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!

Baaaalllii

I can’t bear to think that the reason I’m back in Bali is that I’m slowly making my way back up to Bangkok and then home.

Also, the internet connection on Gili T was so unbearable I haven’t even checked my mail in like 5 days.

In any event, I’m in Sanur (nicknamed “snore” ), Bali, diving with Crystal Divers. I left Gili Trawangan because I had done all the interesting dives at least twice. Time for something new! But the lovely people I met there were sure to send me off with a hangover and no sleep for my two last days. The first hangover started with a “snorkel test” – a Blue Marlin tradition. A newly certified divemaster is dressed in some absurd costume (in this case, a guy in pink panties and a green cloth mask and cape) and made to drink half a liter of whatever booze, etc., the instructors feel like mixing together through a (you guessed it) snorkel. Then everyone goes to a bar and gets drunk. I joined in, got to sleep around 5, then was up at 8 to go on the 9 am dive.

The second hangover started with a lovely dinner with Ginny (my buddy during my rescue diver course), Luis (my instructor), Lauren (a divemaster tranee that I bonded with during some ridiculous dives we did together), Lauren’s boyfriend and fellow diver Simon (who is in charge of diving & sailing safety at the University of Tasmania – how cool). After two bottles of wine with dinner we moved to Sama Sama, a great bar with love reggae music every night. We met up with Nico, a delightfully French dive instructor who I also got to know very well (he’s good friends with Luis). Nico is hilarious when he’s had a few Bintang: He and Luis were talking about how instructors aren’t allowed to hook up with their students…at least until *after* the course is over. “No penetration without certification!” cried Nico. Heh heh. Which turned into the diving version of the casting couch: “It should be, ‘No certification without penetration!'” I tried to get him to dance on the bar, but he wasn’t drunk enough.

The following morning (after 8 hours of sleep in 2 days of diving and drinking) at 8 am I began the epic 12-hour journey (boat, mini-van, ferry, mini-van) to make the 100 or so km from Gili T to Sanur. Thank goodness I managed a nap on the ferry, or I would have been wrecked. Today my alarm went off at 6:15 am, and I was on the bus to the dive spot by 7. We did two lovely dives near the village of Candidasa. Tomorrow we go to Manta Point (where I’m 85% assured to see at least one manta) and then a dive off the nearby island of Nusa Pendia. And then that’s it! Sniff. Tuesday it’s off to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur, one night in BKK, and the <gasp> back to NYC. Christ amighty.

And then…who knows? I know many of you don’t want to hear this, but after this trip I think it’s pretty unlikely that I’m staying in New York. There’s this whole other world and life beyond the myopic, ego-driven worlds of New York and the “internet industry.” I find this other world a lot more interesting, and I think *it* likes *me* better, too.

But let’s not think too hard about that until at least Friday, shall we?

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.

A foot massage and three beers later…

OK, so I was kinda cranky when I posted before. This place had really gotten to me, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was tired and hot and sore and that a tuk-tuk *hit* me (and ran over my foot!), leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. So today, instead of spending my last day at the temples, I opted to wander in town a bit, have an hour-long foot massage (ahhhhhh) and then have a few beers with a late lunch. I’m much more cheerful now.

I’m back into the mode of traveling alone, and I have to say that in many ways I prefer it. I’ve met and chatted with dozens of other travelers and locals since Marjan and I parted ways just 5 days ago. I suspect that part of my current relief is that Marjan wasn’t my perfect match in terms of travel companion, though we got on just fine. I’m just happy to be doing my own thing again.

For example, in Phnom Penh I met a Dutch man who’s teaching English for a year in the Cambodian countryside as part of a volunteer program with an NGO. He said he doesn’t know that he or NGOs in general are doing much good here. There’s terrible poverty in rural areas, and families can’t afford to send their children to school – let alone feed them well enough to pay attention to their studies. But when an NGO comes in to help (he says) Cabmodians view it as an opportunity to get a swankier school rather than to increase the number of children who go to school. People live for appearances *right now* rather than investing in the future of the country via education. “It’s an interesting problem,” he said. “In Honduras, for example, there was no NGO help [because of a general boycott] and they did a great job of helping themselves.” He also said that it’s different in Vietnam, where people have national pride “because they defeated the Americans.”

Today I met a man from New York – he lives right down the street from me, in Stuy-town – who’s here fro three weeks. He and his travel buddy were sitting next to me at lunch. He was drinking a diet Coke out of a can, and there was a small homeless boy hanging around, gesticulating at him and his drink and making a drinking motion. He boy wanted the guy to hurry up and drink the Coke so that he could have the can. He absolutely refused to leave until the guy finally finished.

The whole situation was annoying for us, as you might imagine, because we couldn’t have an uninterrupted conversation (and I had to pay half my attention to the boy’s proximity to my backpack). But forget us – what about the boy (and the dozens of others around town)? On the one hand, collecting cans is definitely more productive than simply panhandling or out-and-out stealing. (An education would be even better, of course.) On the other hand, he’s learning a lesson early that all Siem Reap area citizens seem to know: If you whine and pester and annoy tourists long enough, eventually they’ll give you the can (or buy your postcard or bottle of water or guide book) just to make you go away. Speaking of going away: I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m completely disinclined to buy any souvenirs at all because I’m sick of being harassed about them.

This whole question about tourism and developing economies is an interesting one. It comes up a lot when scuba diving. If there is a beautiful, untouched reef somewhere, scuba shops open up to bring tourists there. The tourists come in greater and greater numbers, requiring more hotels (and resulting in more deforestation and then runoff when it rains, which kills the reef). At least one person (and often many more) in every dive group touches the coral either accidentally or because they’re a poor or stupid diver. When you touch coral it dies, and it takes weeks for that little bit to grow back. The regrowth can’t keep up with the tourist volume, the reef suffers, it can’t support aquatic life, the diving starts to suck…and we divers move on to the next “untouched” spot. Replace “touch the reef” with “brush against ancient carvings on Angkor Wat” or “trod on Mayan ruins” or “trek through virgin rain forest” and the whole thing gets depressing quite quickly. Makes you think you should just stay home and watch the Discovery Channel – let the professionals do it!

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Oy vey – what’s with the doom and gloom today? I better shut the eff up.

One night in Bangkok

I know, I know. You’re thinking: “You just *had* to pull out the ‘One Night in Bangkok‘ thing, right?” Well sorry. I just got back up north, having spent the last 5 nights either sleeping in a coffin-like bunk on a dive boat or on a bus during a 12-hour overnight trip back north from Khao Lak. And when I finally checked into the dingy but cheap Rainbow Guesthouse and went to a nearby cafe for the first proper coffee in a WEEK, a leaky ceiling dripped into my mug. So PARDON ME for being sleepy and under-caffeinated.

I’d be cranky as hell except for the fact that I just went on 15 dives in 4 days. Everything is at it should be. The diving in the Andaman Sea was exactly as advertised: varied dive sites, varied aquatic life, and great people. I really wish I had an underwater housing for my camera so I could have taken some pics. A bunch of others did take photos, though, so I’m hoping to get a few. Stay tuned. But in the meantime: wow. Three different Manta rays (all at the same site on Koh Bon – two in one dive!), a couple of leopard sharks, a sea horse, a sea snake, and tons of moray eels, lionfish, angel fish, parrot fish, etc etc etc. (YOU Google ’em!) The variety was crazy. And in the middle of all this nutty diving I managed to finish my advanced open water course, too. Next PADI certification on my list: Rescue Diver.

The fantastic folks at Similan Diving Safari ran a perfect trip: it was tight and serious when it needed to be (safety, protecting the reef, etc.) but laid back and fun all other times. And only a little Bob Marley.

The food, cooked by these tiny Thai women in the tiny onboard kitchen, was amazing. The Thai “boat boys” did everything: from filling our air tanks to helping us on with our fins to mincing meat for the kitchen staff to attaching us to moorning lines. Everyone was always smiling and goofing around and having a good time. One noteworthy feature that I imagine keeps the Thai staff happy: The owner of the shop lets the Thais provide soda and beer for purchase, and they get 100% of the profits. You can imagine that most other shops would keep beer – a surefire profit center where divers are concerned – to themselves. Just one reason I felt good diving with them, and would absolutely do so again.

There were 21 customers, but enough dive guides so that the maximum # in a group was 4 customers/guide. Customers and staff were from the US, Canada, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Argentina, South Africa, Scotland, England, and one Australia/Singapore/various mix. I met an English woman who lives in Siem Reap, which is one of my destinations. So I’ll have a local connection when I get there. Yeah.

Another great tip I got from a few of the expat dive crew is to NOT go diving in Koh Tao. they say it’s tailored more for newbie divers, and that it’s crowded. So they’ve convinced me to go to Bali or the Gili Islands in Indonesia instead. Heh heh. Thank goodness for Air Asia, the low-cost airline. It won’t cost me any more money to go to Bali as it would to get to Koh Tao. Amazing! Plus, one more stamp in the old passport. (Thank god for the new pages I got put in.)

So anyway, during my one day in Bangkok before I head off for Burma tomorrow, I have to
1. finalize my flight home (gah)
2. buy a rain-cover for my bag (I forgot about rainy season in Burma)
3. upload all my pics and then back them up
4. buy more dollars (don’t ask – it’s too depressing)
5. investigate flghts to/from Bali

Lots to do.