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!

Life as a dive bum

I’m horrible. Terrible. Lis is going to KILL me.

I can’t believe it’s been a month and a half since I last posted. To be sure, I can blame it a bit on the two-week internet blackout here in Mabul. But that’s just lazy.

I could also blame it on the fact that I have no quiet place to write, which is a bit more of a real issue. My room is a mattress on the floor and a few shelves to put my clothes – certainly no writing desk. There are lovely tables in the resort restaurant and bar, but there are also always people passing through – customers who want to ask random questions, fellow divemasters who don’t get the hint – LEAVE ME ALONE – if I sit here with headphones on. And then there are the people who just come sit down across from me and start chatting away as if I’m NOT clearly trying to write. I swear, as I started writing this paragraph, my customer from today, who did not stop talking ALL DAY, sat across from me and tried to engage me in conversation. I blew him off, so now he’s having a loud conversation with his wife. What’s a girl supposed to do?

Excuses, excuses. I spend my days off recovering from Tanduay hangovers and watching episodes of Mad Men. Or I sit in Mike’s hammock reading one of the thousand books that the Grrrlz sent me in their fantastic care package. Or I go on fun dives with my underwater camera, searching for frogfish or sea moths or delicate ghostpipefishes. In short, diving and drinking. Not a bad life, but also not a particularly productive one.

All that’s about to end, though. Sort of. On June 6 I’ll leave Scuba Junkie and Malaysia on an Air Asia flight to Bali, Indonesia. I say “sort of” because I’ll meet up with Adam and Sarah and Mike and a few other friends from Scuba Junkie to…um…drink and dive. Heh heh.

The plan is to spend some time with my friends, but also to find a nice quiet place with a desk and catch up on writing. The story proposals I’ve sent out recently have met with continued silence, so I’m going to have to pay them a bit more attention. We’ll see how it goes.

It’s just about dinner time here, so things are getting crowded and distracting. There’s plenty more to say about what’s been going on with me, so I will post again soon. Within the next month and a half. Ha.

repetition, boredom and paranoia

Greetings from Semporna, where I’m counting down the days (5) until I fly to Thailand for my visa run. My first stop will be Bangkok to be a tourist with PC and Tat. We’ll occupy ourselves visiting temples, watching kickboxing, drinking beer and whiskey, and singing karaoke. But I’ll be happy just to see their faces and get a big hug or two from PC…who, by the way, gives the best hugs ever. Try it sometime.

Next I’ll fly down to Koh Lanta to meet up with Mikey. We’ll sit in hammocks, play backgammon, eat pork and cheese until we’re sick, drink red wine, go on the odd dive, read books, and probably drink too much on more than a few occasions.

But until then, it’s diving diving diving.

At least once a week someone asks me how long I’ve been here (4 months!) and if I get sick of diving the same sites all the time. Don’t I get bored? The answer is no, for two reasons.

First, though on occasion there are not-great dives, my “annoying optimism,” as one customer jokingly put it, tells me there’s always the *chance* that something phenomenal will turn up. The fun is in the looking. I’m not a museum guide, after all, trundling bored schoolkids through rooms of the same paintings and sculptures every day. Fish move, they try to hide, they act unpredictably, and there are so *many* of them…whose names and habits I’m still learning.

Second, there are the customers. They are even more unpredictable than the fish. At times they are entertaining, assholes, awed, impatient, indifferent, fascinated. They ask the oddest questions, tell great stories, confess being nervous, thank you profusely, shrug you off. You never know what you’re going to get.

It’s exhausting, trying to keep people you’ve just met happy. That’s why long-term customers (a week or more) are a comfort, even if they’re mediocre divers. At least you know what to expect from them.

For the past two weeks or so we’ve had a customer called Alex – an opinionated, hilarious, stubborn-yet-agreeable German dive instructor. He could go on for hours about what makes a good DM, where to find the best diving in Egypt, what equipment is overrated, and on and on. Between dives we’d sit on the front of the boat, sunning ourselves to warm up and dry off and listening to his harangues and monologues. A blast to have on the boat every day. I’m sad he’s gone.

Also in the past month we had a couple from…Holland I think? They came a few weeks ago – he’s an experienced diver and she needed a refresh course (which I conducted). They stayed about a week, went traveling in Borneo, and then changed their plans to come back to dive some more. But in all the time I spent with them, I never heard them say anything truly positive about the diving.

“How were your dives today?” I’d ask, seeing them on the jetty and wanting to be solicitous. He would always be the one to answer. “Well, it was OK. Not great,” he’d frown. “The coral is not so nice, and the visibility is awful.” In all they spent about *two weeks* diving here.

I used to take the negative comments personally. I was paranoid that my inexperience showed, that I would be called out as a fraud. But the thing is, I’m good at this. Not the best, for sure. But pretty damned good, and getting better every day.

Semporna snoozing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new year

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?