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!)

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Bali to Gili T

Greetings from Gili Trawangan, aka Gili T. As I predicted in my last post, it took almost a month and a half to post again. Ridiculous.

If the name Gili T sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been here before – two years ago, I did my Rescue Diver course and spent the last two weeks of my first trip around SE Asia here. It’s one of three small islands between the larger islands of Bali and Lombok, in Indonesia. I’m here because Adam, Sarah and Jeremy, all ex-SJ, work here. So Mike and I came to visit.

As for how I got here: I left Malaysia as planned on June 6. The last month or so of my time at SJ, I felt detached from everything – I didn’t really want to dive, I didn’t feel much like socializing, and I spent a good portion of my time in bed reading. Textbook leaving anxiety.

I arrived in Kuta, Bali around 9 pm. I took a taxi to a guest house that Kris & Steve, an American SJ couple, had recommended from their last stay in Bali. The place was OK, but there were two things wrong.

First, singles like me are charged less for the same room as a couple. So guest houses reserve their particularly awful rooms for singles. My room was up three sweaty flights. The ceiling fan caromed back and forth, making screeching noises and threatening to decapitate me in my sleep. The toilet flushed, but just once – the bowl wouldn’t fill again.

Second, I was in Kuta. It is the place in Bali that attracts the gap-year kids, the Aussie party-for-a-weekend crowd, the wannabe hippies and surfers. The lanes off the main roads look like a made-in-China warehouse dumped all its plastic and textiles on a stretch of beach, where the locals erected rough wooden shacks around a pile and called it a shop. And Kuta isn’t even the cheap haven it once was: my room was $10/night. Just two years ago, a similar room would have been $6. Ugh.

So in an inspired fit, fueled by the need for some beauty and peace, I moved north to Legian/Seminyak, the slightly more expensive part of the coast that attracts a slightly (and not-so-slightly) older crowd, with a bit more cash. Mike was arriving that night, the 8th, and I was meant to meet him for dinner in the area, anyway. He was staying at the Blue Ocean bungalows. They had room, I had learned from Thailand that Mike has good taste in holiday bungalows, so I took a taxi straight there.

How foolish I had been for wasting time in Kuta! My room at the Blue Ocean, for $20, had a desk, chair, huge double bed, silent ceiling fan, funky outdoor hot-water bathroom (with a bath!), a *giant* garden in back with a table and benches, a kitchenette with fridge, and a small front balcony with two chairs and tons of privacy thanks to giant tropical bushes. I leaped into bed for a nap, showered, and met Mike for a fantastic dinner at Zanzibar, his favorite eatery, about a 30-second walk away.

We spent two (or three?) lovely, lazy days at the Blue Ocean. We drank Bintang and gin and tonic and wine. We played gin (rummy), backgammon, pool and bowling. I kicked his ass at all of it…except maybe the drinking.

On the third morning, I was in the shower at 6:15 am, trying to wash away the terrible hangover from our “quiet night” the night before, during which we consumed large amounts of beer and an ill-advised G&T nightcap around 3 am. Knock knock knock “Hello?” It was our minibus driver, at least 30 minutes early, who wanted to help me with my bags. I dressed and packed quickly and knocked at Mike’s door. “We not leaving until 9 am, my lovely,” he called out in his drunken stupor. “That’s the boat from Padangbai,” I replied. “Our taxi is here right now.”

And what a journey it was. Neither of us remembers it particularly clearly. Mike chatted nonstop with an English couple in the van with us. We at a truly awful breakfast in Padangbai. I bought Mike a ridiculous fan hat.

Finally we arrived in the Gilis. We spent about 10 minutes looking for a decent place – too hot, too hungover – but lucked out at the d’Gilian bungalows. I’ve got a fan room for $16, Mike’s got a/c for $20. The place consists of four large rooms with amazing private bath (mine’s outdoors), comfy beds, tiled floors. It’s run by a friendly, hospitable and giggly family. They’re constantly bringing us free strong Lombok coffee – so strong that Mike adds sugar – and nicely arranged plates of fresh pineapple. We’re constantly adding beer, water, coke/diet and juice to our breathtakingly long bar bill. They love us, we love them.

We’ve been here about 10 days; so far there have been two days during which Mike and I didn’t leave the compound at all – we ordered lunch and dinner delivery (salads, pizzas, pasta). Since we don’t have a backgammon board, we spend our days playing another card game, Shithead, at which Mike is kicking my ass. Adam, Sarah and Jeremy mostly work during the day, but if they’re not working they stop by. A characteristic holiday with Mike: do nothing, and love it.

But that’s all going to change today, when I’m going on an 8-day liveaboard dive trip to Komodo, land of the Komodo Dragon and some of the best diving in the world. Due to its relative isolation, Komodo liveaboards tend to be quite expensive. But my friends work on the boat, so they can get me a giant discount, one that I can’t pass up.

I get back from the trip on the 29th. I’ll go back to Bali for a few days, and then either to Vietnam/Laos or to Nepal…in other words, I’ll finally be traveling again, rather than working and going on holiday. I’ll update once I know my plans for sure.

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A strange sight indeed…

Yesterday evening I witnessed the strangest sight of my trip so far: Pat Guiney drinking beer and eating steak at Scallywag’s restaurant here on Gili T.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t him. But all the signs were there: blinding white skin, heavily thinning, buzz-cut red hair, greenish khaki t-shirt, dark shorts, and (this was the kicker) dark socks and dark leather shoes. On an 85-degree evening in a place where the few people who *are* wearing shoes don aged flip-flops. The guy stuck out like…well, like Pat Guiney at the beach. I was very tempted to say hello and ask him if he was a long lost Guiney, but I decided not to disturb him. I’ll just wait a few weeks and say hello to the real PG.

(You probably have to know PG to think any of this is at all amusing. And even then…)

Anyway, I’m sitting in the internet cafe trying to catch up on my photo-uploading. I’m barely through the first few days of Myanmar – two countries and about a month ago! I’m hoping to get caught up in the next few days….

The Rescue Diver course is a lot of work but tons of fun. There’s a lot of silly role-playing for my classmate and me. For instance, I play “distressed diver” and she saves me, and then she plays “unresponsive/nonbreathing diver” and I save her. I drowned her a few times in the pool yesterday (oops), and all our shouting (“help! help!” or “diver diver! inflate your BCD! grab on to the buoy!” etc.) provided entertainment for the divemaster trainees and other Blue Marlin customers nearby. I can now assure you that it is extremely hard to give rescue breaths (think CPR) in deep water with all your gear on, while towing the diver to safety *and* trying to remove her and your gear so you can exit the water when you get to the boat/shore. All while making sure you give a rescue breath every 5 seconds. We’ll see how I do tomorrow, when we do it “live” in the open water for my final exam.

Yipes gotta run meet Ginni (my classmate) for dinner. L8r.

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.