even knew us. I managed to get Andy onto his feet and practically carried him back to the dive centre, where I locked the doors and called the police.

Gosh, this is getting to be pretty long, I didn't realise it would take so many words to write out. I think I need to stop here and do a Part 2. Stay tuned for the next installment of Fiona the Streetfighter.


~Tim said...


Fusion said...

Streetfighter, mountaintop guru, hopeless romantic, mini van bopper...

Hmmmm, what a life Fiona!

Can't wait for part two.

Fiona said...

Tim - you got THAT right!! ;)

Fusion - I tell ya....is there nothing this woman won't do?? *L*

Oh it has indeed been quite the life, and I haven't even mentioned my overland trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu yet!!

Part two hopefully by Monday, I tend to rest my fingers during the weekend :)

kimba said...

Holy FUCK!

freebird said...

Jaw hits floor... Fiona, you never cease to astound!!!

Trueself said...

Aw, geez, a clffhanger! And over the weekend too. That's just mean, that's what it is. ;-)

Can't wait for Part II though. You know I'll be back looking for it.

Fusion said...


heh heh

kimba said...

I swear when startled, Fusion.
You gotta problem with that?

George said...

Never once did I picture Fiona as anything but a soft, gentle, intelligent woman. Maybe even demure. But THIS is a real eye opener.

Fiona said...

Kimba - I can assure you that the 'f' word was used on an almost daily basis during those times! :)

Fusion - perhaps you haven't startled Kimba yet ;)

Freebird - I'm full of surprises hey ;)

Trueself - I didn't keep anyone waiting too long ;)

George - I AM a soft, gentle, intelligent woman. Though I can honestly say I'm not demure. And with all that I'm also tough enough to hold my own and if someone I care about is at risk, I'll be the first one in there sorting it out.


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