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!

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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.

Semporna snoozing

I’ve been back from Mabul for two weeks. It’s a testament to my laziness that I’ve only now found the will and energy to post anything. But after getting a couple of not-so-subtle hints from dear Lis (“post to your blog!”), here we go….

Life on Mabul was like a vacation: short hours and a resort atmosphere. The staff rooms line a long shared balcony, where we’d sit and sip beer in the afternoons before dinner. After dinner we’d move up to the bar for music and drinks, or else Mike and I would sit on the balcony outside his room and play backgammon late into the night. Good times.

Most of the SJ staff is coupled off, so my first week in Mabul was The Week of Couples. It was nice, but a bit dull: No matter how hard they try, people in couples just don’t have the same carefree vibe as single people. I say that hoping that some day a miracle will occur and I, too, shall lose that carefree vibe.

About a week into my stay Mike, one of my DM instructors and my closest friend here, and Paul, an entertaining Scotsman nicknamed “Pooey,” rotated out to Mabul and late-night raucousness ensued. We drank plenty of Tanduay and Coke, shared silly but honest conversations, and occasionally sang or (in Pooey’s case) climbed down drainpipes to keep ourselves occupied.

On Mabul island there’s a village populated mostly with Filipino legal and illegal immigrants. Unlike the sea gypsies who live on surrounding islands, they live in fairly solid wooden houses on stilts, either along the beach or over the water. A maze of precarious, rotting wooden walkways connect the houses. The walkways and beach serve as a playground for countless throngs of half- or fully naked children who appear to have run, shrieking and laughing, out of a Gauguin painting.

But alas, the time came for me to leave this minor paradise and return to the dank, noisy wonderfulness of Semporna. The best thing about being back, other than the internet, is band night at our bar. It’s nice to see a wider variety of faces, and to dance up a sweat Van Halen and the Black Eyed Peas.

As a matter of fact, it’s an extra-special band night tonight – one of our instructors is leaving on Monday, and another instructor (Sara) is celebrating her birthday. We plan to give out adult diapers at the door (Sara turns 30) and supply markers, scissors, etc. so that people can customize them. Should be interesting.

With that I’ve got to run. I promise to post more soon – I’ve been a lazy bum but I’ll change my ways.

A new year

Happy New Year!

I spent New Year’s Eve at the Scuba Junkie party, dancing up a sweat, drinking pints of Tanduay and Coke and placing bets on who would hook up with whom. The night ended around 4 am, when Paul, another DM, kicked down the door to my room because Rob, my roommate, lost the keys. (We found them the next morning, sitting right on the floor behind the bar, where we had been looking for them. Ahhh, Tanduay sight.) Good times.

On New Year’s day Rob and I woke up simultaneously at 12:30. Seriously – we sat up in our respective beds at exactly the same moment. Weird. After a roti breakfast I went to the dive shop, where most of the staff was taking a bit of the hair of the dog, floating in a dunk tank filled with ice and wearing dark sunglasses. We sang Auld Lang Syne and discussed car crashes, crushes, and other hangover topics.

Today I had another day off, which I spent a bit more productively. I booked tickets for my visa run to Thailand in late February. I’ll spend a bit more time in the country than the 20 minutes I took last time I did a visa run: First to Bangkok to see PC and Tatiana (yay!) and then down to Koh Lanta for a two-week “holiday” with Mike, another Scuba Junkie. Mike and a few other SJ staff used to work at Lanta Divers, so I’m certain we’ll have a great time. He promises great food, great diving and beach parties. Life’s hard.

After booking my tickets I went for a wander around Semporna. I realize I haven’t really absorbed the place yet; I’ve been so focused on my DMT and work that I never looked up, looked around. An aberration. New Year’s Resolution (the only one I’ll make): Start noticing things again, dammit!

But Semporna will have to wait. In a few days (the 6th or 7th) I’m being transferred to our resort on Mabul island for two weeks. There’s no cars, a later wake time, no 45-minute morning “commute,” better food, palm trees and white sand. And, alas, no internet. So if you want to talk before the end of January, speak up!

I wish you all a new year full of delight and delightful surprises. For the first time in a long, long time I feel truly optimistic about the year to come…despite the fact that editors are still ignoring me. Bastards.

Life as a DM in Semporna

Well it’s official. I’m a divemaster.

My course ended on Monday – in the morning I led my instructor on a guide, and then I endured the “equipment exchange,” aka the stress test.

During this test, my buddy (Heath, another DMT) and I kneel on a sandy bottom at about 5 meters, buddy breathing (only one source of air, so we each take two breaths, passing the regulator back and forth), and exchange our masks, fins and BCD (the thing that holds the tank). Stressful enough, right? But at the same time, Rohan (my instructor) and various others threw sand in our faces, free-flowed their regs so we couldn’t see through the bubbles, ripped off our masks and weight belts, tied up our hoses, etc. It was fun in hindsight, but I never want to do that again!

That evening Heath and I stayed at the SJ resort on Mabul Island. I went for an 85-minute night dive off our jetty, grabbed a quick dinner, and then did my first snorkel test (video coming soon). I killed it – Rohan says I put all previous DMTs to shame with my ability to inhale large quantities of alcohol very quickly. One of my many talents.

I took the next day off, in anticipation of my *second* snorkel test back in Semporna. This one was administered by Mike, the instructor who took over my course while Rohan was on holiday. I killed that one was well, though not quite as elegantly as my first (my trousers were soaked with booze).

Finally, today I woke up and packed for the first time in 5 weeks. It’s weird to be leaving, to go traveling again. I have more to write about this, but I’m too hung over to think particularly clearly.

I’m off to KL tonight to meet up with DrC and travel around peninsular Malaysia for a while. I *might* be coming back here, if SJ needs staff later this month. It’d be good to get some experience at a place I know and with people who know me. But if that’s not possible, I might go to Thailand, where it’s fairly easy to get a DM job. I also need to spend a bunch of time writing a backlog of stuff that’s been simmering unwritten in my brain while I’ve been busy here.

That’s the update from here. More (and more interesting) stuff soon…

Life as a DMT in Semporna – II

I’m stealing a moment during the hour free time I have between returning from diving and evening check-in at the dive shop for another quick post.

So, what’s a typical day like?

I wake up at 6ish, get my gear together and walk from Lee’s Rest House, which is situated in the center of Semporna, to Scuba Junkie, about 5 minutes away. I grab breakfast at SJ – usually egg, toast and watermelon washed down with bitter brown water they pass off as coffee – and head across the street to the dive shop to set up the boats for the day.

Customers start to trickle in around 7:45, and by 8 we divide ourselves up among the 2-3 boats and take off. Most boats first go to Mabul, an island that’s a 45-minute speedboat ride away, where SJ runs a resort and a second dive shop. We pick up more customers there, drop off others, then the boats scatter to the various dive sites in the area.

About half the time I stay on Mabul, reading theory, taking exams and practicing skills. Other times I might be assisting an instructor, shadowing a divemaster (to learn by seeing), or (very rarely) just fun-diving (to learn the dive sites and practice my fish-ID).

So what, exactly, does a divemaster do? We guide certified divers around dive sites. We give a briefing about the site (general layout, depth, bottom composition, marine life you can expect to see) and remind divers about diving practices (bottom time, what to do if you’re lost, hand signals for communicating under water, etc.). Then the group jumps in – max of 4 divers per DM – and we dive. The DM leads the dive, pointing out interesting marine life, keeping everyone safe, and keeping shitty divers off the coral (!). Most of the time we do three dives a day – two in the morning and one after lunch.

Around 4 the boats leave Mabul back to Semporna, where we take the gear of the boat, rinse it and put it away. Once that’s done we’re free for an our or (if we’re lucky) two, which gives me a chance to rush back to Lee’s take a quick shower, and return to the dive shop by about 7 to greet and kit-up new divers for the next day.

The shop closes around 8 – the end of my day! I sometimes have dinner at the SJ restaurant/bar, but most of the time it’s cheaper and tastier to eat at the Chinese or Indian places that have become my staples. If it’s band night or if I’m not too exhausted, I hang out in the SJ bar playing pool and having a few Tanduay (rum)-and-mangoes…then it’s back home to bed. Diving takes a lot out of you, so the nights are rarely long – midnight is a late night.

Gah – time’s up…gotta go back to “work.”

Life as a DMT in Semporna

I’m sitting in the Mabul Cafe, a cheerfully lit restaurant overlooking Semporna’s harborside drag that boasts mediocre food and sluggish service. I’m here only because it’s the only place in town with decent WiFi internet connection.

It’s a good thing that my DMT (divemaster trainee) activities keep me busy as hell from 6 am – 8 pm, because Semporna is not a place one seeks to linger. It’s rancid, rat-infested and characterless – unless you count the man who called out to me as I passed his window, “Can I touch your breasts?”

The tourism industry – all dive-based – has taken off in the past few years. Suddenly scores of salty-haired white people in board shorts visit the local shops, seeking scarce fresh vegetables or sun cream or mosquito repellent that actually works.

The locals seem to still be bewildered by us and our questionable morals: There’s a sign in the Scuba Junkie shop, entitled “Boobie’s and Bums,” that asks female patrons to please cover their bikini tops and bottoms when they leave the premises. It’s nearly impossible to get any alcohol here – Sabah’s population is predominantly Muslim – so there’s an illegal-but-tolerated trade in cheap rum, gin and beer smuggled in from nearby Philippines. It’s all very 17th-century pirate-y.

There are two bars in town, both attached to dive shops. Tuesdays and Fridays are the Big Nights at Scuba Junkie’s bar, because that’s when the band plays: Five remarkably gifted local musicians play covers from The Eagles, Nirvana, Metallica, and everything in between.

In the evenings the local young people cruise around in their tricked-out cars, deafening pedestrians with dance music and hip-hop blaring from their stereos. About half the women wear head scarves – some with chaste long skirts and others with tight jeans.

Packs of pre-adolescent street urchins troll the garbage bins seeking large plastic water bottles, which they sell to fish farmers for 3 ringgit per kilo. Once a kid must have hit the jackpot, because he yelped with glee and called to his friends, to hurried over to help gather the treasure which he had unceremoniously dumped from the bin into the street.

Yes, Semporna is a classic filthy harbor town: the stink from the festering harbor mingles with the scent of fresh fish and gently rotting fruit from the market. But the tourist money seems to be having some effect, judging by the shiny new cars and monster pickups driven by many of the older locals. It’s a town about to boom – they’re building two new malls/markets near the harbor, which is where all the tourists huddle, mostly afraid to venture into the scruffy main part of town.

Despite its lack of charm, though, there’s something about Semporna that I like. I like that the town has yet to give itself over as a fancy tourist destination – there’s only one marginally upmarket hotel in town. The richer divers attracted by the spectacular diving all stay at the resorts on Mabul and Kapalai, two nearby islands surrounded by coral reef.

OK, that’s all on Semporna for now. More about my own life here…coming soon!