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!

Boo! It’s November?

Holy crap, have I been busy. I can’t believe tomorrow is November.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in Malaysian Borneo getting my PADI divemaster certification at Scuba Junkie. At most places, being a DMT (divemaster trainee) is tough work – lugging air tanks around, setting up customers’ gear, rinsing equipment at the end of the day, and generally being a slave. The good thing about SJ so far is that everyone shares the work – there’s no specifically scut work reserved for DMTs. But the hours are *long* – up at 6-6:30 and going nonstop until 8:30-9.

The way SJ structures things, the course will take about 5-6 weeks to complete. It’s a long time, but they make sure you get a lot of experience along the way. Over the past week I have shadowed divemasters (to watch/learn from them as they guide divers) and I’ve assisted three different instructors on Open Water (basic PADI diver certification) and Advanced Open Water courses.

As you’d expect, different instructors have different approaches to things. And the students…wow. Some are enthusiastic and master dive skills quickly, but for many of them I wonder what the hell they’re doing in a dive course. I’ve had people who can barely *swim*, some who show little interest in marine life (Why are they HERE?), and others who I would politely call ADD. Craziness.

My instructor is Rowen, an intense dirty-blond thirty-something Brit (I think?). If he was a character in a John Hughes film, his name would be Blaine and he’d be the slightly arrogant, rich, popular guy who has conflict with the underdog, awkward hero played by John Cusack. Except, since he’s a diver, he is in fact laid back under all his bluster. And he’s very good at his job, too. I think I’ll learn a lot from him, and from all the rest of the Scuba Junkies.

Oy, I have so much more I want to write, but I’m knackered. I did a deep dive today (to 30 meters) while assisting the Advanced course…and that was the day after the Halloween party. I went as a Christmas tree.

OK, off to sleep. I’ll try to be better about writing. Happy Halloween!

I left my heart in Melaka

I’m posting this from Semporna, Borneo, where I’ve just signed up to do my divemaster course. Yee haw! More on that later.

In the meantime, Melaka (aka Malacca), the place I just left. It’s a place where it’s easy to get stuck. I arrived on a Monday, thinking I’d spend a few days. A week later I finally left, reluctantly, to catch my flight to Borneo.

There’s no beach to speak of nearby – it suffers the filthy water of most port towns. But Melaka is a popular tourist destination for KLers as well as foreign tourists. I arrived on a Monday and the town was dead – at 7 pm I went out in search of dinner and found very little. But as the weekend closed in the town slowly filled up, peaking on Friday and Saturday nights when the pedestrianized Jonker Walk was wall-to-wall tchotchke-shoppers and there wasn’t a bed to be had in the whole downtown.

Dotted around town are giant, lush trees that serve as a reminder of the virgin rain forest that Parameswara, a Hindu prince and pirate, found when he decided to base his empire there, in the early 15th century. With help and protection from the Chinese, he transformed the small fishing village into *the* place to park your goods-laden ship in the notoriously pirate-infested Straights of Malacca during your trip from China to India to Europe and back again. Which is ironic, since, as I said, Parameswara was a pirate himself.

The town is a colorful mix of cultures that reflect its history. Over the centuries native Malays intermarried with colonial Portuguese (called Kristang), Indian merchants (called Chitty people) and Chinese (called Peranakan or, more colorfully, Baba-Nyonya, meaning father-mother). This multi-culti heritage results in fascinating architecture, Hindu and Buddhist shrines surrounding the large central mosque, and, most importantly, food that’s so good you want to cry.

Overall, it’s a relaxed, happy place that has hit upon just the right mix between tradition and modernity. Its heritage is preserved in museums such as the Baba-Nyonya Museum, but this heritage is also still alive, in a modern way, in the dress and customs of Melakans.

If I go back to Peninsular Malaysia, I’m going to try to go back to Melaka. I like it that much! In fact, I met a sweet Iranian painter and musician who was on his *third* stint there – once for a week, once for 40 days (!) and this time for 30 days. It’s that kind of place.

G’night. S’tight.

Bedbugs.

Bite.

It seems that most of SE Asia is infested with bedbugs. Here in Melaka I suffered my third attack (Xian, Yangshuo, then here). I changed beds and washed all my stuff. Everything was OK for two nights.

And then, two nights ago, I woke up to the now-unmistakable itch of bedbugs. Gah! It was around 3 or 4 am, so I just grabbed my computer and headed downstairs to the hostel’s common area to write. That’s where I found Winston, from the bed diagonally across from me, watching TV and itching his arm. Bedbugs attack! I smiled, sat down and we compared war stories for hours.

Around 8 am I came back in to the TV room after a bathroom visit and…BASEBALL! Yes, ESPN Asia was showing game 1 of the NLCS. As it turns out, Winston’s a Dodgers fan. So we settled in to watch the game, which lasted until noon local time.

After the game Winston went up to try to nap and I went for a wander in Melaka. In the evening we took a bus to Medan Portugis, a nearby settlement where descendents of Portuguese settlers and their Malay wives still live. We ate a dinner of spicy fresh crab and “devil” chicken curry washed down with cold Jaz beer. The chicken was a bit dry, the beer a bit tasteless, but the crab was excellent – just spicy enough to make you sweat a bit, and just tangy enough to cut the spice.

Winston is a really great guy – a Korean-America TV editor and aspiring writer from LA. When I first saw him I dubbed him Hot Asian Guy II. (Grrlz who attended Lissette/Andy’s wedding will get the reference!) He’s about 3 months into a 5-month motorbiking trip through SE Asia. He started in Vietnam, bought a cheap bike, and has come down through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and now Malaysia. We clearly have a lot in common (travel, baseball, writing) so the conversation was easy and interesting. Dinner felt like a really great (and chaste) first date.

After dinner we taxi’d back to Melaka, which fills up with KL tourists on weekends. Looking for some wine, we instead ran into a few Americans & Canadians from our hostel at the local expat bar. We joined them and they drank beer & I drank Jack-rocks until the place shut down. Back at the hostel, all of a sudden it was 2 am. Game 2 of the NLCS started at 4 am, followed by Game 1 of the ALCS at 7:30. “No point in going to sleep!” I decided. Our friends shook their respective heads and went to bed. Winston and I headed to the local 7-11 for game-watching supplies: caffeine (Diet Coke, chocolate) and food (pretend Doritoes, prawn chips, etc).

So yeah, no sleep for 36 hours. Winston left today – he’s meeting friends in Singapore. I tried writing for about 5 minutes, then gave up and took a 3-hour nap. Sleep is good.

OK, I’m off to find some dinner. More on Melaka tomorrow (I promise!).

Last post about China

I am *so* glad to be out of China. Malaysia is…*friendly*. Polite. Happy. Full of tasty food. In such an atmosphere it’s easy to overlook things like mosquito attacks and sudden, unexplained interruptions of internet service – things I would have railed against in China.

I would love wrap up my feelings about China (something more sophisticated than “I hated it”) into a clever Chinese box, but I don’t think that’s possible. My ignorance of Chinese history robs me of proper context. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up and live in a communist society, so my powers of empathy are limited. And there’s no way to overstate the handicap of the language barrier – few people could speak English, no one could understand my sorry attempts at Mandarin, and most importantly, I couldn’t read signs. All these factors make contemporary China impenetrable to me.

All I can do, as the ever-insightful Henry points out, is report on what I observe from my demanding-critical-skeptical-tightwad-ignorant-western point of view.

I went to China expecting philosophy, ancient architecture, modern hyper-development, great food, and plenty of unexpected stuff.

What I found, I think, is…meanness. Most people were completely uninterested in me. This sounds rather self-centered; what I mean is that people didn’t even try to understand – what I was trying to say, to find, to do. People weren’t curious. With a few notable exceptions, few people went out of their way to be helpful. Tour operators didn’t give a shit if I was happy with what I paid for. I can’t remember anyone ever saying “good morning.”

But this lack of cheerfulness extended beyond my tourist-haze. On the streets, no one smiles. You rarely saw anyone (including Chinese people) strolling, enjoying themselves. I don’t remember many random acts of kindness. In fact, people would barrel right over you on the street, cars and motorbikes would run red lights and almost hit you in the crosswalk. Like Russia and Eastern Europe, communist “collectivism” paradoxically seems to have bred a people who will shove old ladies out of the way to get what’s on offer first.

It’s like they’re hoarding time.

People didn’t even take the time to enjoy simple pleasures such as food – most of the time people shoveled it into their mouths, or slurped it up, as quickly as possible.

No one seemed happy.

That’s why Guilin, full of vacationing families and strolling couples, was such a pleasant surprise. All of a sudden, Chinese people seemed human.

Indeed, the change here in Malaysia further highlights the meanness of China. People smile. There’s gentle music playing in the shops. There’s *street life* – markets, parks, restaurants, bustle. Other than in Kashgar, I can’t remember much street life in China – everyone was too busy rushing around their Levitt-cities.

Malaysia is more human.

I’m sitting in a cafe in Melaka (aka Malacca), on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The wicker chair ain’t too comfortable, but the fans in the high ceilings keep the air moving and the mosquitoes at bay. Chilled-out lounge music is playing on the stereo. On the rough, peeling walls hang a haphazard collection of random B&W photos, art posters and a few paintings. There are just the right number of knickknacks strewn about the bar and tables. Earlier the server came around and offered each guest a fried banana that his friend had brought him in a bag. In fact, I just looked up, caught his eye, and he smiled at me. For no reason.

This place does not, could not exist in China. Outside of hostels, there are no public venues where people linger in China. Even the thousands of malls lack seating.

So the question is: do I love this cafe because it’s what I’m used to, or because it’s just good?

Back to Henry’s observations for a sec: I think he’s wrong that Eastern non-individualist culture precludes having an ideology. AFAIK, Chinese people had ideology/philosophy for most of their history – from religions to communism. The fact that they don’t seem to have one in the post-Deng era is troubling. If you go back and read the quoted dude in the NYT article, you’ll see that even *he* was taken aback when he couldn’t say what China stands for. He struggled, but he came up with an answer, because he knew that you gotta stand for something.

His struggle – and my search – to come up with a guiding ideology outside of economic power and development is telling.

I didn’t look very hard – and couldn’t, given the language barrier – but I don’t know that there is any funk in China. One billion people and no funk (art, personality, etc.). Now that’s troubling.

—–
Sorry – Just two more quick things about China.

First…maybe this is another indication of lack of funk, but everyone dresses in the same drab, ugly manner. The men wear cheap collared shirts tucked in to pleated (pleated!) trousers hiked up and fixed in place by a simple leather belt. On their feet they wear thin white socks and black or brown loafers. It’s *so* ugly. Awful.

Second…a little rant about Chinglish. People think it’s funny, and it can be. The menu translations are hilarious. But when you see Chinglish on sign on a train, in a bus station, in a hotel (fire escape instructions!), or even on a billboard, to me it shows that they just don’t give a shit. It’s inexcusable in the age of the internet, even the one behind the Great Firewall. I mean, even spellcheck would help matters. So yeah – I don’t think Chinglish is funny. I think it’s one more example of Chinese insularity and fundamental lack of interest in anyone but themselves.

OK – no more ranting about China – I’m tapped. From now on, it’s hot, sticky, friendly Malaysia.

Notes from China

This is sort of a catch-up post. The first two bits were written while I was in Xinjiang province, where I had zero internet access. The last part was written here in Xian. Not my best post ever, but whatever.

————-
9/18

Greetings from Urumqi, city of Chinese race riots.

Actually, this post can’t possibly be from Urumqi, as the internet here is completely blocked by the government. So are international calls and (potentially) local mobile phone/texting services. This has been the case since July, when a peaceful march by the minority Uighur population, which is Muslim, turned into a large-scale riot in which more than a hundred (and possibly hundreds) of people died – mostly Han Chinese, according to reports.

More recently, in early September, it was the Han Chinese turn to demonstrate. Evidently a few Uighurs attacked some Han with hypodermic needles. A few reports of these attacks turned into hundreds – most of them, even the Chinese government admits, are fake. But still, at least a hundred (if I remember correctly) did happen. And the Han are angry that the government hasn’t done enough to protect them.

So here we sit, in a city decorated with phalanxes of young riot soldiers on every corner. Their hairless faces peek out from under helmets, above tall riot shields they wield like teenage gladiators.

Despite all this, I like the feel of Urumqi. It’s friendly somehow – hard to put my finger on it. Can you imagine? The friendliest Chinese city has riot police on every corner.

——–

9/22
Kashgar

This morning Karly left me in Kashgar to try to extend my visa while she and another Aussie take a three-day trip to Tashkargan (a Tajik village in China, near the border) and Karakul Lake. But like everything in China, it’s not that simple. The PSB (the police), which deals with visa issues, “is not working for two weeks,” according to the friendly woman at the office. No explanation for this, erm, holiday. She assured me that it’d be no problem to extend the visa in Hotan, which is along the road I intended to take. But I don’t believe her, and neither does the manager of the Old Town Hostel, where I’m staying.

After much consideration of my options, I’ve decided to just fly to Xi’an, where there’s Internet and sites to see. The other options (saving money by taking a 3-day train journey instead, extending my visa in Urumqi, etc.) were too complicated and expensive; I don’t want to travel the southern silk route *that* much.

Or maybe I do. It’s so confusing, because most sights I’ve seen in China have been neatly packaged and Disney-fied (that’ll be 100 yuan entrance fee, please) and competely sanitized of soul. I’ve come to expect the worst, delighting in the occasional pleasant surprises where the government hasn’t wrung all reality from a place – the Mogao Caves outside Turpan, for instance.

Indeed, I’m so glad I made it here to Kashgar, which feels more like one of the ‘stans (Kazakstan et al) than China. It’s similar to my feeling when I visited the Tuvan Replublic in Russia – it’s like I left the country. Of course, the Chinese government is quickly implementing plans to rip the soul out of the Uighur Muslim population by tearing down the old town (“for safety’s sake”) and moving everyone from their ancenstral homes to bland concrete high-rises. (Google “destruction Kasghar” for more – China won’t let me get to any websites that explain.) So yeah, I’m glad I made it here before that happened.

But what will the rest of the “South Silk Route” be like? Has China destroyed the other towns yet? I’m not sure, and I’m not willing to run the gamut of Chinese visa-renewal bullshit to find out. It’s crazy to have come this far, this deep into China, only to be turned back by bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I would do it – I’d dance the required dance in order to see what I want to see. But in this case, I doubt the payoff will be worth it. My pile of Chinese Disappointments is high enough already.

So I’m leaving Karly to complete our itinerary alone while I make a beeline for the border. I’ll be gone by the time she returns from her trip.

As last year, knowing I’m traveling alone again is a relief. I couldn’t concentrate on anything – writing, traveling, reading, learning – during the month I was traveling with Karly. Was she an unsuitable travel companion for me, or is the problem my own pathological comfort with being alone? I’m not sure. (I imagine DrC might have something to say about my issues with life-sharing!) All I know is that I feel that a burden has been lifted, that my mind is free again.

(To be clear, I did very much enjoy my time traveling with Karly. We had plenty of laughs (especially in the Gobi), saw some interesting and uninteresting stuff, ate good food and bad, complained about China, got ripped off, met lovely people, etc. etc. It’s just that I seem to be better at traveling alone. I don’t understand!)

————-
9/29

Xi’an

OK, now I’m actually writing this today. I’ve been in Xian for 5 days, and I’m staying until October 2. I’ll write *about* Kashgar later.

I’m sticking around Xian for a week for a few reasons: First, my visa extension won’t be ready until the 30th. Second, October 1 is the 60th anniversary of communism (such as it is) in China. This means the entire country is shut down that day, so I postponed travel to the 2nd. Third, Xian is a fairly pleasant place, as polluted an crowded Chinese cities go.

And finally, I’m getting pants (erm, that’s “trousers” for all you thinking “undies”) made. It’s terribly exciting, as this is the first time I’ve done this.

Explanation, aka “The Pants Digression”: In Urumqi I received a box of clothes mailed from Boston by my dear, dear sister. What a relief to put on something other than the 2 pants and 4 shirts I had been wearing since April 22! But also, both pants were literally falling apart, despite my best hand-sewing efforts. The washing machines in Russia and Mongolia are not kind. Anyway, threw out one pair of pants, but the other was my absolute favorite. So I went to a local tailor, handed them the pants to use as a pattern, chose fabric, got measured (they marveled at the size of my inseam and hips), and shelled out a mere $25 – probably still overpaying. Fingers crossed for good results.

OK, enough pants. What of Xian? I’ve met some lovely people at the Shuyuan Hostel, where I’m staying thanks to a recommendation from a lovely Belgian guy I had met in Kashgar. Tourism-wise, the highlights have been the Terracotta Warriors – Xian’s main tourist attraction and one that is actually worthy of its billing. The other highlight – one that surpasses the Warriors in my estimation – was the excavated tomb of a Han Emperor called Jingdi. Both sites are tombs, and remarkably well-preserved examples of ancient Chinese burial rituals. Rather than burying the emperor with *live* servants, horses, pigs, and other food, or with *real* weapons, gold, household items, and so on, the Chinese sculpted *thousands* of replicas of these items. The burial areas are *kilometers* square. It’s mind-boggling. Check out my pix on Flickr once I upload them (I have a HUGE backlog).

Entertainment wise, the highlights have besen two delicious meals with large groups from the hostel – one night there were 8 and the next 9 people. We ordered about 10 different dishes and shared. Delish. The first night especially, when we went to “First Noodle Under the Sun” restaurant, there was not enough room on the table for all the food. We each had two beers as well. The bill? 30 yuan each, or about $4.50. Good times.

RED SEX, ANYONE?

The good times continued when a smaller group went to the great bar attached to the hostel to carry on drinking. I got my traditional one-blue-drink-per-country (Drea stay tuned for an emailed pic), and then Jemma, one of the women I was with, ordered me a “Red Sex” cocktail. And she had no idea I’m a Red Sox fan (she’s a Brit – from Brighton in fact – and wouldn’t even know they exist). In any event, the cocktail (which in the end is just grenadine and Baily’s, I think) was *presented* rather than served, including being lit on fire. I made a wish and blew it out. No, I won’t tell you my wish.

The festivities ended at 2:30 am – the bar was closing and we needed sleep, despite our spirited discussion about the merits and morality of drugs.

%$& CHINA, I’M LEAVING

Today, with a little yelp of glee, I bought my AirAsia e-ticket out of this damned country. On October 10 at 11:10 local time I’ll be on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia! The beach! Sure, it’s monsoon season. But I don’t care! I’m gunna find me a spot, become a divemaster, and be ready in time to work when the monsoons are over. I need some salty surf, seafood and my swmsuit.

In the meantime, this Friday I head south by train, arriving in Guilin a mere 27 hours later. The area is known for mystical scenery – limestone peaks, terraced rice fields, and so on. I’m hoping for the best – some *unspoiled* and un”improved” nature, please China! – though expecting chair lifts and ticket offices decorated with white bathroom tiles. Chinese architecture. [shudder]