Back in Bangkok, on my way home

Greetings from Bangkok, my 24-hour stopover on my way home. I’ve decided to spend the day in the cool confines of the various shopping centers and internet cafes near my hotel, in Siam Square, rather than brave the ridiculous heat and dirt of normal Bangkok. On this, my third time in Bangkok during this trip, this city is starting to grow on me. But the noise! The heat! The pollution! The crowds! It’s too much to bear before a 23-hour trip home. (Environmental note: The proprietor of the internet cafe is eating his lunch, smacking his lips remarkably loudly and sort of glaring at me. Thailand: The Land of Smiles!)

Since I’m on my way home, naturally I’m sort of reviewing my trip in my mind. It’s only been two months, but my days in Chiang Mai during the watery Songkran festival now seems like a lifetime ago. Yes, I’ve seen many things, had some crazy and fun experiences, met hundreds of people, and generally had the normal travel experience. But my mindset has changed dramatically as well. When I left New York I was feeling oppressed by the fairly basic life choices that I face: Where should I live? What should I do? But two months later I feel like I’ve gained some clarity – or at least some much-needed perspective, outside of the four narrow walls of Manhattan.  In a day or so, when I’m sitting comfortably in a yellow cab heading towards the city…it’s going to be strange to see the Manhattan skyline again. Either I’ll feel nostalgia and that I’m coming home, or I’ll feel oncoming oppression of being back in my “old life.” We’ll see!

But enough navel-gazing. It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about my time on Gili Trawangan. There isn’t a tremendous amount to write about my activities there: Basically it was wake up, dive, eat lunch, dive, watch the sunset, shower, eat/drink, sleep, repeat. It’s the people I met who made it great.

As I said, I dove with Blue Marlin, a fairly well-run dive shop/guest house/restaurant owned by Simon, a Brit with a Napoleon complex. The place was managed by a middle-aged couple: Peter, a blandly cheerful American, and his wife (can’t recall her name), a loud Dutch woman with the thick athleticism of a Bulgarian Olympic gymnast.  My fellow Rescue Diver student was Ginni Golden, an American from DC. Ginni works for an internet advertising agency, of all things. We bonded over stupid clients, internet egos, and neurotic/psychotic people we’ve had to manage (Hi Mark! Heh heh just kiddin’). She’s on a 3-month leave of absence, the lucky thing. She stayed on and is doing her Divemaster training right now.

I’ve already written a bit about Luis, our instructor. He’s been on Gili T for 8 months and plans to stay for the season – until around October. For the like 2 of you who know who I’m talking about: he reminds me a lot of Brian Thistle. He’s quietly smart in that he almost tries to hide his intelligence> As a teacher he’s calm, serious and thoughtful. When he’s done with Gili T he’s going to travel a bit and hopes to end up in Brazil, where he plans to open a guest house/restaurant.

Then there’s Nicola, or Nico (“NOT Nick or Nicolas!” Did I mention he’s very French?). Nico is a heavily tattooed, charming character who defies categorization. He’s approachable yet reserved, social yet secretive, carefree yet serious. He’s been on Gili T about the same amount of time as Luis. He’s trying to save up enough money to move on to Australia: If he gets enough by the end of the season, he’ll leave. If not, he’ll stay another year. But he’s anxious to move on. “I’m a traveler who dives,” he says, “not a diver who travels.” I have to admit, when I left I had a tiny crush on him. (On a Frenchman, can you believe it?) The last thing he said to me (after hugging me goodbye) was, “You smell very nice.” 

Yipes gotta run to check out of my hotel (noon checkout!). Probably more later. After all, I have nothing much else to do!







Huh? What day is it?

Uh…what? When did I last post? What day is it?

Yes, it’s official. I’m on beach-holiday time. I’m chilling on Gili Trawagan, doing my Rescue Diver course with Blue Marlin dive shop, and enjoying the white sand beach, crystal clear water, and general lack of shoes.

I flew from Siem Reap to Bali what seems like ages ago. As soon as I stepped off the plane I realized that I was in a different place: The staff of one of the airlines was singing a welcome song, playing guitars and banging bongos and generally having fun at their jobs. (“Gee,” she thinks to herself. “Remember what that’s like? To have fun at your job instead of creating and presenting Powerpoint after fucking Powerpoint presentation on the tedious details of your day-to-day decisions?”)

I spent one quiet night in Kuta, the party town on Bali, and then took a bus to Padang Bai on the east coast. There was a Balinese cultural festival on in the town, which was fun to see. I also did two dives at the wreck of the USS Liberty near the town of Tulamben. It’s a cool wreck dive, because it’s so shallow. It’s actually a shore dive – you walk right in from the beach, swim like 10 meters, and there it is. It was a US ship that was disabled by a Japanese sub during WWII. It was beached and abandoned. But then in 1963 the local volcano erupted, and the resulting tremors caused the ship to slide into the sea.

I was tempted to stay in Padang Bai and do more diving, but I was eager to get to a place with no cars, no motorbikes…nothing to jump out of the way of as you walk down the street. I had been planning to go to Gili Air, but on my last night in Padang Bai I met a Colombian guy who said that Gili T was much more easygoing than its party reputation. So I changed my plan at the last minute, and I’m glad I did. There’s enough social life here to be interesting, but it’s not the Kuta-like all-night rave that I was expecting.

I arrived on…um, a few days ago more or less. I’ve been pretty busy with my dives and my course work (studying and tests! on the beach! sipping fresh lemonade! the sea breeze carrying away the answer sheet to my test, only to have a smiling Indonesian boy chase it down and return it to me!).

So yeah, my plan is to pretty much stay here until the end of my trip. I’m paying more than the usual $8/night to stay in a decent bungalow with hot water & a/c & a lovely breakfast and no struggling. I completely unpacked my bag for the first time. And I don’t plan to pack again until I shake the last granules of fine white sand from my clothes and pack them away on June 9. Then it’s back to Bali for a night, back to Bangkok for a night, and then all the way back to NYC.

It’s going to be extremely strange to be back in the US again, faced with the need to figure out my next move. But I’m trying not to think about that too hard.

Let’s see what stories can I tell?

In Padang Bai, I spent my last night in a bar called the Sunshine. A local 30-ish man just opened it a few days ago. As he fed me glasses of a dangerous local spirit called Arak, he told me about his life and his bar. Again, his story followed the theme of wanting a simple life rather than ambitiously seeking fame and fortune. He had worked in Kuta clubs for a number of years, saving up money. He helped put his sister through typing school, and put a new roof on his mother’s house. “Once I take care of my family, I could do my dream, my bar. I just want to make a happy place where people can come and be comfortable. I don’t need to be a rich man. I just want to enjoy my life and my bar, and not have to do what a boss says. I just want my small place to be good.” So if you find yourself in Padang Bai, please go have a drink at the Sunshine. It’s a small place right on the main square, decorated with posters of the Rolling Stones, Guns-n-Roses, Kurt Cobain and (of course) Bob Marley. The smiling man behind the bar is the proprietor.

Here on Gili T, there are no motorized vehicles. The main road around the island is unpaved, though a portion of it is made up of a broken, uneven attempt at cobblestones. You can walk around the island in about 3 hours. There are no banks or ATMs, and only dive shops take credit cards. The days of the week are marked by whether it’s a party night – Mondays at Blue Marlin, Wednesdays at the Irish Bar, and Fridays at Rudy’s Bar. A few eating places advertise the relative freshness and strength of their “fucking great magic mushrooms,” and occasionally someone will call out softly, “Smoke? Smoke?” from dark spots along the beachside road. But I haven’t really witnessed any drug-taking. I suppose the people I’ve been meeting are too focused on diving, which doesn’t lend itself to staying up all night ‘shrooming.

Simon, the British owner of Blue Marlin Diving, has acute Napoleon Complex. He’s about 5’5″, muscle-bound, tanned, and will tell you up front about how he pioneered diving in the Gilis. “Oh yeah, I was the first westerner on the Gilis (about 19 years ago). I mapped out all the dives. I taught all the other dive shops how to do it. And I taught all the divemasters.” Then he’ll go on to tell you about the land he owns, how he’s turning it into villas and selling them off, and how *his* villas are bigger and better than the *other guy’s* villas right next to his, etc. etc. Oy freakin vey. But his arrogance aside, everyone at Blue Marlin is very friendly and loves to dive. Luis, my Portuguese dive instructor (who just came in to the internet cafe and says “hello”), doesn’t own shoes. “People kept stealing my sandals, so I stopped buying them,” he says. Right now he’s wearing a shirt, which is out of the ordinary for him. You get the picture.

OK, gotta run. This is the most sitting in a chair staring at a screen I’ve done in a while and it’s time for a delicious cold Bintang beer under millions of stars.

(OK, I’m deliberately boasting now.)

I’ll probably post again in a few days, after I’ve finished my course.