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Searching the World

4 October 2009 348 views No Comment

Searching the World

Transscripted article by Scott Berlin from ‘Triton Traveler’s Philippine Gateway’, June 2007

You may not imagine the Philippines as a place where dreams come true, but for Alice and Bjorn Askholm it is. This Danish couple traveled all over the world for two years, searching dozens of islands, only to experience repeated disappointments. Facing challenges that would have overcome most, Alice and Bjorn refused to let go of their dream and pressed on. Their success and everything they needed to make their dream a reality was waiting for them at La Laguna beach near Purerto Galera.
Alice and Bjorn met at the University of Odense in Denmark when they were both studying Physical Education. Here they learned to work as a team and pull together when things got difficult.  They teamed up and began traveling together and along the way they developed a love of traveling and scuba diving.  To their dismay, jobs and the business of making a living kept them away from these things all too much.
Bjorn worked as teacher and Alice worked as a physical therapist at a center for the elderly. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, both of their jobs ended at about the same time, which proved to be an opportunity they weren’t going waste. A friend mentioned to them that they could collect unemployment benefits in any EU country, for example the French Martinique Island in the Caribbean. By then Alice and Bjorn were certified divers and had been to the Maldives on diving trips.
Bjorn had advanced to Dive Master and was working on his Instructors certification, when the idea of working as a diving instructor in the Caribbean came about. Living on a warm Caribbean island and getting paid to dive was not a difficult idea to sell them on. They packed up and flew to the Caribbean.

Their ten months in the Caribbean was far from the tropical island paradise they had imagined. They received a small amount of unemployment benefits for only three months. Diving instructor and physical therapists jobs were quite difficult to get. They island hopped to Martinique, Dominica, St. Lucia and Aruba searching for work and were forced to accept small jobs here and there to survive. Money was so tight they were eating only two meals a day and Alice and Bjorn reached a low point and in November, called Alice’s parents to ask for money for plane tickets home. Though they were back in Denmark, the yearning to teaching scuba diving for a living had not left them and they were rather disappointed they had not been able to succeed at that in the Caribbean.

Two months later their luck changed and they were offered jobs as Base Leaders for a company called Scuba Caribe in the Dominican Republic, where they were responsible for all aspects of operating the dive center. The job gave them experience organizing, scheduling and conducting dives as well as teaching PADI certified courses from Open Water Dive to Dive Master. In addition they learned to maintain all equipment and to do the office work.

Managing the dive center was a challenge, but they loved it and excelled at it.  Just 18 months later in July of 1999 they headed for new waters to work as diving instructors for CH Company Ocean Pro in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. This was a step up because the company was bigger and had dive centers on six islands throughout the Maldives. Alice and Bjorn believed working for this company would give them more job security and they advanced quickly and in six months they were transferred to a different island to manage the dive center there. Every place that Alice and Bjorn worked, they successfully managed and built up the business. They were good at what they did and they loved doing it and that was great for the companies they worked for, but it wasn’t great for the future security for Alice and Bjorn. A different plan was needed.
When the two of them imagined what the ideal situation would be, there was only one vision; a dive center of their own. Their dream was clear and they were focused and in 2003 they began working towards realizing this dream. The plan was simple; buy or build a dive center and open for business. It seemed like a simple plan but they had no idea all that it would entail.

They were already in the Maldives so that was the logical and easiest place to start searching. They quickly learned how difficult it is to get a dive center in the Maldives. Either you try to buy a dive center for yourself, which is expensive, or you try to be a part of a corporation that buys the dive center. On top of that you don’t really buy the land, you just lease it from the government for 5-10 years, all of which is done through a bidding process. It was disheartening for Alice and Bjorn to have a dream, and realize their dream came with a million dollar price tag on it.
Every time they found a place that looked promising, they were competing with big companies that easily out-bid them. Alice and Bjorn searched for almost two years and finally had to concede that they couldn’t afford it, not in the Maldives anyway.
On November 1st 2005 after six and a half years, they quit their jobs and left the Maldives to pursue their dream full time and Indonesia better fitted their budget. Prior to their departure they had made some contact there and were offered a franchise with a company that had a dive center at Manado on Sulawesi Island. Promises of a well equipped dive center and luxury hotel turned out to be a ruse and when they got there, the hotel had not even been started. They decided to look on their own and began their search in Bali.

Searching for a potential dive center is not a simple matter of thumbing though the real estate listings. You have to go there and take a dive, because what’s under water is the main draw of the business, so first-hand investigation 20 meters below the surface is needed. Thus, a lot of time and money is required to check places, but determined to do their due diligence, one by one Alice and Bjorn began checking the beaches on Bali. They systematically worked their way around the island; Nusa Penida, Candi Dasa, Amed, then Tulamben, Kubu, and Tianyar. Having no success there they widened their search by heading east to inspect the many islands in the Flores sea; Timor, Alor, Flores, Rinca, Komodo, and finally Lombok.
Months of searching and still no success, yet their time spent did formulate their criteria. One of the problems that kept cropping up was that the locations were too far from medical services. This was not a negotiable criterion, the location had to be close to a hospital with a decompression chamber and some of the islands they looked at were one full day away from the nearest hospital. Another criteria, was being able to reach the dive center from Europe within a single day’s journey, thus, reasonable proximity to an international airport became a second criteria, that eliminated some of the other islands they checked. A third criteria they formulated from their investigations was that the location had to have a reputation for good diving and of course the basic criteria, was it had to have an affordable price tag, which crossed off some of the more popular beaches on Bali.

In late 2005, an unfortunate turn of international affairs cut short their search when a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published a cartoon depicting the Islamic profit Muhammad, which sparked sharp protests that reach across the world. By April of 2006 Alice and Bjorn felt their physical safety was at risk so they left Indonesia. They were doing their best but it seemed like literally the whole world was against them.
Before leaving Bali they received information about an opportunity on an island in the Russell Islands in the middle of the Solomon Island group. Their inquiry yielded a response detailing the good air service to and from the island, the wonderful diving and a negotiable price. In addition they were sent photos of the place showing a beautiful white beach with a great hotel and dive facilities and seeing the photos lifted their spirits and gave them new energy.
This venture turned out to be a pattern they had experienced before; the build up, anticipation and hope, then dipping into savings to pay for long airplane flights only to discover upon arrival, lies and deception. Their first shock upon arriving was that there was no air service to the island they were to check. When they did get to the island their contact lead them to a place that had no resort or hotel. When Alice and Bjorn insisted on seeing the place in the photos, they were told that the photos were of a different island and it was not for sale. They left the Solomon Islands in short order but the disappointment, sadness and anger would take awhile longer to leave them. After this, Alice and Bjorn gave up on Indonesia and flew home to Denmark to sit on the internet and start over.
They weren’t home for very long when they got a lead on a possible place in the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar along the east coast of Africa, where once again, in the Seychelles they felt like they had been deceived. The dive center they looked at was not at all what it was claimed to be and the price was way too high for what was being offered.
Tired, disappointed, frustrated, and sad, but unwilling to give up, Alice and Bjorn returned to Denmark and resumed searching for their dream. On the PADI web pages listing business opportunities the Philippines came up and digging a little deeper they learned that there were essentially three places worth looking at in the Philippines: Palawan, Coron, and Puerto Galera. Luckily, there was something available in Puerto Galera.

In the Philippines their first stop was at Small Lalaguna beach near Puerto Galera. The owner of Mabuhey Resort was selling the dive center portion of the resort and as he asserted, those who pay the money are the ones who will get the dive shop. The price was not negotiable. After so many difficult and disappointing trips finally Alice and Bjorn had some good luck:  “There were 3-4 others who were interested but we were the fastest ones.” Bjorn said. Alice added, “We went diving here and the diving was beautiful and the dive center was very well set up”.The location also met their criteria; there was a doctor in the town of Sabang just 15 minutes away and Manila, with plenty of fully equipped hospitals and the International airport, was only 3-4 hours away. Sabang and the waters around Puerto Galera were renowned for some of the best diving in the world. On April 21st 2006 they said “yes, we’ll take it.”
Alice and Bjorn’s dream had taken them over vast distances. They personally checked dozens of islands, endured deceptions and disappointments along with emotional and financial hardships but they never gave up. Finally all the right elements for success came together for them in the Philippines. Still one last hurdle stood in their way of their dream becoming a reality; all of their savings only amounted to two thirds of the total cost of the dive center. The problem was solved when they were able to secure a bank loan for the remaining one third and ABwonderdive officially opened in July of 2006.
When I interviewed Alice and Bjorn for this article I was amazed and entertained by their story. At the end I still had to ask one more question to Bjorn that summed it all up. His response answered the question and at the same time revealed his character. I asked him, “Are you living your dream?” With a smile he said “We are living our dream. ….. But then you get new dreams.”
You can visit ABwonderdive at http://www.abwonderdive.com

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