A claustrophobe. Underwater. In a cave.

OK. Technically the part of the cenotes I dove are “caverns,” not caves. All this means is that you can see light/an exit to air. But still, as a human with a fear of getting stuck underwater with no way out, diving through an underwater cave (sorry – cavern) was kinda a big deal. One must be so careful these days.

(“…Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days….”)

So yeah. Today I dove the “Dos Ojos” cenote. And it was amazing. And I didn’t freak out even a little bit. Oh – and I didn’t die by water.

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A cure for bullshit

Whenever I need a break from bullshit, I go diving. I still remember July 2007, almost a year into the most disorienting and downright wacky job of my life, I took off for a week’s diving in Tobago. After just one dive, the salt cleansed every ounce of bile from my blood. The canned oxygen, sucked in through rented regs, oozed out from my lungs to find and repair frayed nerves. The warm water conducted away all the tension irradiating my body and drowned it like a rat.

And so last Monday morning at 1.30 am I found myself throwing bathing suits and dive gear into a bag. After overpacking in a sleepy delirium, I dug up my dusty passport and called a car service to carry me to the the airport, and freedom.

Twenty hours later I was 20 meters deep, following the bubbles of Ugo de la Sala, co-founder of the  Megalodon Dive Center on the island of Cozumel. It doesn’t matter what we saw, or which dive sites we dove over the past 6 days. What matters is that those 11 dives hammered at my reset button until it took.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since I returned from my experiment with the Range Life, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of flailing. Constructive flailing, however; I did, after all, buy an apartment. And focused flailing; most of it has been experimenting with the right balance of motion for me; always on the road, but not always away.

Now I’m reset. I’ve stopped flailing. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Hammerheads, nudis and grrrrlz

Hello from Tufi, Papua New Guinea. Makes my head spin just to say that!

The journey here was insane – 38 hours, 4 flights and 2 hours of sleep took me to Port Moresby, the capital. My intention had been to check out the town when we arrived, but since I couldn’t complete a coherent sentence I figured it’d be a bad idea to wander alone in a town where so-called “rascols” troll the streets and carjack anyone who looks like they’ve got money. Instead I stayed within the confines of our hotel, surrounded by 8-foot high walls and patroled by a guard weilding some sort of large machine gun. I hit the pool, took a shower, failed to connect to the internet, and passed out by 9.

The following morning we flew to Tufi, on the north side of the main island. I’m delighted to report that my fellow travel journalists and I have gelled into a nice little group. No complainers, no egotists, no assholes. There are the Scuba Diver Girls, Margo and Stephanie, who run a dive shop in San Diego and run the fantastic SDG website. Then there’s Bronwen, from North Carolina, on assignment for Sport Diver. Finally there’s Robin, the only non-diver and only man in our crew. He’s the man behind Modern Gonzo, so it didn’t take much for us to convince him to get certified and join us under water. We’ve got plans to haze him mercilessly.

Today (Wednesday) is our third day of diving. The first day was about small stuff – loads of nudis – and yesterday was the big stuff, including my first ever hammerhead (see pic on FB). Woot! I saw two hammerheads, plus loads of white tips, a black tip and a few small grey reef sharks. We also saw a bat ray, shoals of fuseliers, snapper, unicornfish, etc. The Big Stuff dives yesterday reminded me a lot of Sipadan.

OK, gotta run for my next day of diving. We’re here until Friday.

Writing, nostalgia and details

My article on diving Malaysian Borneo is up on Matador Networks. Enjoy.

Writing this piece was at once cathartic (the first draft exceeded 3000 words!) and nostalgic. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of becoming a divemaster (Nov 30) and starting work at Scuba Junkie (December 10, I think). Last year at this time I was a newbie DM sharing a shitty little room with Rob, a sweet guy who helped me build up my confidence as a DM. Thanks, Rob!

Just a few weeks later I was a badass DM, guiding freshly-minted divers at Sipadan on Xmas day wearing a Santa hat.

Pulling together the info for this piece and the others I’ve been working on has only reinforced a lesson I learned from James Sturz during a travel writing course I took at MediaBistro a few years back: Great writing is about details. You must write travel pieces immediately, or you’ll forget all the important colorful stuff. You’ll lose immediacy. It’s better to know what story you will write *before* you go somewhere, so you know what details to take down. Etc. Etc.

I’ve discovered that I’m not delighted with what I write from my pitiful notes and memory. It isn’t bad, but it’s not as great as I want it to be.

All this makes me want to go back out into the world again.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this weekend’s snowstorm. If it’s going to be freezing cold, we might as well have snow!

Enemy territory and the no-fly list

I’m in Ubud, Bali – deep in enemy territory.

On the surface it’s pleasant enough – rice fields, jungle, good eats, friendly Balinese. But it’s also the scene of the final, most sickening section of my nemesis: Eat Pray Love. And evidently, according to the Lonely Planet, since the publication of “that damned book” hordes of “women of a certain age” have been flocking here, hanging around in the local cafes, opening their chakras at the dozens of yoga classes on offer, picking through (from what I’ve seen so far) shockingly awful Balinese “art,” seeking the services of various “healers,” and generally hoping to meet their own rich, sexy Brazilian who will fuck them silly for a month and then marry them. Jeezis.

Ironically, as I write this I’m waiting for Miro, a rather cute German guy I met yesterday, to pick me up. We’re going to yoga together this morning at the Intuitive Flow yoga studio, situated on a hill overlooking rice paddies. I wanted to do some yoga anyway – all those days of sitting around doing nothing with Mike have taken their toll – but Miro says that this particular class is taught by a Balinese shaman. So of course I have to go. It’s research!

Adding to my EPL reenactment, Miro is currently studying cranio sacrotherapy – a new-agey, sort of energy-based healing technique that sounds like reiki to me. Ominously, he couldn’t really explain exactly what it is and how it works. I’m going to Google it later. In any event, I’m all set to have a mystical couple of days in his company.

But let’s go back to last week, when I was hundreds of kilometers to the east, diving Komodo aboard the Jaya. I had heard about the trip because my friend and ex-SJ mate Jeremy works as “cruise director” and primary dive guide on every second Jaya trip, which all leave from Gili T. So on June 21, at sunset, one Dutch and three Swiss women, an American guy, a young Russian couple, a totally New Yo-wak couple in their late 50’s, and I settled onto the deck of the Jaya, carefully guiding spoonfuls of vegetable soup into our mouths. The sea that first night was rough – we were all staggering around like, well, drunken sailors.

Despite the rough seas, that night and every night of the trip all of us slept on pleather mattresses on the covered deck. The cabins were hot, stuffy, cramped, noisy (mine was right next to the engine room) and smelly from exhaust fumes. Truly horrible. But sleeping on deck was as amazing as it sounds: moonlight reflected on open-sea waves, the sky painted with stars after moonfall, salty air (and occasional spray), and then waking up to the sun peering over the horizon.

I won’t talk much about the diving, since most of you don’t dive. I’ll just say that while it was indeed beautiful – the variety of healthy coral, the giant schools of fish – I was expecting more. I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen before (other than a pygmy seahorse, which I fully expected to and did see plenty of thanks to Jeremy’s pygmy obsession). I think Mabul/Sipadan has spoiled me. (To be fair, the current wasn’t as ripping as it should have been, given that the trip happened during a full moon. And no current means not as many sharks, not as much action. But still. No mantas for me either time we did the manta dive, on which the last trip saw *30* (though I did see one from afar at another dive site), no hunting sharks, no dolphins (OK, I wasn’t really expecting that), and not even many insane, rip-you-off-the-reef-or-plunge-you-to-100-meters currents that Komodo is famous for.) Heh heh. So much for not talking about diving.

Eff all that. Let’s go back to the deck of the Jaya. It’s the end of day 5 – the day I saw a manta at Batu Balong. After watching the boat boys, Harry and Dunker, wakeboard behind the dinghy at sunset, we ate a dinner of rice, veggies and fish. Ryan the American plugs his iPod into travel speakers, because the Swiss girls want to hear Tom Petty. We’ve all had a few arak-and-Sprites, or other intoxicants of choice. We’re moored for the night in the calm bay of some sparsely inhabited island in the Flores Sea, off the north coast of the Indonesian archipelago. In the moonlight I watch a half-dozen wild goats pick their way down a steep rocky slope to the cover of some scrub pines near the beach.

Where else would I ever want to be?

A few mornings earlier we visited Rinca, an island near Komodo where ironically it’s easier to see more Komodo dragons than on Komodo itself. And we did see plenty of these split-tongued reptilian creatures as they warmed themselves in the morning sun. Komodo dragons are dangerous. They will hunt animals many times their own 1/5-2 meter size, including wild buffalo. They are hunt-and-ambush predators with poisonous bites. The venom slowly kills the prey over a few days, during which the dragon follows the dying creature until it succumbs. The dragons then eat every part of the animal except the skull, including all other bones.

Our protection from these beasts were two adolescent boys from the park service carrying long sticks with a forked end, presumably to hold back a dragon should it attack one of us. And despite their age they took their job quite seriously, reprimanding us when we strayed from the path or got too close to a dragon in pursuit of the perfect picture.

Other land-based adventures included a Big Night Out pizza night in Labuan Bajo, the main town on the island of Flores; a visit to a lake with one of the simplest ecosystems on the planet, consisting of one species of fish which eats the one species of snail which eats the one kind of algae which lives off the decomposing bodies of dead fish and snails; and an impromptu visit to a more-remote village on another island.

The last was my favorite, as I somehow became the group guinea pig. During our 30-minute visit I was compelled to chew betel nut in various forms, sprinkle my tongue with some sort of white powder that I feared was cocaine but ended up tasting like baking powder, and stick a giant wad of chewing tobacco under my top lip. I was also asked if I wanted to buy a chicken. The woman who had offered me all these treats then invited me to sit next to her, laughed at my big butt and slapped my hips in delight, stole my sunglasses, and insisted on having her picture taken with me…while the village grandma stuck her hand into my shorts pocket to try to get at my mobile phone. Good times.

At the end of the trip, as Gili T came into view, we all said how weird it would be to come “back to reality.” Which got me thinking about levels of reality. We had just spent 8 days stuck with the same people on a not-giant boat, doing the same thing every day. It was like reality tv. The so-called reality we returned to was Gili T, a tropical party island with OK diving, no cars or motorbikes, and plenty of people willing to sell you weed or “fucking fresh magic mushrooms that will send you to the moon.” Not exactly mundane reality. The next day I would be going to Bali – a larger island with more people leading normal lives, but still connoting a holiday paradise. And then I booked my ticket to New York, for so long my reality but where the contours of a real life never solidified for me.

Not that I want to go, but can someone please tell me where reality is, and how to get there?

——————-

Oh – didn’t I mention that I’m coming to New York? Heh heh. For those who have not yet heard, I arrive in NYC on the evening of Sept 25, a day before my bro’s birthday. Never fear, fans of therangelife – I’m just coming for a visit, to meet my new niece or nephew (any day now!) and Sydney’s new brother, to drink martinis with the Guineys and wine with the grrrlz, to watch some effing Red Sox baseball with the Sue’s and their spouses…and to witness my eclipse-watching buddy and NASA astronaut Al Drew as he hurtles into space aboard the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission. Wow!

I’ll stay in the US for about two months. Then either to Central Asia (unless the region devolves into sectarian wars) or Central/South America. TBD.

In the meantime, on Monday I fly from Bali to Bangkok, where I’ll stay long enough to secure a visa to Vietnam. Then it’s Vietnam/Laos/maybe Cambodia for about three months. Then back to Bangkok to catch my flight on Kuwait Airways (should be interesting) to New York via Kuwait City and London. (I was thinking today that I booked a one-way ticket on Kuwait Airways. TSA no-fly watch list, here I come!)

Life as a dive bum

I’m horrible. Terrible. Lis is going to KILL me.

I can’t believe it’s been a month and a half since I last posted. To be sure, I can blame it a bit on the two-week internet blackout here in Mabul. But that’s just lazy.

I could also blame it on the fact that I have no quiet place to write, which is a bit more of a real issue. My room is a mattress on the floor and a few shelves to put my clothes – certainly no writing desk. There are lovely tables in the resort restaurant and bar, but there are also always people passing through – customers who want to ask random questions, fellow divemasters who don’t get the hint – LEAVE ME ALONE – if I sit here with headphones on. And then there are the people who just come sit down across from me and start chatting away as if I’m NOT clearly trying to write. I swear, as I started writing this paragraph, my customer from today, who did not stop talking ALL DAY, sat across from me and tried to engage me in conversation. I blew him off, so now he’s having a loud conversation with his wife. What’s a girl supposed to do?

Excuses, excuses. I spend my days off recovering from Tanduay hangovers and watching episodes of Mad Men. Or I sit in Mike’s hammock reading one of the thousand books that the Grrrlz sent me in their fantastic care package. Or I go on fun dives with my underwater camera, searching for frogfish or sea moths or delicate ghostpipefishes. In short, diving and drinking. Not a bad life, but also not a particularly productive one.

All that’s about to end, though. Sort of. On June 6 I’ll leave Scuba Junkie and Malaysia on an Air Asia flight to Bali, Indonesia. I say “sort of” because I’ll meet up with Adam and Sarah and Mike and a few other friends from Scuba Junkie to…um…drink and dive. Heh heh.

The plan is to spend some time with my friends, but also to find a nice quiet place with a desk and catch up on writing. The story proposals I’ve sent out recently have met with continued silence, so I’m going to have to pay them a bit more attention. We’ll see how it goes.

It’s just about dinner time here, so things are getting crowded and distracting. There’s plenty more to say about what’s been going on with me, so I will post again soon. Within the next month and a half. Ha.

repetition, boredom and paranoia

Greetings from Semporna, where I’m counting down the days (5) until I fly to Thailand for my visa run. My first stop will be Bangkok to be a tourist with PC and Tat. We’ll occupy ourselves visiting temples, watching kickboxing, drinking beer and whiskey, and singing karaoke. But I’ll be happy just to see their faces and get a big hug or two from PC…who, by the way, gives the best hugs ever. Try it sometime.

Next I’ll fly down to Koh Lanta to meet up with Mikey. We’ll sit in hammocks, play backgammon, eat pork and cheese until we’re sick, drink red wine, go on the odd dive, read books, and probably drink too much on more than a few occasions.

But until then, it’s diving diving diving.

At least once a week someone asks me how long I’ve been here (4 months!) and if I get sick of diving the same sites all the time. Don’t I get bored? The answer is no, for two reasons.

First, though on occasion there are not-great dives, my “annoying optimism,” as one customer jokingly put it, tells me there’s always the *chance* that something phenomenal will turn up. The fun is in the looking. I’m not a museum guide, after all, trundling bored schoolkids through rooms of the same paintings and sculptures every day. Fish move, they try to hide, they act unpredictably, and there are so *many* of them…whose names and habits I’m still learning.

Second, there are the customers. They are even more unpredictable than the fish. At times they are entertaining, assholes, awed, impatient, indifferent, fascinated. They ask the oddest questions, tell great stories, confess being nervous, thank you profusely, shrug you off. You never know what you’re going to get.

It’s exhausting, trying to keep people you’ve just met happy. That’s why long-term customers (a week or more) are a comfort, even if they’re mediocre divers. At least you know what to expect from them.

For the past two weeks or so we’ve had a customer called Alex – an opinionated, hilarious, stubborn-yet-agreeable German dive instructor. He could go on for hours about what makes a good DM, where to find the best diving in Egypt, what equipment is overrated, and on and on. Between dives we’d sit on the front of the boat, sunning ourselves to warm up and dry off and listening to his harangues and monologues. A blast to have on the boat every day. I’m sad he’s gone.

Also in the past month we had a couple from…Holland I think? They came a few weeks ago – he’s an experienced diver and she needed a refresh course (which I conducted). They stayed about a week, went traveling in Borneo, and then changed their plans to come back to dive some more. But in all the time I spent with them, I never heard them say anything truly positive about the diving.

“How were your dives today?” I’d ask, seeing them on the jetty and wanting to be solicitous. He would always be the one to answer. “Well, it was OK. Not great,” he’d frown. “The coral is not so nice, and the visibility is awful.” In all they spent about *two weeks* diving here.

I used to take the negative comments personally. I was paranoid that my inexperience showed, that I would be called out as a fraud. But the thing is, I’m good at this. Not the best, for sure. But pretty damned good, and getting better every day.