Critter Hunt: The Seamoth

The humble seamoth is burdened with the Latin name Pegasidae, a mash-up of Pegasus, the winged stallion born of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, and Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon. Even its common name calls to mind a Godzilla-style nemesis, one that may explode into the air from the ocean depths, the thunderclap of its terrible wings striking fear into hearts of anyone nearby.

In fact, seamoths are adorable little creatures. Divers will often find them in monogamous pairs. They scuttle across sandy, rubbly substrate and suck eggs, worms, copepods, isopods, and other tiny invertebrates into their snouts.

There are five species of seamoth, ranging in length from three to eight inches (8 to 20 cm). Instead of scales, their bodies are sheathed with bony plates that they molt every week or so to rid themselves of parasites. This rather Medieval exoskeleton has earned them another common name: dragonfish.

So how did the name “seamoth” come about? In addition to their elongated, moth-shaped bodies, they have wing-like pectoral fins, which they unfurl when threatened or when they want to move quickly. They use the tips of these pectoral fins as sort of steadying hands as they amble about on “legs” of scythe-shaped pelvic fins. The overall effect is a bit like a man with stubby legs grasping at seatbacks as he makes his way through a moving train.

Where to find a seamoth

Seamoth habitat spans the tropical Indo-Pacific, including popular dive destinations like Tanzania, the Maldives, western Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and the southern Philippines. Sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists at least one species of seamoth as vulnerable. Trawlers sweep them up as bycatch or they are purposely collected for use in traditional Chinese medicines and for sale in the aquarium trade.

You can find seamoths in coastal waters at depths from around 10 to 295 feet (3 to 90 meters). Since they are bottom-dwellers, they prefer sand, rubble and seagrass, where they can rely on their mottled armor as camouflage. For this reason, you’ll see them most often in areas where muck-diving is popular: Lembeh, Indonesia; Puerto Galera, Philippines; Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea; Mabul, Malaysia; Nudi City, Tanzania, and so on.

How to find a seamoth

From far away, seamoths can look like rocks, algae or sea debris. Because of their small size and camouflage, the key first step to spotting one is to dive slowly. Finning quickly around a dive site won’t net much. Become familiar with the shape of the seamoth most prevalent where you’re diving — long and thin for slender seamoths, and chunkier with a long snout for a common seamoth. Ask a local Divemaster for guidance.

Get close to the bottom and maintain good buoyancy. Use proper fin technique to avoid kicking up sand or silt. Look for anything that appears to be an eye or, more specifically, two sets of eyes, since seamoths generally hang out in pairs.

Once you do find one, you’ll quickly learn an annoying seamoth quirk: They skittishly turn away from divers, so you’ll spend a lot of time gazing at seamoth butt. It’s worth the effort, though, to witness these strange creatures “fly” across the sand.

Pegasus Sea Moth from liquidguru on Vimeo.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

 

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Best Dive Sites in Sipadan and Mabul

Sipadan Island and nearby Mabul are legendary among divers. Off Malaysian Borneo, these islands offer visibility of at least 60 feet (18 m), year-round water temperatures of between 82-86 F (28-30 C) and calm conditions, making most of the best sites accessible to divers of all skill levels. It’s also near-impossible to get lost. Most dives are drifts, either along a wall or a sloping coral reef, so dive with an SMB. Read on for a taste of the best dive sites in Sipadan and Mabul.

Sipadan Island

The crown jewel of the area’s diving, Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island) offers a startling diversity of marine life. The island, an isolated seamount with a fringing coral reef, has been a marine park since 2003. Many shark species — grey reef, whitetip reef, hammerheads, the occasional thresher — visit local cleaning stations. Here, electric-blue cleaner wrasses pluck parasites from their bodies. Green and hawksbill turtles circle the island, snacking on coral and (from July to November) mating. Schools of jacks, snapper, surgeonfish, unicornfish, bumphead parrotfish, and others do their best to distract divers from the smaller creatures, such as squat shrimp bobbing their tails, leaf scorpionfish in flamboyant pink or mottled white and nudibranchs laying ribbons of eggs.

Most of the best dive sites in Sipadan are wall dives, with the top of the wall sitting rather conveniently at safety-stop depth. One of the best is South Point. Here you’ll find lots of sharks and the best chance to see a hammerhead or thresher.

Lovely soft corals cover Hanging Gardens, and you’ll lose count of turtles after around 30. That said, Sipadan’s true can’t-miss site is Barracuda Point. There’s simply nothing like being engulfed by a hundreds-strong funnel cloud of chevron barracuda.

Mabul

A number of dive sites have earned the small island of Mabul the reputation as one of the world’s premiere muck-diving destinations.

There is little coral at sandy, rubbly AWAS, which means “caution” in Malay. Instead, fingered dragonets and flying gurnards flit across the mottled sand; skeleton shrimp, delicate ghost pipefish and juvenile frogfish conceal themselves in the seagrass; and pharaoh cuttlefish perform flashy, choreographed mating rituals.

Right next door, Froggie’s (or Froggy’s) Lair is not the best place to find frogfish. Try Artificial Reef instead, a sprawling collection of purpose-sunk wooden boxes and towers that attracts a surprising variety of marine life, including all manner of frogfish. The highlights at Froggy’s, a shallow natural reef, are the baroque resident mandarinfish. At dusk, these notoriously jittery creatures pair up to soar into the water column and release clouds of sperm and eggs. After nightfall, spend time searching the edge between the reef and the sand for hungry crustaceans and cephalopods, including tiny bobtail squid.

Mabul divers shouldn’t miss Sea Ventures, a dive site situated under the dive resort of the same name. The resort, housed in the decommissioned accommodations module for oil rigs, sits on pylons off the coast of Mabul. Its apocryphal origin tale offers the reason. A Malaysian businessman, angry at a rival who bribed his way to the building rights on land he had been promised on Mabul, bought the rig. He towed it from Singapore, painted it garish colors, and planted it directly in front of his rival’s resort. Whether the story is myth or truth, the dive site below, which resembles an underwater junk pile (but in a good way), attracts spectacular macro life, including pygmy seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish and frogfish.

Mabul diving isn’t all muck and junk, however. Eel Garden, a sloping coral reef that bottoms out at around 60 feet (20 m), is a lovely site that lives up to its name. Garden eels, of course, but also ribbon eels and snake eels abound. There are plenty of morays around as well.

Around Mabul

PULAU KAPALAI

Kapalai is not so much an island as a submerged sand bar, ringed by a coral reef, with a resort built atop on pylons. While its House Reef has a few purpose-sunk “wrecks” and other structures, most of the action, critter-wise, happens on the coral reef.

SI AMIL

Don’t let the unimaginative site names fool you. First Beach is a muck-diver’s dream, worth every jarring moment of the one-hour (in good weather) speedboat ride from Mabul to the uninhabited island of Si Amil. The dive site’s ideal physiography — sand, rubble, some mucky parts, tufts of sea grass — attracts all manner of rare creatures. Sea moths, blue-ringed octopus, flying gurnards, zebra crab and wunderpus octopus all inhabit the site. Second Beach and Meditation Wall are more traditional dive sites, but still serve up the variety expected at Si Amil: rare nudibranchs, Halimeda ghostpipefish, octopus, bamboo sharks, and much more.

THE NORTHERN ISLANDS

The northern islands are accessible to divers staying in the rather dreary town of Semporna on “mainland” Borneo; they’re a bit too far from Mabul. But north-island diving can be worth a stopover. For one thing, you won’t see another soul, other than your dive buddies. In fact, Sibuan is the archetypical tropical island, where you’ll wish you were marooned with your celebrity crush. The diving off the shallow side of the island features great macro. The diving on the opposite side, which faces a deep channel, may yield mantas or devil rays. Other northern islands with great diving include Mantabuan, Bohayan, and the Post Box wreck at Mataking, where the first season of “Survivor” was filmed.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

Introduction to Sipadan and Mabul

Sipadan Island has long featured on lists of top 10 dive destinations. And no wonder – the startling marine-life diversity on the island’s encircling reefs make every dive incredible. A more recent revelation is the equally spectacular macro diving around nearby Mabul Island. This is an ideal base from which to explore all the area dive sites, including Sipadan.

Sipadan and Mabul are part of Malaysia, lying just off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. Sipadan is a seamount, a half-square mile of dense coconut palm groves and white-sand beaches. A coral reef, which grew over an extinct volcanic cone, surrounds the island.

In 2003, the Malaysian government designated the island and surrounding waters as a marine park, ordering the few resort operations on the island to leave. Because it is a protected area, the reefs around Sipadan have largely escaped damage from destructive fishing and development practices. These isolated, healthy reefs, surrounded by deep ocean, attract all manner of pelagics, plus lots of rays and turtles.

Mabul, on the other hand, has a human population. Other than the employees of a half-dozen or so dive shops and resorts, its population of 2,000 consists mostly of friendly sea-gypsy families living in wooden houses on stilts. Mabul has neither vehicles nor roads on its 240,000-square-yard surface — an area that sounds huge until you successfully walk from one side to the other in full scuba gear and bare feet. Visitors remove their shoes on arrival and only slip them back on when they leave. While divers know Sipadan for big walls and big creatures, they come to Mabul for diverse macro life.

This rare variety of marine life make Malaysian Borneo worth the arduous trip from the Americas and Europe. Plan to stay at least seven days – you’ll want to stay 70. Your reward will be sightings of whitetip sharks and (if you’re lucky) hammerheads, hawksbill and green turtles, reef and flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, frogfish, nudibranchs…pretty much any creature pictured on the pages of the iconic Reef Fish ID book.

How to get there

Sipadan and Mabul are in the Celebes Sea, smack dab in the middle of the famed Coral Triangle.

The remote location means getting there is a slog. The first step is to fly in to one of the regional travel hubs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Bangkok, Thailand. From there, jump on a cheap AirAsia or Malaysian Airlines flight to Tawau, the main city in southern Malaysian Borneo. From Tawau it’s a 90-minute drive to Semporna, a gritty fishing town from which you can catch a boat to the outlying islands.

Area dive resorts and Semporna dive shops and hotels offer discounted or free transfers from the Tawau airport if you’ve booked in advance. A less-convenient option is to take a public bus into the town of Tawau, thereby traveling 12 miles (20 km) in the wrong direction, and switching to another public minivan to Semporna. This will add two or more hours to an already long journey. Instead of this headache, if you haven’t booked in advance, charm a fellow traveler into splitting the cost of a taxi.

Alternatively, fly to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian state of Sabah, before making your way south to Semporna. This makes sense for travelers who first want to visit the orangutan sanctuary, take a river trip, climb Mount Kinabalu, or just see the rest of Malaysian Borneo before diving.

Once you arrive, Mabul, a mere 25-minute speedboat ride away from Sipadan, is a logical base from which to experience Sipadan as well as other area diving, including the thrilling macro diving around Mabul itself. Other options include high-end, all-inclusive resorts on nearby Kapalai or Pom Pom.

The diving

With very few exceptions, the diving is accessible to divers of all levels, from freshly-minted open-water divers to the most seasoned dive pros. The calm, comfortable conditions are ideal for underwater photographers and videographers as well. Visibility averages at least 60 feet (18 m). Temperatures range from 82-86 degrees F (28 to 30 C), so a 3 mm wetsuit will do fine for most divers. Strong currents are rare, except for certain sites like Barracuda Point on Sipadan and (less often) Lobster Wall on Mabul.

Most Sipadan dive sites are wall dives, bottoming out at what looks like infinity. If there is no current and the experience level of divers allows, guides often take groups into the blue for part of the dive, in search of hammerheads or other shy shark species. Along the walls and on top of the healthy reef, grey and whitetip reef sharks cast a curious eye. Hawksbill and green turtles snooze or nosh and bumphead parrotfish thunder by. Eagle rays perform their aerobatic shows, and a jumble of reef fish and corals make you feel like you’ve fallen into a kaleidoscope.

On Mabul and the near-dozen other nearby islands, macro is the name of the game. Many sites are sloping coral reefs to a sandy bottom at no more than 65 feet (19 m) or so. Unlikely as it may sound, it is extremely common to see frogfish, blue-ringed octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, crocodile flathead — sometimes all on the same dive, but almost certainly within a full day’s diving.

Where to stay and dive shops

Most divers eat, sleep and dive with a local dive shop. Mabul and the other islands don’t have much in the way of restaurants and bars that are not tied to a dive shop, though some resident sea gypsies run little shops under their homes, selling chips and cigarettes and knick-knack souvenirs. (Please don’t buy the shells, coral or other “souvenirs” from the sea.) The exception is Semporna, where some choose to stay for a few days so that they can more easily reach the dive sites in the northern islands of Sibuan, Matabuan, Mataking, and others.

BIG JOHN SCUBA

As you might expect, Big John Scuba is run by a large Malaysian man called John. It’s a small, friendly shop that feels as though you’re diving and staying with a local family. BJ’s offers backpacker accommodation, meals, and a cozy atmosphere. Members of the dive staff, mostly locals, all have eagle eyes.

SCUBA JUNKIE

Scuba Junkie has accommodation and dive shops both in Semporna and on Mabul. It’s an efficient, professional operation with a mix of Western and Malaysian staff. The shop is dedicated to marine conservation. Among other activities, it employs a conservation specialist, runs a turtle hatchery on Mabul, educates the local population about marine life and conservation, and organizes weekly beach cleanups.

Full disclosure: The author worked as a Scuba Junkie divemaster for six months. 

SIPADAN SCUBA

Sipadan Scuba is another responsible, well-run dive shop. Its biggest attraction is an Advanced Open Water PADI course that includes Sipadan dives.

SIPADAN WATER VILLAGE RESORT

A slight step up from other options, Sipadan Water Village Resort on Mabul has some over-water bungalows, more luxurious decor, and a nice cocktail bar, which is open to non-guests as well.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

 

 

Dive Site: Barracuda Point, Sipadan

Ever since Jacques Cousteau described the reef encircling Palau Sipadan as an “untouched piece of art,” divers have flocked there to experience its overwhelming diversity of marine life for themselves. Those divers know that any trip to Sipadan isn’t complete without at least one dive at Barracuda Point.

Barracuda Point is the exception that proves a cardinal rule of dive sites: If the name includes a sea creature, i.e. Angelfish Alley or Crab Corner, that creature is unlikely to appear during the dive.

While the near-certainty of seeing a hundreds-strong tornado of chevron barracuda is the defining feature at Barracuda Point, you’ll see plenty of other life as well. For starters, a giant school of jacks hangs out at the top of the wall near the site’s entry point. As you descend through this cloud, look out for a stampede of bumphead parrotfish storming the reef. The wall itself, which extends down hundreds of feet, is alive with vibrant soft and hard corals. Nestled along the wall is an almost comic diversity of reef fish, and nudibranchs of all shapes and colors. Spiny lobsters tuck into small crevasses, and the occasional green or hawksbill turtle snoozes on larger ledges. As on all Sipadan dives, keep an eye on the blue, where you might spot gray reef or whitetip reef sharks cruising by.

About 15 to 20 minutes into the dive, you’ll encounter a channel cutting through the wall to the right. Depending on the current, you might find a swarm of reef sharks here at around 65 feet (20 m). The barracuda tend to be much shallower at around 40 feet (12 m), and can congregate anywhere along the channel. If the current is ripping, position yourself close the swarm, grab hold of the rocky bottom, and enjoy the show for as long as your deco time and air supply permit.

When it’s time to let go, shallow up along the wall on right side of the channel, watching for gray reef sharks resting along the sandy bottom, or the odd eagle ray buzzing by. The channel and sloping wall are full of macro life as well, should you care to slow down and search for leaf scorpionfish, pipefish, crabs or commensal shrimp galore. Complete your safety stop along the top of the reef, which sits conveniently at around 16 feet (5 m). Peek under the abundant table coral and you might find a juvenile shark hidden in the shadows, but beware the titan triggerfish guarding its territory.

Depth: 15 to 130 feet (5 to 40 m)
Water Temperature: 80 to 84 F (27 to 29 C)
Exposure Protection: Rash guard & board shorts or 3 mm shorty during colder months
Visibility: 100-plus feet (30-plus m)
When to go: Year-round. Book well in advance, as daily permits are in short supply
Skill level: Appropriate for new divers if currents aren’t too strong

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

 

 

Thoughts on Sustainable Travel

After a couple of years on the periphery of the travel industry, last October’s second annual Travel + Social Good Summit inspired me to jump back in with both feet. As an indie solo traveler for most of my life, my instinct has always been to avoid the consumption-orientation of a lot of tourism. But the couple-hundred travel professionals at the Summit showed a level of enthusiastic  participation normally absent from regular, marketing-heavy travel events.

I had found my people.

Since then I’ve become a co-founder, with a small gaggle of others, of the New York chapter of Travel + Social Good – one of about a half-dozen other charter chapters worldwide. Our mission is “Building a community and sharing stories to inspire change in the way we travel.” In short, our goal is deliberately yet infuriatingly (at least for me) vague. But the idea is to attack the problem from both sides, targeting travel professionals but also using media to change travelers themselves.

(Though really, on this second point, we’re just riding the wave of what Millennials appear to want, and also what their Gen-X elders once wanted. At least we said we did….and I think we still do. But perhaps I’m an outlier, speaking only for myself. )

Anyway. Specifically, our chapter wants to take advantage of our location in the US media hub to try to steer the conversation in media away from their standard service pieces (10 best beaches in Bonaire!) toward a more authentic narrative, including stories of social good in travel. We’re going to do this not by starting a new media company (AFAR and others have already done so) but to sort of pitch and publicize stories that groove on what we’re saying.

So what the hell do we mean by social good?

Personally, I think “social good” in travel has some distinct but overlapping facets:

  1. Offerings that are an extension of a traveler’s personal social responsibility already practiced in everyday life. This means eco-friendly options for hotels and tours (e.g. bike instead of bus, hanging towels instead of getting new ones every day, etc.), filtering local water instead of buying bottles, and other eco-sustainable choices.
  1. Sustainable offerings specifically related to travel: Destinations that practice sustainable tourism development (e.g. Costa Rica); encouraging travelers to eat & stay at locally-owned establishments; tour operators that respect/support rather than exploit/destroy local culture, custom, and wildlife; giving travelers the chance to buy carbon offsets for flights; and so on.
  1. Teach tourists how to be a “good” traveler (the don’t-be-an-asshole rule): Asking before taking photos of people, respecting local customs and mores (e.g. covering shoulders and/or hair in certain Muslim countries/districts); being open to trying new food, drinks and experiences; learning a word or two in the local language; not handing out candy/other stuff directly to kids – but most importantly, actively and opening engaging with the local population as humans.
  1. Actively engaging in some specific “for good” activity: e.g. donating supplies to a local school, volun-tourism (if a particular program has been proven effective/useful – I tend to be deeply skeptical), taking part in beach cleanups and similar activities…
  1. On the provider side, “social good” encompasses not only the operators used as examples above but also local governments and tourism development operations, which can be done in a sustainable manner…or not. Connected to this is the notion that a local government can choose to exploit resources not for tourism, but for other economic benefit (e.g. dynamite fishing or trawling vs. snorkel/scuba tours, cutting down forests vs. nature tours or birdwatching, etc.).

Tying all this together is the idea of tourism diplomacy: the nature of exchange between responsible travelers and people at their destination. If travel is done “well,” then both sides come away with an authentic, personal understanding (both positive and negative) of each other. Based on my personal experiences, a lot of good for the global society can come from these ad-hoc exchanges.

A Brief, Wondrous Time Shared with Wes Nations

I met Wes Nations on a cramped, dusty bus in northwestern Vietnam, somewhere between Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. That was the time he saved me from peeing my pants.

We foreigners had been packed into the back of the bus, with luggage and linebacker-sized sacks of rice separating us from the Vietnamese riders (and the door) up front. Out the window an endless, muddy construction zone rolled by, like the backdrop to an old cartoon. It was the Vietnamese wild west: hastily-built replacement villages for those doomed to be flooded when the Ron River was diverted. Half-built shacks with tin roofs and tarp walls and bricks piled high in the yard. Chickens chasing under laundry hung across dank puddles. Kamaz earth-movers temporarily blocking the road. Our bus bucking like a bronco.

Ten hot, slow hours later, I was desperate for a wee. The bus stopped briefly in a small town to let off some passengers, so I asked the driver if I could hop out for a minute and find a place to squat. He waved his hand as if to shoo a fly, avoided eye contact, and shook his head. “No time!”

“I’ll just be a minute,” I pleaded.

“No time.”

Whether it was my furrowed brow, the fear of sitting in a hot bus next to a woman wearing urine-soaked trousers, or just innate Southern gentlemanliness, Wes stepped in and convinced the driver to let me go. I don’t remember now what he said, but I was struck with his simple, no-nonsense reasoning. The gist was: Dude, don’t be a jerk. Just let the woman go pee. It was very Jedi-mind-trick.

“Go ahead, darlin’,” Wes said, turning to me. “I’ll watch your bags.”

My memory insists that he nodded and tipped his cowboy hat at me. Except there was no hat.


I got to know Wes Nations while riding motorbikes together around central Laos. I was to rendezvous with him and Stu, an Aussie Wes had met along the way, in the sleepy village of Tadlo. When I arrived, I found them on the little balcony that their rooms shared, with their feet up on the railing, drinking beer and watching a wide, gentle waterfall slide into a lazy river.

DSC_0931

Wes and his Macbook on the veranda in Tadlo.

The next day we set out for Sekong, a small town up on the plateau. Wes and Stu were experienced riders, and I was nervous about being a burden. I needn’t have worried. We took things low and slow.

Wes was good-natured, patient and self-deprecating without being obsequious. He was about 6 foot 1, 40-ish, bald on top with very close-cropped grey stubble in a half-ring in back. Then there was the light grey soul patch, which not very many people could pull off as naturally.  He was a photographer and travel blogger with a great talent for telling stories – he called them “lies” – and capturing moments beautifully on camera. He had that slow, thoughtful calm of certain American Southerners – an ideal disposition for traveling in Laos, whose unofficial official quote is “Please Don’t Rush.”

DSC_1019

Wes toppin’ up at the the petrol station.

Stu was a slightly grizzled Australian on his way home after spending 8 years working and traveling around Africa. He was shorter and more muscular than Wes, with a thick pile of straight grey hair that was receding slightly at the forehead. His demeanor was slightly intimidating in the way of cowboys and old-timers with experience etched into their faces. It took about a day, but once Stu realized that I wasn’t going to be a squealing, high-maintenance pain in the ass, we both relaxed and got on great.

For 5 days we three rode over red earth, under blue skies, and through the relentless green hills of the Bolaven Plateau, avoiding ruts in the dirt road and waving at energetic children shouting “sabaidee!”  The inconsequential but colorful events of those days – when we took a wrong turn, got caught in the rain (twice), danced to karaoke in an ill-camouflaged brothel, saw a half-dozen or so remote waterfalls, had my flip-flops stolen, nearly broke a leg riding down a near-perpendicular hill of scree, searched for The Ancient Stone, found and stole back my flip-flops, ate one of the top-5 meals of my life (for about $2 per person), rode to a town called “Buffalo Shit,” laughed about the proprietor of one of the hotels offering them (not me) “massages,” and…well, it was five days filled with the sort of moments that are typical while backpacking, while slow-traveling, while doing something as simple as riding bikes between tiny, remote villages.

DSC_0947

“Mysterious Nature’s Heritages”, including the Ancient Stone.

These moments seem more vibrant, more critical, more important than most of the others during my 17 months on the road. Perhaps it’s because many of those months were spent traveling alone, and moments shared are somehow seared more deeply into memory.

But I think that these moments are more meaningful because they were shared with Wes and Stu. Their travel mojo meshed well with my own: There was something unassuming in the way we all traveled – drama-free, yet still adventurous and worthy of late-night storytelling.

It’s a testament to Wes, who was the magnet that brought the three of us together in that time and place.

And now he’s gone.

Some evil, lightning-fast disease struck its target with terrible efficiency, and carried away that Southern gentleman before I even knew he was sick. He’s just…gone.

I can’t ask him to help me remember our travels more clearly. We can’t trade lies and laugh. I’m left with my personal version of the story, unembellished by his wry grin, and duller for it.

DSC_0969

Wes in the mist.

Coming Home (pt 2)

Home. Andrassy 19. My last flat in Budapest. Searching for the familiar old creaky door – I hope I can sneak in – I find in its place a glossy black replica, thrown wide open, flanked by potted lollipop topiary and a doorman in a dark suit and earwig. György Gattyán, who made millions on a popular porn website called LiveJasmin, has transformed my building into an impossibly posh clothing store – Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. He named it, quite cheekily, Il Bacio di Style (the Kiss of Style). At least it’s not il Eiaculazione di Style.

I pass through the perfumed air pumped onto the street and cross the threshold. I am sweaty and red-faced and wearing shorts and Tevas. I expect to be escorted out immediately, but the muscle only nods.

What was once dark and soot-covered is now brightly lit and painted a creamy white. All the cracks in the stucco have been smoothed over. In the courtyard two impeccably dressed attendants sit behind a glass case filled with designer sunglasses. The walls emit soothing Euro-style easy listening.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor, where I once lived. Inside the car, there’s a small flatscreen display and more perfumed air. The doors glide open and I step out. My neighbor’s flat – the one facing Andrassy – now sells men’s apparel. Two murmuring young attendants in dark suits smile and nod “hallo” to me. I remedy my slaw jaw and nod back, passing through backlit displays of crisp suits towards my front door.

My apartment now houses a pair of escalators. The “down” escalator starts in my bedroom – where, on their first mission, thieves once stole my beloved but not particularly valuable currency collection – and passes through my living room on its way to the 3rd floor. The “up” escalator starts in my teeny kitchen – where the same thieves, on their second time in my apartment, stole Tupperware, for lack of anything else of value – and crosses through my living room on its way to the top floor, where there is now a chic café/restaurant with views of the Basilica. And that’s it. No longer a place to live or linger, it’s a place from which you must move either up or down.

I return to the wide stairway and start down. After two flights I realize that muscle memory has kicked in. My legs know precisely how many stairs per flight and how high the risers will be. Descending the last flight I pass another patron, on her way up. She’s about 40, maybe 45, but her leathery face betray a tougher life than my own. Her hair is cheap bleached blonde. Tight, short, white cotton dress, with a peephole at the neckline from which protrude freckled, size FFF watermelons. I suspect she is a former, not current, employee.

On my way out, I take a picture of the Pink Panther statue.

Image

The next day’s walking tour of the 6th district finds surprising reminders of things forgotten: metal frames from broken window shades protruding awkwardly from a concrete-block building. Signs advertising Dréher, Borsodi, Soproni. The sharp, spicy aroma of a TV paprika. The 12-foot wide sidewalks on Andrassy, and the 2-foot wide sidewalks along cobbled side streets. The electric hum and rumble of the villamos along the körút.

For the first time in years, I’m gripped by a sudden compulsion to write…and don’t stop!

The crumbling, grey walls are painted with street art, with graffiti. Cafés, photography shops, kerts, and quality – it all add up to a tension and electricity that inspires creativity and seems almost…well, optimistic. My memories of Budapest are of dark cellar sörözö pubs, choked with cigarette smoke, packed with young people hunched over pints of beer. The pints remain, but now they are being drunk at ground level, outside, in “ruin pubs” (aka kerts) that have been tastefully and quirkily decorated to thoroughly out-hipster Brooklyn. By kilometers.

I wander the boiling streets compiling a list of things same and different. Same: air quality. Different: ability to buy “emergency chips & salsa”. Different: little to no dog shit. Same: crumbling walls, soot, graffiti. Different: very cool street art. Same: see-through dresses (though not so many), short skirts, cleavage. Different: an abundance of Thai, Mexican, Indian restaurants. Different: a fair sprinkle of brown-skinned people. Same: strip-tease bars, “szex” shops. Same: acrid cigarette smoke everywhere.

There’s a new modernity, a level of style, that was absent when I lived here: rare or unavailable comforts  like yoga studios, salad bars, well-made clothing. All this has been sprinkled on top of the same old city, fixed into place with a coat of clear varnish.

Behind every window, in every courtyard, lit up along the river at night, live possibilities, stories to be invented and told. Perhaps these ghost-stories are what attracted me to this place so many years ago, and still do.

I find myself checking listings as I pass real estate offices: 24 million HUF for an 80-m2 flat? I quickly convert that to $100k for an 800-ft2 apartment. Not bad, but not exactly cheap. I can swing that if I sell my place in Brooklyn. Would I live in the 7th district, which is the center of all the nightlife but also all the packs of drunk Brits on lads’ weekends? Or else maybe the 6th, or 5th. Certainly not Buda again! Actually what would be nice would be a view of the river. Someplace on the top floor, of course, to avoid stomping neighbors.

The next day I keep walking, in the other direction, down Dohany utca, then on Kossuth to the rakpart along the river. I feel like I’m searching for some lost thing that I can’t define until I find it. Jégbufe, where it takes expert Hungarian and 4 bouts of standing in line in order to get a cake and coffee. The Astoria Café, delicately restored with chandeliers and red velvet, which should feel majestic but somehow remains dusty and lost in time. The way Kossuth ut seems to splinter apart as it approaches the rakpart.

It’s as if I’m exploring a city from a recurring dream, familiar yet foreign. Any moment now, the world will stop spinning for the briefest millisecond, everything will come into focus and I will know, wholly and completely, precisely where I am, my unique place in the universe.

But that never happens. Not really, anyway. Instead I rediscover a regular city, one dancing with the ghosts of memories.

I no longer become teary-eyed at the sight of a zöldség gyümölcs. I just go in and buy strawberries. It is now quite normal for me to see Tamás (or Tamás) for a coffee. The voice on the radio saying things like “következö” no longer elicits shivers. I get csokolom’d, and it’s all good.

Home.

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