Floating at top speed

A few days ago I had a drink (or two…) with an old friend. “Let’s see,” she said. “What have you done since I last saw you?” It’s been a month.

The answer is that I flew halfway around the world to dive Papua New Guinea for Matador Network, courtesy of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.

Then, after a few days back in New York, I quick-hit Orlando/Cape Canaveral to watch my friend Al get shot into space aboard Discovery. Back in New York, I was glued to NASA TV on Ustream, watching Al become to 200th human ever to perform a space walk (or EVA – extra-vehicular activity – in NASAspeak).

Fabulous, right?

Now I’m back to the mundane stoking of fires around various irons.

Over the past 6 months I’ve gone at one of two speeds: full tilt or brick wall. It’s a change of pace from my traveling life, which was more like a long trip on the highway: Most of the time you’re at a fast but steady pace, though occasionally you speed up to pass, or else pull over to eat or pee or just stretch your legs.

So. Is this a range life, or just life?

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!

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.

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.

A momentous decision

Today I decided to commit to working as a DM at Scuba Junkie for 6 months – until June.

I resisted the idea at first – I’m meant to be traveling, not unpacking my bags. How can I write a blog called “the range life” if I’m not in motion?

But such thinking is rigid and silly. Time to live life, and take the opportunities that present themselves. If I have found a place where I’m happy, where I can learn more about diving and about myself, what’s the point in rushing off? I always said this wander around the world would be free of rules, would conform to a plan only in the roughest sense.

There are practical considerations as well, of course. First and most importantly, by committing to 6 months part of my “pay” will now include 4 cases of beer per month. An insane amount of beer. I’ll also build up a good number of guided dives, which will give me both experience and CV-filler that’ll make it easier to get a job elsewhere later.

Finally, by settling down for a while – not planning and traveling and seeing stuff – I can continue to work on the backlog of writing I built up since I landed in St Petersburg more than 8 months ago.

(Editors, please respond to my story ideas! They’re sitting in your Inbox.)

So, what is it I’ve been doing?

Let’s start with a quick explanation of how the PADI system works. Divers-to-be must first take an Open Water diving course and become PADI-certified to dive. It’s only then that I can guide them – since I’m *not* an instructor (that requires more training), I can’t teach anyone to dive.

Each day I’m assigned to a boat going to one of the islands in the Celebes Sea: Mabul, Kapalai, Sipadan, Sibuan, Mataking, Mantabuan, Siamil, etc. There are usually 2-3 divemasters assigned to each boat, and no more than 4 customers per DM.

Once we get to our assigned island we choose which dive sites to go to – we do three dives per day, and each island has many dive sites. We take into consideration the experience level of the customers, whether they’ve dived the sites before, the conditions (current, weather, and so on), and also where we’ll see cool stuff.

Next I give a dive briefing to my group of divers. I describe the site, go through the hand signals we’ll use to communicate under water, establish how I want to run the dive, remind them of safety procedures, answer any questions, and tell them what kinds of marine life we’ll see.

Dive, rest, repeat * 2.

After the third dive we head back to Semporna, where the DMs offload the boat, rinse and put away all the gear, take a quick shower, and meet our customers at the bar to log the dives. I give them the stats from the dive (time in, dive time, maximum depth, etc.) and then list all the creatures we found – from white tip sharks to teeny whip-coral shrimp.

After that it’s back to the dive shop to set up the boats for the following day. Then a quick dinner, a beer or three, and off to bed.

Long, intense, wonderful days.

On the road again?

Last Wednesday I packed my bags for the first time in 6 weeks and hit the road again. A week later, I’m sitting in the food court in KL’s central station, where there’s free wifi, food and (most importantly) handy tables where I can sit all day writing.

After staying put for 6 weeks, hitting the road again was…this is weird for someone like me to say….disorienting. My body wanted to go diving, my heart wanted to spend more time with my becoming-friends at Scuba Junkie, and my head couldn’t grasp the concept of trip-planning and logistics. It was a trip I wasn’t ready for.

Luckily, DrC was ready: he found a hostel in KL, hired a car, and planned a few spots to explore in Peninsular Malaysia. After leaving KL we visited Georgetown, an old British settlement on the island of Penang, off the northwest coast. Unlike Melaka, Georgetown was only vaguely interesting, for about a day. On the second day we toured the island, visiting a fruit farm and eating durian that did *not* smell like feet. In fact, durian tastes like rich butterscotch pudding. Delicious.

I slowly started to get back into the travel groove. I read the Lonely Planet. I looked at maps. I even took some pictures. Suddenly I was impatient to get some time alone, to write. But it’d have to wait a few more days, for DrC to leave.

After Penang we drove east to the Cameron Highlands, nice and cool at 2000 meters. On the way there I got an email from Scuba Junkie, inviting me back to work as a DM. I was pleased, of course – this is what I had wanted before I left Semporna. But now I was traveling again, thinking about going to Thailand, hoping to go to Siberia for my birthday. Unlike most places, Semporna was less appealing in my mind, from afar, than it had been in person. Did I really want to go back, to stay still for *months*?

I did. I agreed to go back for at least 3 months (until my birthday in early March), and take it from there.

In the meantime, DrC and I continued uphill. Everything in the highlands is soaking, dripping wet and covered with spongy greenery. When we arrived, starving, we ate chicken tandoori followed by strawberry crepes with coffee, waiting out the rain. We visited the tea plantations, which carpet the humid hills like peat moss.

Before I could go back to Borneo, I would have to do a visa run (cross the Malaysian border and back to get a new 3-month visa). I figured I’d just find a cheap AirAsia flight to Thailand or wherever when I got back to KL, but DrC had other ideas. We would make a mad rush to the Thai border near Kota Bahru. He would stay in Malaysia while I crossed the border (and back) on foot. Then we’d carry on down the east coast of Malaysia.

So that’s what we did: On Sunday we drove from the tea plantations near Tanah Rata to Gua Musang, in the less-touristed Kelantan province. On Monday we woke up early and raced north to the Thai border. I was across and back in 40 minutes – not even enough time for a green curry. Knowing we had to be in KL by noon the following day, we drove most of the way down the coast, to Kuantan, that afternoon.

About 400 km of driving in hot, humid weather = two rather cranky people. At our rather seedy hotel, I stomped on a cockroach, climbed into bed and was asleep before DrC finished telling me he was going to take a shower.

Back in KL I gave DrC a big hug goodbye and checked into the Backpacker Traveller’s Inn, a hostel in Chinatown. It’s only 11 Ringitt/night (about $3.50), but you get what you pay for: a cramped 7-person dorm with no free Wifi, no fan and a/c that is only turned on from 9 pm – 9 am. Oddest of all: midnight is lights out. Which means one of the managers slips into the room, wordlessly switches off the light, and slips out again. No matter if you’re reading, talking, brushing your hair – she just switches off the light, without warning or regard to the people in the room.

I had planned to stay in KL for a week to write and whatnot, but given the state of my accommodation, I panicked – I admit it, I panicked – and booked the first reasonably priced flight back to Semporna. So I go back tomorrow, on Friday, with too much writing left to do. I’m regretting it now, but what can you do? I’ll find some time and space to write when I’m there.

And that’s the tension, the undercurrent to the past week. When I was moving all the time, I could find some time to write because I had no social obligations. When I was doing my DM, it was impossible to write – not just because of the long days, but because part of the deal was to get to know the rest of the staff. And that takes time and mental energy.

Now that I’m going back, and to a place where I have already established some relationships, I’m hoping I can relax and write more. Gawd I wish I was able to just sit and write something real (not just notes) in a stolen half-hour here and there. But I can’t. Sux.

OK, that’s the catch-up post.

So the plan is to divemaster by day and write by night and on my days off. The theory is that my DM job is like a waiter job – a day job that pays my expenses, with any money I make from writing going into “savings.” Of course, I *love* diving, so it’ll be the best day job possible.

Traveling, writing and diving. What more could a girl want?

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!

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!