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.

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!)

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.

Ill communication

I’d love to write a thoughtful note about China, Take II. But I’m too distracted – the cats, yes, but also there are other people about, and we’re going into town in a few minutes for lunch. In the afternoon we’re catching a bus to Liuluang (sp?), then tomorrow morning a train to Turpan, near Urumqi in Xinjiang province.

After the demonstrations by Uigurs in Urumqi this July, and recent demonstrations by ethnic Han, and the fact that on October 1 it’s the 60th anniversary of communism in China…well, we’re assuming that there will be no internet access or international telephone connectivity in Xinjiang province. Reports travel message boards are sketchy, so we’ll just have to go and see the situation ourselves.

This means you won’t hear from me for a while. To assuage any anxieties, here is our *very rough* itinerary:

9/14: train to Turpan
stay 3ish days

9/18 ish: Urumqi

maybe go north to the lakes near Altay, or else head to Kashgar

9/24 ish: Kashgar

stay a few days

Then buses along southern edge of Taklamakan Desert (Yarkland, Hotan, Niya, Charklik), and finally across to Golmud in Quinghai province. From there we’ll catch a train to Xi’an – probably by the first week in October.

This means I will probably lack internet for three weeks. I’ll ping (via a post or mass email) as soon as I can.

Not that I don’t love you all, but the thing I’m most distressed about in RE lack of internet is that I won’t know who makes the baseball postseason until the playoffs have started. GO SOX.,

But but but…

This morning I went to see Esther, who is back in NYC after her cosmonaut adventure. As always, lovely to chat with her!

On my way home I stopped at The Strand bookstore to try to find a cheap used Russian phrasebook. In hindsight, I realize that I’m kinda a moron for thinking I could actually leave a bookstore without buying anything (they didn’t have the phrasebook). I am not a shopper or a buyer of superfluous things, but I am a pathological buyer (and reader!) of books. In this case, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (For the long Trans-Siberian trip! I convinced myself). In typical fashion, on my upcoming expedition my luggage will consist of 10 lbs of clothes and toiletries and 15 lbs of books. My back aches in anticipation.

None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. But while perusing the charmingly disorganized 18 miles of books, I suddenly realized that I NEED MORE TIME before I go: I want to read them all – all the Dickens and Bowles and Dostoevsky and everything else that I should have read by now and haven’t. I wanted the rhyming dictionary. And the colorful guide to the world’s subway systems. WHY HAVEN’T I READ THE RUSSIAN POETS YET? WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

Stricken with panic, I averted my eyes from the shelves and tables and made for the checkout counter.

Just another existential panic attack to endure before I leave!